When the real becomes unreal and the unreal real: A Conversation with Xu Xi about Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations
Xu Xi 許素細 has authored or edited nineteen books, most recently This Fish Is Fowl (Nebraska 2019) and The Art and Craft of Asian Stories (Bloomsbury, 2021). An Indonesian-Chinese native of Hong Kong, she has long split her life between New York and Hong Kong. A diehard transnational, she is also founder of Authors at Large and the Mongrel Writers Residence™. She currently occupies the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Monkey in Residence is the ultimate refuge of misfits in transnational identities and belonging through Xu Xi the character and Xu Xi the persona as Hong Kong’s geography and political landscape is transformed.
Tiffany Troy: The eponymous short story “Monkey in Residence” comes later in your collection. How does the first piece, “Where the World Unwrapped,” set up the rest of Monkey in Residence for the readers?
Xu Xi: It was interesting because obviously with the title story, that’s always a question of where you want to put it. Part of what influenced the arrangement was when I decided to put this together so much had been happening in Hong Kong in recent times that I thought I needed to address this idea of speculative uncertainty of reality through a nonfiction piece.
Almost all of the work in the collection has been published before, and some of it is quite old, and some of it is very recent. The more recent ones tended to have more to do with what’s been going on in Hong Kong politically. “Where the World Unwrapped” was one. I realized that more than half the pieces were actually either commissioned or written in response to a prompt where some editor said, hey, I’m doing this anthology. Will you submit something? For “Where the World Unwrapped,” one of the university presses in Hong Kong wanted to get writers who have left Hong Kong to look back at Hong Kong, which seem like a good speculative point to sit from and think about it. That seemed to be a way of unwrapping, using the metaphor of a gift. That worked as the idea of let’s open up what Hong Kong was, at least the way I knew it as, and present that in connection with the present day, and how we think about it.
It was a way of protesting, without having to be overtly political or opinionated, or even trying to complain about what was going on. Because a lot of the creative nonfiction that has been published in recent years has been predictably in line with where the news media is even though it attempts to be literary. I thought that it’s not enough to just protest because protest in writing doesn’t really do very much, to be perfectly honest.
The reason literature works as a form of protest is that it has to surpass the present moment. Otherwise, it’s just journalism, and journalists do a better job. I wanted to think about what we were because that’s what matters, and why we care still about what Hong Kong was. That’s why I thought that seemed like a good way to open the collection. Then to think about all the fiction that I’ve written either more recently or in the past that somehow spoke to some of the issues that are happening today. I wanted to work across time rather than be very specific to, oh, you know, this is the big question right now so that’s why I’ve got to write about Hong Kong like this. Because that’s the province of journalism, not of literature. Literature steps further back than that.
Tiffany Troy: I love how cosmopolitan your first piece is; it immediately opens up to the idea that there is no fixed identity, with the French class, and with the idea of thinking of Hong Kong as “going home.” You interrogate questions like “What is home?” when most of your classmates are in fact working and living abroad and why an outsider’s point of view somehow sheds a different light than people living in Hong Kong about what “home” is. In that way, you anchor the readers to the world that you’re going to construct throughout the collection.
Could you describe the process of putting together this collection? You mentioned that many of the pieces are written through a span of time.
Xu Xi: Well, it’s funny, the way collections come together. You write a lot of individual pieces, then you still look around, and you put out one book, or finish a novel. Generally, the only reason I start putting collections together is because I’m working on the novel that I haven’t finished. Novels take a long time, and the gap between novels is much different. I’m at heart really a novelist, but I like writing essays a lot, and I’ve always written short stories, and my earliest works were short stories.
I suddenly noticed as I was looking around old work, I have all these strange stories. Many of these stories never fit into any of the collections that I had before. My last collection of short stories was very specifically Hong Kong stories; some pieces in Monkey in Residence take place in Macau or New York and are not so specifically Hong Kong. I had another earlier, collection, Access, which was thematic, about the injustices and the disparity between those who have and those who do not have. Monkey in Residence didn’t really have a thematic when I started, except that I’ve got a connection with these stray stories. Do they fit together in some way?
Initially, it was like, let’s herd the strays together. You could start that way, but you can’t just stick things in because you happen to have them. You’ve got to find some reason for them to come together. I had put one collection together before that was a mixture of stories and essays, but genre was very clearly demarcated.
I read a book by Peter Nadas, a Hungarian writer. He had just seamlessly let the fiction and nonfiction flow into each other. You had the titles, but you really didn’t know which was fiction and which nonfiction. In my collection, you can’t always tell; some of these are a bit more obvious, especially the sci-fi and speculative, which are more obviously fiction. But then again, I place in them things that really happened, and so much of the fiction that I write is linked to real events and real things that go on. Then it’s not so important whether it’s “real” or “unreal.”
The couplet in the stone archway of illusions in the Dream of the Red Chambers reads: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real,” and that’s what Hong Kong felt like. The most speculative piece I wrote was “A Brief History of Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief by FeiMan.” That one was so out there because I was reprising Jonathan Swift. I had so much fun writing that piece. I wanted that to be somewhere in the heart of the book because what am I really doing here? I’m looking at the unreal that’s become real, and the fiction that is not fiction. I was coming back to the Dream of the Red Chambers.
Literature happens when you look at the world and you go, I can’t believe what’s going on, then you go to a hideaway retreat and write fiction. I wanted to get that sensation for the book. I started to order it and thought about what feels like it belongs together. What am I talking about? What am I using speculative work for? What am I trying to say? Obviously, there is a political agenda in some of the work. Satire speaks to things I get angry about. I use humor to counteract anger. I guess that’s the process, really. I ordered and reordered, and reordered again.
The oldest story is “Jazz Wife,” which goes back to 2001. I used to perform it as an oral fiction piece–it was like my slam fiction–and I used to perform it with jazz musicians. I wrote it while I was at the Kerouac House years ago, and got together with jazz musicians, and started to perform it. I did the penultimate performance in New York with David Amram who was Kerouac’s collaborator musically. After that, I thought I never have to perform this piece again. I haven’t really read it much anymore since then. But it’s an old favorite. It was interesting because I had presented it to my publisher more than once, and in the last collection we were going to put it in, but finally thought it didn’t really belong there so we took it out. I had it still floating around, and then I said to him, what do you think if this one goes in it? And he said, for this book I think it works. That’s what it was, like here’s a stray that fits with these other strays. After a while I began to find the commonality among the strays, and we left out some others that were strays also, but didn’t quite work in this way.
Tiffany Troy: How did you organize Monkey in Residence into its three sections?
Xu Xi: I was thinking not so much thematically at that point. I was thinking in terms of form, since “Monkey in Residence” is the title story in that section, I probably have the most “out there” kind of fiction and nonfiction. I want the most speculative right at the heart of the collection. The opening stories are more like stories; it’s fiction as I usually write fiction, and the essays are essayistic in a classic sense. The middle is the most speculative, and the third section is probably more deeply personal than some of the other stories. For example, the Tiger mom piece at the end was originally part of my last collection of essays. In that collection, I had a section about my mother and Alzheimer’s, and it was called “Mom and Me,” and this was supposed to be in there, but for a very peculiar technical reason, the university press that published the book would not let me use footnotes. Their house style was only in end notes. The way the piece read, it had to be with footnotes, so I took it out, and I wrote another piece for them. That piece and other stories like “Jazz Wife” are deeply personal to me. Even the fiction, like “Lightning” or “Rhododendrons,” have a strong personal connection to who I am and where I come from. In some ways, I put the most personal ones at the end, the ones I found the form to say something deeply personal, even though it’s been transformed into fiction, and even the essays are the same.
Tiffany Troy: Could you speak to the photographs in the first piece?
Xu Xi: I was in Hong Kong until 2018, and had a home there, and I was there quite a lot beginning from about the mid 2000’s, like 2005 or 2006. I started teaching in Hong Kong at that time. Once I began teaching at the universities in Hong Kong, I was back there so much but I was squatting at my mother’s place in our rooftop room, which I eventually turned into a mini apartment for myself.
I used to walk at night a lot. Hong Kong is a very safe city. It’s gotten less safe but it’s still fundamentally safer than say, New York. And because the weather is mild, I used to walk in the winter and the spring and the autumn; it was never too cold to go for long walks, and it was a form of exercise. I would go run outdoors all over the place. I had my iPhone and would take photos just randomly, not for artistic purposes, but to document what I was seeing, because I kept watching the city change. I mean physically change.
When I first began a prolonged living back in Hong Kong, it was 1992. From then to 2018, the changes have been profound. I lived in Hong Kong as a child. I lived in Hong Kong in the seventies. The eighties was the one decade that I was away from Hong Kong the longest. While there were some changes between the seventies and the nineties, from the nineties on, the transformation was physically amazing. Everything from the skyline that we saw, because they built the huge turtle, as we call it, for the Convention and Exhibition Centre. I grew up right by the harbor, and I was always struck by how much the harbor view changed. A lot of it was just in memory, but then I began searching through the Internet and Facebook for old photos, there were lots of people with posts, and sometimes I grabbed some and just collected them for myself, just so that I could think about the way the city looked, because before the cell phone people didn’t take photos quite as much, although Hong Kong people always took a lot of photos. I didn’t really.
I used to work in corporate marketing before I quit and started teaching creative writing, up to about 1998. My last job was with the Asian Wall Street Journal. I was doing distribution for them, so I had to travel around to sites because at that time we were still printing newspapers. I bought an old-fashioned camera and took tons of photographs to document for my job. First of all, I took pictures of all the people I was meeting to keep them all straight. Then, I also took photos of these really fantastic and interesting sites where we were printing newspaper. I’d begun a habit from then on, and once the cell phone came along, it was so easy.
I’m trying to finish up over the next few days a piece about urban life called “City notes with iPhone.” I would document my life as I would go to the gym, go for a walk, cross the harbor. I’d go for a hike in the countryside. I have a hiking partner, and you could get to some places that were fairly remote, as we’d start at 7 in the morning. It was a visual diary for myself, because when I was a lot younger I used to always carry a journal around with me. Then you get lazy because you type everything. The phone becomes a journal, and the iPhone becomes the visual. I’ve never been one for selfies; I was much more interested in the spaces around me. and how other people occupy the spaces. I’ve done the same in New York. I knew Hong Kong so well I can see the map of Hong Kong in my head.
One of my early jobs was in sales and I had to know territories and districts. I would go back to places on purpose that I hadn’t been to for a while. I can pretty much find my way around most of Hong Kong, but it was changing so much. There were new train lines that opened up districts and areas that in the past was really hard to get to unless you have a car, and even with a car, you couldn’t get there. All of a sudden, all these places that were inaccessible became accessible.
For this particular opening story I was documenting what still remains and what we could think about Hong Kong, even away from it, and because of the Internet how much you can access. I can still read the news from Hong Kong very easily. I can still see photographs and videos and things of what’s going on. Because of Covid, you can Zoom into a whole new world which in the past you have to be there to see. The photographs are actually in color, but the book they couldn’t print in color, or at least they said they wouldn’t. But if you read it as an EBook, you can see the color photographs.
Tiffany Troy: Thank you so much for that. I also take a lot of photographs, but mostly of the clouds in the sky.
Xu Xi: Oh my God, how Norwegian of you! I spent a lot of time in Norway at one point and Norwegian art has a huge tradition of painting clouds and sky because the landscape there is so wildly beautiful.
Tiffany Troy: I love how footnotes are deployed in the story “Monkey in Residence.” It lends an aura of hyper-reality into a piece of speculative fiction. How does the footnote work for you throughout the collection?
Xu Xi: Well, I have footnotes in that one. I have footnotes in more than a few, right? Quite often, the footnotes are quite factual. “Monkey in Residence” is set at the City University of Hong Kong, which is where I ran a program that got shut down by the university after four cohorts. I ran it for 6 years,. Things like the collapsing roof actually happened. They were trying to green the roof, but the drainage was not properly done. I was also satirizing what happened to the English department. They literally put in somebody who, the first thing he said to us was, My English is not very good. He was a Hong Kong guy, and we all looked at him like, and you are there as the acting department head, because? It was so bizarre. A number of people also left the department as a result. When you are confronted with the ridiculousness of bureaucracy and politics, because it was political, despite what they might deny, satire is all. They were using economic reasons. But I’m quite good at budgeting. I can do bottom line and spreadsheets as I’ve done that for years. I knew to the penny that the program was making money, but that they were just skimming off the top and saying, oh, but it is not profitable, because we have to take 40% for this. It was all nonsense, and it was only because they just didn’t want troublesome programs that were too “foreign.”
I document the actual things that happen. There’s a mix of real and not real, even in the footnotes. For example, in “A Brief History of Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief,” at the opening part I say something about even somebody who pretended to be Chinese can write a poem, using a Chinese name, with an Asian theme, and he gets included in this poetry anthology; that was real. And in the literary world, people know that. If you happen to know what’s real, it’s a double layer that you can appreciate as a reader. But it doesn’t matter whether you do know. It still reads as a narrative, so I wanted it to do those two things. And the same for the mother story because I was trying to investigate these really complicated feelings I have towards my mother, and towards having to go home and look after her because of Alzheimer’s. It goes way back to the roots of my relationship with my mother, which was always not that easy. But in a way, when you look after an elderly person, you become a lot more patient. So I had a lot of time to play around with those ideas. Plus I could say something about the literary world, which is also a place I wanted to satirize, being a writer from the margins.
When I first came to this country, I was not considered an Asian American. They considered me Asian. Do you know the Asian American Writers Workshop? I’ve always been very active with them and all that, and they are a great place for me to do readings. But when I first arrived, I remember the head of the workshop said, You’re not exactly Asian American. What I wrote was “not Asian American enough” because I wasn’t writing an immigrant story. At that time the only literature was the immigrant story. That’s changed now.
Today Asian American literature is much more transnational. In the nineties when I came and was writing what I wrote about Hong Kong, that seemed so foreign to people because nobody did that. Now that a lot more people have gone to Hong Kong, it’s not Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston’s Chinese America any more. The contemporary one is much more fluid between the borders because the world’s just changed. We travel a lot more. A lot of Hong Kong people become the diaspora here. I was odd, writing about Hong Kong. Well, what else do you want me to write about? This is where I came from.
Tiffany Troy: My next question is linked to our discussion about the “Asian-American identity” and what it means to be asked to write immigrant stories or otherwise fit the mold to be published.
For me, it felt that there were different levels of access to your audience. Do you have an intended audience? How do you speak to different groups of readers with different levels of access to your work?
Xu Xi: When I first started reading literature as a child, I read in English. I was reading about England and one of the reasons I know the names of a lot of flowers is that they were in the poetry I read. I actually had no idea what these all were. I would read about food that I never ate because we weren’t particularly British. Neither one of my parents really knew England.
The English that we were learning was very British. I read all these British stories, and children’s books, and then later novels like, Jane Eyre. I have this imagined world of England which I didn’t know; I didn’t know what half the things were. Same thing happened to me as I read American literature, because I would read Mark Twain, and I loved Mark Twain. I still love Mark Twain, and that’s why I knew how to spell Mississippi and the mythology in American culture like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. But I never had actually been in America. Then, there were all the movies, films, TV shows and comic books.
Essentially, approaching literary arts of any kind is about entering into worlds that you may know nothing about. In a good book, just by dint of reading, you begin to understand. For example, Russian names are impossible, but the only reason I know any was because I read Russian novels. With Russian authors, like Dostoyevsky, you have his psychological emotional side, but you also have something about the culture you’re learning. From Chekhov, you learn a lot about Russian culture without even having to go to Russia. I read African stories as a little kid, and I was fascinated. I kept wanting to go to Africa, but at the time I thought Africa was just this one big place, and I later studied Africa in geography, and I realized they were all these countries and it was fascinating to me how different it was in each part. I learned from geography and from reading stories. Then, when it came to America, I realized that what was in the East was not what was in the West and in the Midwest. I learned a lot about Martin Luther King and what happened in slavery. It all came to me through literature. That’s a tradition I grew up with; that’s a tradition I believe in. That’s what I continue to do, or try to do. My particular experience is very transnational, so I don’t expect that we get to understand or know all of it. But I just try to make it make sense within the context of that tale and essay, and I hope I can. Then it communicates.
I’ve written a lot about Hong Kong, and I get called on to speak about Hong Kong as if I am this Hong Kong expert. I mean, I know some things, some history, and I can speak to geography. But I’m not a historian. I’m not a geographer. I’m not a cultural expert on a lot of things. I know what I know. It’s a mishmash. It’s what I’m interested in what I look at today.
Tiffany Troy: My vision of America is built on through the context clues and history imbibed in the rhetoric, which for me define what America is through what America is trying to be or become. This collection to me does something similar, in teaching the reader how to read your experience of Hong Kong through a transnational lens.
Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share with your readers?
Xu Xi: I hope readers are enlightened, but also enjoy reading these pieces. I had a lot of fun writing many of the pieces in this book, the enjoyment specific to the pieces I wrote here, where, I would so deeply inhabit something, whether or not that had anything to me to do with me.
For example, “Interview.” My father played violin, and he was my connection to violin, but I never played violin. I did study music, though, and I was married to a jazz musician. I’ve been around the music life a little bit. I just wanted to try to inhabit a character who would give an interview, which was biting, snippy, nasty. I wanted to do that monologue, and as a result it was fun to write.
I would never have written some of these stories if they hadn’t been commissioned. A good example is “Rhododendron,” which has a Jewish theme in it, and it’s only because it was because Jewish Noir wanted a piece. They said it can be anything as long as there’s something to do with something Jewish. So I thought, if I have Jewish characters, is that enough? Many Jewish people live in Hong Kong and Asia. I probably met more Jewish Americans in Hong Kong than I did in America. Where I went to school up north in New York there were no Jewish people. Then, I went back to Hong Kong, and every other American I met is Jewish, whether they were journalists or academics, in the fashion industry, or whatever. So I decided it’s legitimate to say that they are Jewish people here, so that was a fun way to get into it.
I hope that readers have fun with the book. Obviously, they are much more serious political, emotional, and philosophical issues that I’m raising about existence and about what’s wrong with the governments we have to put up with. Literature is about very serious things, but it’s also about just being alive and being human. And there should be an element of pleasure in being alive; otherwise, you might as well be dead.
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.