Tiffany Troy ~ A Conversation with Xu Xi

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.