“Subverting the sentence, paragraph and the page”: A Conversation with Xu Xi – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

XU XI 許素細 is author of  fourteen books, including five novels, one memoir, eight collections of stories and essays.  Her first book was published in 1994 and latest titles include This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being (Nebraska American Lives Series 2019),Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (Signal 8 2018), a memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City (Penguin 2017) and the novel That Man in Our Lives (C&R 2016). She is co-founder of Authors at Large and established the Mongrel Writers Residence™  (scheduled to open summer 2021).  An Indonesian-Chinese-American diehard transnational, she splits her life, unevenly, between the state of New York and the rest of the world. 

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your latest book, Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations, will soon launch from Signal 8 Press.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the book itself? 

Xu Xi: Three thoughts:

  1. Truth is in the mind of the beholder
  2. Is it fiction or nonfiction?  Does it matter?
  3. “Speculation” in my books is all about the prescience of the past, the paradox of the present, and the possibilities of the future.

KMD:  I’m intrigued by your use of hybrid forms to depict the transnational experience.  Can you speak to the importance of questioning the boundaries of genre and medium?  

XX: Genre and medium were, at least in my youth, a literature of the printed word.  When I first started writing seriously (sometime in the mid 1970’s), photocopying was not yet ubiquitous so we used carbon paper, no one except hyper geeks had any access or understanding of computers, phones were this big clunky thing that sat on a table (public ones were in booths where Superman could do his quick change act) and books were real, not virtual.  Yet somehow, I still managed to live and write transnationally. Was the world simpler?  Perhaps but it was also much more complicated and clunky to be a writer or publish your work because you had to “obey” the rules and traditions of genre.  Novelists and fiction writers wrote stories, with a beginning, middle and end.  There usually was a climax of some kind after which everything tumbled down the hillside of the denouement, spent.  Nonfiction was history, or journalism, or politics — serious, factual expository writing.  Hybrid literary work existed but it was “experimental” and consigned somewhere beyond the twilight zone.

But the transnational life around me was way more hybrid than the literature being published. That was obvious from the way the English language morphed into weird & wonderful forms and sounds in the voices of non-native speakers — many read more deeply into English language literature and paid no attention to genre, just what was compelling.  Likewise, given my interest in world literature in translation, as well as English language literature that embraced the transnational experience, I found that such writers were not always exclusive in their use of or embrace of genre.  It was the American MFA experience that split writing into genres for me – you focused either on fiction, poetry or drama (creative nonfiction was not yet a thing in the early 80’s when I was doing my degree).

Now that I’m a senior citizen, things have changed, mercifully.  Also, begin older, I don’t pay attention to “rules” anymore and frankly, hybridity liberates content.  A story can be told backwards and forwards; not all of what I want to write about needs to be about conflict; character can be but isn’t necessarily fate, especially not if you’re a monkey or a nation instead of a human being, despite some of your human qualities.  And what is literature now that everyone can “publish” their “writing” on social media in an era where the visual surpasses language in a single leap?  Let’s face it :Tik Tok reaches a much larger audience than Substack or Facebook.  Today, Tik Tok, tomorrow, who the hell knows?

But I continue to love the written word so I’ll mash together language and genres in my bid to continue writing the world as I know it,.

KMD:  Relatedly, in what ways is genre politically charged?

XX: Who and what kind of work gets published often defaults to the genres most recognized by the publishing world.  In that respect, genre is politically conservative, because a book by a celebrity guarantees publicity and sales even if the celebrity has nothing remarkable or meaningful to say.  Books as commodity make shiny, pretty,  decorative items, and you don’t even have to read them, just have them signed by said celebrity so there’s a resale value as a collectible.

But seriously, genre defines the narrative, which is fair enough, except that it can also unduly constrain the narrative and/or limit publishers into believing that their job is primarily to find the next (fill in the blank of previous success). There’s less room for experimentation, for a writer to break the rules of the genre.  Romance stories should end happily, mysteries should be solved, a coming of age tale must arrive somewhere “of age,” but why?  The most original literature that survives is that which broke rules, that re-defined genre.  That isn’t constrained by political conservatism in publishing.

KMD:  What do hybrid forms make possible in terms of storytelling?  Relatedly, what possibilities are foreclosed by more traditional modes of writing and thinking?  

XX: Hybrid forms tend to allow more language play, and to me this means subverting the sentence, paragraph and the page.  I’ve always envied poets their microscopic focus on language, prose is too long to do that. But if I break the form of the genre and simply say, let’s insert, for instance, a real CV in the middle of this story and turn it into a kind of autofiction, suddenly new possibilities of storytelling open up.  

More traditional modes of writing and thinking predetermine the narrative arc too much.  For example, in “Rhododendron” I wanted to write a noir kind of story with a dead body at the start of it.  But that dead body became the red herring non-mystery for reasons other than the dictates of genre, and diverted attention away from what was the real story.  Had I slavishly stuck to the dictates of “typical” noir/mystery writing, I don’t think I could have written that piece.

KMD:  You are also an accomplished educator.  What has teaching opened up within your creative practice?  

XX: For most of my academic career, I’ve taught non-traditional students in low-residency MFA’s.  These were adults in many professions who had lives they needed to get away from for a brief time in order to write whatever book or projects they wanted to complete.  This gave me an entry into numerous professions and experiences at a very intimate level, because teaching was a close, one-to-one mentorship, helping to guide these writers towards improving their novels, memoirs, stories, essays. Also, these students were highly self-motivated — they would willingly read all kinds of literature that informed their work, and as a result, I discovered writers and genres I might never have read without this exposure.  It has been highly educational for me, and sent me down paths in my own writing I might never have thought possible.  

Currently, I’m a visiting professor at an undergraduate liberal arts college, and it’s a different experience for me to be teaching these 18 to 21 year old students.  Having never had children, I’m not that clued into what this generation knows so I start each class by telling them that since I’m old enough to be their grandmother, their writing needs to educate me because I have no idea what life is like for them.  I’ve only been teaching there a year and have two more years.  It’s been the most entertaining teaching experience ever, and I can already tell it’s loosening up the way I think about the future — more hopefully and less curmudgeonly — because the thing about the next generation is that the future is really theirs to live and to see.  I’m just peeking over their shoulders to see why they think what they do.

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?  

XX: A novel The Milton Man that really, really, really needs to get done!  I’ve been lugging this manuscript around the world with me since the late 1980’s, and it’s been revised and changed and undergone many transformations.  Being stuck at home for two years during Covid really advanced the latest (and what I hope is the final) shape of the book.

It started out as a novel about the horrors of teaching creative writing in college (!) but when I started it, I hadn’t taught much creative writing in colleges at all.  It was also a novel about the impact of John Milton’s work on the protagonist, which was probably why I put off finishing it for so long, because what I know of Milton was what I read in college as an undergrad. Not exactly sufficient for such an undertaking.  Perhaps the best early reader I had was the writer & former publisher of the Literary Review Walter Cummins (now deceased, sadly) who told me my draft was “not Miltonic enough” and gave me a copy of Lives of the Poets.  He was absolutely right.

Now I call it my novel about ice fishing, Milton and ways of being an American today.  I was in England earlier this year rooting around Milton’s life so with any luck, I may be a little better educated towards this story I’m trying to write.  I hope to finish it next year, finally.