Amy Penne on Xu Xi’s Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations

Monkey In Residence & Other Speculations by Xu Xi

Signal 8 Press, 2022

192 pages

“Am I Just a Deluded Flâneur?”: Xu Xi’s Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations

Sophia Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, 2003’s Lost in Translation depicts two Americans adrift and wandering the streets of contemporary Tokyo. The neglected wife of a famous photographer and an aging actor hired to shoot commercials covet connection amidst the frenzied city in which they’re both foreigners. While their bond is never consummated, they share a whispered moment at the end of the film that has become, for many cinephiles, one of the most speculative moments in recent film history. What does Bill Murray’s character whisper to Scarlett Johansen’s at the end of Lost in Translation? We don’t know–the final shot is, in many ways, unfinished yet satisfying. 

Xu Xi’s recent collection, Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations ends with a similar unfinished and poignant sentence as she explores closure following the passing of her “tiger mom” after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Xu’s speaker summons an elegiac final command: “Instead, [I] can write, I had a tiger mom and my love for her is, and, instead of inserting a comma or ellipsis or some misguided word or even song lyric, you can end the sentence, unfinished.”

Xu Xi’s collection serves as a chronicle, in the literal sense, of the last few years of our shared global reality since Covid, but Xu’s work also serves as a chronicle of her transnational identity over the last twenty years. “Chronicle” is, itself, a multidimensional word and is a perfect description of Xu’s work. This collection is a register. A calendar. It recounts. It takes stock of and dances between a record and a creative archive. Like David Foster Wallace, whom she references in a final endnote, Xu plays with the copyright page and defies the official attribution of “fiction” or “nonfiction.” On her copyright page, she writes:

This is a work of fiction. Names and characters are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, or both, or neither. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, unless it isn’t. This is also a work of nonfiction. Make of that what you will.

The reader does have to make something of Xu’s work as we are invited to interrogate this interactive collection of moveable feasts. One of the features I most appreciate in hybrid texts is the freedom to dart in between the speculations. Xu’s fluid prose allows me space to pirouette between story, essay, list, and poetic encounter. It’s freeing, as a finicky reader, to not only have permission but open encouragement to explore Xu’s Hong Kong, Xu’s New York, the failings of memory, the shortcomings of academia, and the multidimensional world of a mind at work and play. I have, after all, been told on the copyright page to make of it what I will

The central character in the collection is not a who, but a where. Hong Kong takes center stage and breathes life into the multiple renderings of the “I” who inhabits the narrative function throughout Xu’s work. The opening essay, “Where the World Unwrapped,” frames the transnational space that permeates the work:

We were not truly native but we were resident. We were not expatriate but our passports were foreign. We were not temporary but we were not permanent. Only a few live in Hong Kong now, but we all look back at the city as home, because this was our city where the world once unwrapped all of our senses, the city whose qi still exhales a universe of dreams. 

Xu’s self-proclaimed “mongrel” status gives her a unique voice and perspective through which to project her complicated identity. Xu’s narrators are and are not reliable; they are and are not young, old, Chinese, Indonesian, colonial, postcolonial, academic, and unaffiliated. Xu’s narrators and speakers are deliberate in their shapeshifting and are fueled by the kinetic energy produced by the bouncing of narrative atoms throughout this collection.

The narrative voice glides comfortably from a poetic reflection, as in the opening sentences, to that of the dynamic critic/historian in “But for the Grace.” Xu writes of a time that “was also a colonial era, when white boys ruled, although the local Chinese boys were beginning to rise, at least in Hong Kong. Nixon had already been to China, and it was just before Carter tore down the bamboo curtain.” In the next section, the narrator reflects on the hopelessness of a “virgin, clunky” lover who “was more tween than he ever could hope to be, able to hang with the white world as readily as the local one...” This idea of narrator-as-tween percolates throughout the collection. In Xu’s imaginative landscape, “tween” is not an age range but a physical status brokered by the colonial and postcolonial worlds these characters inhabit. 

Serving as a refrain in these speculative fictions and nonfictions is the choral implant of memory. Xu probes memory as a critic and as a daughter who spent several years in Hong Kong caring for her aging mother suffering from Alzheimers in her final years. Xu catalogs events with the impassive tone of a journalist: “In November 2017, my mother died shortly before her ninety-eighth birthday. By then, my former position as writer-in-residence at a local university had also died. Meanwhile, my husband-to-be was still patiently waiting back home in New York after our seven-year, long-distance relationship, while I squatted ‘at home’ in Hong Kong with Mum’s debilitating Alzheimer’s.” Those hyphens speak volumes. They denote time and space, but they also press the theme of the speaker/writer’s hyphenated existence as an Indonesian-Chinese native of Hong Kong, who also spent much of her life in New York. 

Referencing T.S. Eliot’s image of the haunted “nothing behind [a] child’s eye” from his “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” one can’t help but hear the ringing of moonlight and lost memory from Eliot’s work as it pertains to both Xu’s dying mother and to Hong Kong’s fading colonial past. But is it? Is the past passing and to what extent have global relationships mutated in the wake of Hong Kong’s return to the “motherland” in 1997? How do we live, love, and have our being after 9/11, SARS, the financial collapse, capitalism’s decline as a force, and, of course, Covid? These questions infuse Xu’s work as she explores key linguistic parallels between Hesiod’s Pandora and contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pandora’s character is also intriguing, because Zeus orders Hermes to put inside her (Pandora) an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy. There’s an odd contradiction in this doglike intent with stealth, reminiscent of the conflicted local leadership that purports to govern our semi-autonomous city in China. Pandora has no real agency. She is merely a cipher, android-like, commanded by an angry god...Are Hong Kong people “enslaved”? Physically, no, but increasingly there are those who find their citizenship compromised, constrained, commanded into silence.

The collection’s overt ideological pieces are counterbalanced as Xu bobs and weaves in between satire, lists, and genre pieces including a spectral tale in the voice of a dead sex worker in “TST,” a noir-ish tale of murder in “Rhododendrons,” and an almost poetically metered story of a Cincinnati couple in “Jazz Wife.” To what extent these stories are fiction is up to the reader. They are, as her title implies, “speculations.” What ifs. Musical renderings of malleable identities. 

In “When Your City Vanishes,” Xu’s speaker walks through the night “in memory, [in] this city of mine that lends itself to long urban rambles,” and begs the question, “Am I just a deluded flâneur of remembrance, courting nostalgia, because I, too, refuse to accept the inevitable, hoping that the way we have become is the way we will always continue to be, a future as a global Chinese enclave with a separate but equal system and culture, in the 21st century and beyond”? Time will tell. Or it won’t. Make of that what you will. 

Amy Penne lives and works on the Illinois prairie. She teaches Humanities at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. Her reviews, interviews, essays, and poems can be found in Adroit JournalAmerican Book Review, Minerva Rising, Green Mountains Review, I-70 Review, and featured in the Midwest Writing Center’s anthology These Interesting Times, and In-Fact Books’ Oh Baby!, her hometown arts journal Smile Politely, and in other journals. She can be found at