FOR MANY YEARS NOW, the Indonesian-Chinese writer Xu Xi has lived between Hong Kong, where she was raised, and New York, her adulthood home. Xu Xi’s cosmopolitan biography is part of what makes her work truly contemporary: the perspectives in her books are always transnational, and her narratives follow troubled characters across a variety of landscapes. Indeed, in each of her four novels, New York and Hong Kong, as well as their respective histories of immigration and colonialism, are always in conversation with each other. Xu Xi’s work also inevitably explores the complex relationships between politics, culture, and identity. Part of her interest has been the ongoing, evolving discourse on literary expression in Hong Kong and Asia at large. She was the founder of City University of Hong Kong’s creative writing MFA, the first to focus on Asian writing in the English language, which ran from 2010 until 2015, when it was prematurely shut down (allegedly) by government authorities. In her nonfiction, Xu Xi has explored her own hybrid linguistics (though she has never written in Chinese, Cantonese phrases are sprinkled throughout her books) as well as literary identity, constantly troubling the concepts of nation, language, and inheritance.
That Man in Our Lives, her latest novel, presents a whirlwind of characters who once again provide a link between New York and Hong Kong. At the center of the book is an American playboy named Gordie, a Sinophile who spends most of his time alone in a family mansion, mired in moral complexities over his identity, his relationships, and his life choices. I chatted with Xu Xi about Gordie and the myriad inspirations for the genesis of his character — Bugs Bunny, jazz, The Great Gatsby, and the United States itself.
YSABELLE CHEUNG: Your new book is partly inspired by the John Adams opera Nixon in China. What particular elements did you translate from that story into yours?
XU XI: Nixon’s visit to China was a historical moment that was the beginning of a shift in the balance of power between China and the United States — it certainly opened the way for China’s rise to its position as an economic power nation of the 21st century. When I began writing this book, I listened to Adams’s opera, mostly because I was thinking a lot about the shifting balance of power and what it meant to the lives of the people in these two superpower countries. The opera was an artistic interpretation of the moment in history and speaks to how we imagine history, what it does to our culture, and how art can transform our understanding of a historical moment.
I wanted my novel to do that — not so much about that specific historical moment itself, but the fallout and consequences of that moment in the lives of people today. I’m not an especially political-historical novelist. Politics and history inform the human drama I choose to write about as opposed to being the drama itself. As Mao sings in the opera on the subject of history — it “overlies us”; it is inescapable. Adams’s opera, which took the moment itself, was the artistic as opposed to the political-historical reality, which informed what I wanted to express.
Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber is also, I hear, an inspiration. What other aspects of the Chinese novel made it into That Man in Our Lives?
Dream of the Red Chamber was actually not a text I was particularly conscious of as I was writing the novel. But when I finished it, I had this eureka moment that went something like, “Damn, I’ve just written my version of Red Chamber — how the hell did that happen?!” It startled me, to be honest, because it wasn’t what I had set out to do. But the huge cast of characters — much larger than in any novel I’ve ever written — and all the subplots they generated, was a lot like that novel. For me, the real connection to Cao Xueqin’s novel is the famous couplet on the gateway of illusion in the Story of the Stone (the über-narrative for Dream of the Red Chamber), because that lends a metafictional shape to the main narrative: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; / Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.”
What other inspirations motivated the writing of this book? You’ve spoken about your own personal relationship with jazz, which also features heavily in the narrative.
Bugs Bunny and jazz. I love cartoons and am a huge South Park fan (my alter ego is Professor Chaos, which is the character Butters’s superhero identity). I especially loved Bugs when I was a kid and the Mel Blanc voicings of the Looney Tunes characters. Growing up in Hong Kong, those voices “taught” me American, as well as how to think about fictional characters — the voices of Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Pepé Le Pew, Leghorn, Tweety are imprinted in my memory, and it’s how I hear so much of the American language.
Jazz, in particular the standards with lyrics from the American songbook, was the other way I came to discover America. As a child I memorized and sang a lot of that songbook, and later, when I discovered and learned to hear jazz, I fell in love with that music in a new way. But I never lost a fondness of my initial entry point through the songbook — musicals, vaudeville, popular songs. From very early drafts of the novel, I did “hear” Gordie sing jazz. It took a while to figure out just how deep his voice was, but once I did, I could always hear him sing. My love for jazz is something that’s hard to express in fiction but I’ve always wanted to find a way to express that love for the music in my writing, so the way in was to make a character someone who engaged with jazz. Of course, Gordie isn’t a real jazz singer, just one who has a decent voice, some knowledge of jazz, but who yearns to be the real thing. I suppose that’s what I was going for, plus it gave me a research excuse (not that I really need one) to listen to multiple versions of certain songs, which is a great way to unlock a piece of music in your mind.
I always hoped to someday write “an American novel,” whatever that is, because I became a citizen as an adult and, consequently, find I always qualify my self-identification as American. But it was a citizenship I chose (as opposed to having immigrated to the country because of family or arrived as a refugee because my country was in turmoil). This is my attempt to write a sort of “American novel” even though, in the end, it’s really just a novel, a story about a bunch of people, most of whom happen to be American and/or end up in that country.
It’s almost as if the pairing of “American novel” and “American dream” go together. What are your thoughts on that?
I actually don’t think an “American novel” has any real future in terms of what the novel will become. I don’t think any “national” novel is the future, meaning that “Chinese,” “English,” or “Russian” novels are probably dead in the water too. I have long contended that the 21st century needs to reimagine the novel, but what still gets published and hyped internationally (especially in the English language) often fits the “national” characteristics for a novel, even though the human condition has long leapfrogged past that. The historical novel is hugely popular right now because it’s so safe in terms of “national” boundaries — if you write about 12th-century England, well, it just has to be English, doesn’t it (ditto for China or any other nation-state)?
What I think is far more interesting is the novel that doesn’t just experiment with form but also with perspective — the world, we keep saying, is global, transnational. Meanwhile, literature, especially the contemporary novel, is very, very, very timid when it comes to taking on a truly transnational vantage point. Let’s face it, the nation-state should simply die as a concept, and nationalism is what we might call a “foolish consistency” (do we really want those nationalist extremists in any nation to rule? I don’t. They’ll send us back to the dark ages). We have to get out of those national borders and acknowledge that identity is much more mutable and not confined by “patriotic” sensibilities — especially given our virtual reality. Even the English language is no longer “owned” by the English-speaking nations in so many areas of human endeavor — the sciences, technology, commerce, trade, the visual arts, architecture — but contemporary literature is one of the stubborn, elitist exceptions.
The American dream, as it used to be defined, died long ago, alongside the Stepford wives. But there is room for a reimagined “American dream” — one that is not defined by what America was but what America could be. And it is not about building walls around its borders …
Your main character, Gordie, exudes an unattainable air; he’s similar to Jay Gatsby. What conflicts did you see in Gordie?
I’m not sure it’s Gordie (or Gatsby) who exudes the air of the unattainable as opposed to their being unable to attain what they most desire. Gatsby’s desire is a little more apparent, if complex, but Gordie’s is far less certain. It’s true that they both are a little larger than life and exist in their own sphere, above the lives of ordinary mortals. A much, much earlier working title of the novel was Gods False & True, which was my rather lame attempt to play with the language of the first commandment, but I gave up on that (a revised version did sneak into the novel for the book within a book). Alex Kuo compared Gordie to the Monkey King of classic Chinese literature, and I do think that’s a pretty good call, because Gordie is a bit like Monkey, a “false” or minor god who aspires to true godhood but constantly screws up.
The unfolding of Gordie’s story is told through many voices, first and second, book excerpts and interludes, skipping back and forth through time. Can you talk a bit about the form of the book?
I didn’t set out to write such a multilayered time machine, but as the book progressed, the narrative became more complicated as more and more characters showed up asking to be heard. I suddenly had this huge, unwieldy timeline to negotiate. My last novel was so much simpler because everything takes place within approximately half a year. Even though there was backstory (there always is!) it was much easier to keep straight. I eventually found myself playing with different points of view, forms, and time-traveling as that seemed the only way to herd this unwieldy cast of characters, and their respective lives, into place.
Erasure seems to be a main theme — Gordie’s father disappears up in the clouds, affairs are had and then immediately buried. There is Gordie’s own grand vanishing act. How do you think the novel deals with consequences?
The consequences of our actions are often not what we either expect or intend. The “good boy” in this book does everything he’s supposed to but finds his entire life upended. Meanwhile, the “bad boy” eventually heads down the straight and narrow path and has a more contented outlook the older he gets.
I became interested in the meaning of joy, and the attendant emotion of contentment and how it shapes our sense of what gives us joy in life. The more the novel wandered around this grand vanishing act that Gordie effects, the more I came to understand how people who are close to us really affect our sense of who we are. Gordie’s disappearance (and his reclusiveness prior to the disappearance) is initially a source of conflict, anxiety, despair, even anger for the people in his life. But as time passes, a kind of wonderment sets in — which surprised me — and I began to understand that action-consequence was not Gordie’s story but the stories of those in his life. So this “man in our lives” just disappears (as people do from our lives, more than we might even be able to notice), but meanwhile, life goes on, transforms, and continues to surprise us.
Chinese and American cultures, and their relationships with each other, are prominent motifs. Why is Gordie portrayed as a Sinophile, and what does that reveal about his identity?
Sinophiles, like Anglophiles or Francophiles or any other -philes, fall in love with a country, culture, and language that’s not their own. This can happen with immigrants to a new country — you sometimes hear it said that an immigrant becomes “more American than a ‘real’ American.” What is identity, after all, if not what we say we are, how we present ourselves, what skin we feel most comfortable in? I’ve known a lot of people who come to China or Hong Kong or Taiwan and who make their home there — they become fluent in the language (certainly I’ve met a lot of English, Americans, Australians, Canadians, et al. whose knowledge of Chinese language, culture, history, literature, etc. is far superior to my own). Gordie is “very American” but is also very comfortable in his Chinese skin, although this is not a side of himself that everyone sees.
To me, being “authentic” in terms of culture, language, or nation is highly problematic, because that presumes there is an absolute standard that defines what being, say, “Chinese” is; such an attitude doesn’t readily admit a Sinophile who’s like Gordie (or even, perhaps, a “real” Sinologist, which Gordie of course is not). The thing about Gordie: he’s a mimic and can imitate Bugs and lots of other voices as well. Isn’t a Sinophile a kind of mimic too? But in the end, what’s “real” or “unreal” is not a black-and-white issue, but one tinted with many shades of gray. Or perhaps it’s red, like the red dust of The Story of the Stone.