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The Literary Life

Xu Xi  
Paul Hilton

Literary writer Xu Xi may have been raised in Hong Kong, but the last few decades have seen her traveling the world, from New York to New Zealand, establishing herself as one of the city’s brightest literary voices. 

This week, the author steps out at the HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair to host the 22 July seminar “Writing Between English and Chinese.’’ In Six Questions, the Indonesian-Chinese writer talks about the local literary scene and what made her first put pen to paper. 

How has the literary scene in Hong Kong changed since you were first published?
The scene has developed tremendously. My first publications happened back in 1979, when there was one literary journal in Hong Kong published by some science professor at the University of Hong Kong. It lasted four issues and published one of my stories before it folded. After that, I published entirely abroad, in the United Kingdom or in the United States, mostly in literary journals.

There was one publisher in Hong Kong – Heinemann's – that would look at literary work, but its real business was textbooks. So I stayed away from Hong Kong because there simply was no literary scene to speak of here, especially not in English, just as there was no university that taught creative writing.  

I did my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts. When I returned in 1992, after an 11-year absence, there was still no literary scene to speak of, but there was the South China Morning Post short-story contest, which I won that year. I formed a writer's group that eventually became the Writer's Circle and, in 1994, I published my first book with Asia 2000.

What is truly shocking is how limited the Chinese-language literary scene is, which seems to be eclipsed by the Chinese mainland and even Taiwan. There are a few of us soldiering on, but I must admit that I would have no career as a writer if I didn't still have one foot in the West.

How did you start your literary career? What led you to this life?
I didn't start a literary ‘career.’ I simply wrote from the time I was about nine years old and published my first stories at age 11. After that, I just kept writing and, eventually, the ‘literary career’ evolved from my work. I've always loved to read, would never have raised my nose out of books if my mother hadn't insisted I do something else.

The focus on a ‘literary career’ is, in some ways, detrimental to literature, because too much is made of the ‘career’ and not enough of the ‘literary.’ These days, anything in print is literary, which includes a lot of well-written genre fiction, which is simply sophisticated formula writing. But if you love words, if you love literature as I did, and still do, then you don't think ‘career.’ You simply write, and eventually you find your way into the writer's life, which is what my life is now.

What are the problems that writers in Hong Kong face today?
Hong Kong respects commerce, which is pragmatic for sure, but it fails, as a city, to understand the value of depth of thought and literature as a way to encounter the human condition. Being alive is the greatest mystery we face; life is inexplicable. But if all you care about is money, then pondering such questions, for which there are no answers, seems like a waste of time.

How did you develop the business side of your career?
I graduated from college and needed to get a job. It's amazing how a ‘career’ evolves if you simply need to put food on the table. From quite a young age, I always knew I would have to make my own living. My parents weren't particularly wealthy, and they encouraged independence. The way I developed my business career was simple – I had to make a living, so I looked for the best way to do that, which was to find work that interested me, work that paid reasonably well, work that made me think. But I also discovered pretty early that business was secondary to my writing, and I always knew I would one day find a way to leave that corporate world, which I did more than 10 years ago, and have never regretted it.

How do you see the literary scene here developing?
Whatever makes money will develop and be praised, especially in Hong Kong. Fame also doesn't hurt. The literary scene will evolve faster if some writer makes a tonne of money and becomes the next Harry Potter author. Follow the money. That's why anything happens in Hong Kong. But for me, I'll just keep writing what I have to, regardless. Where we will see development will be in creative-writing education. This year, I joined City University as its full-time writer-in-residence and helped to launch the first, international, low-residency Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing that focuses on Asian writing in English. This is a first. There are numerous MFAs in the US, and now many more MAs in creative writing in the UK and elsewhere. But for Hong Kong, a real MFA programme, taught by published writers – not academics – is a very new thing. City University is the only institution that was progressive enough to go for it properly. I'm pleased to see this development, because it is a small step forward in creating a literary culture.

How do you think the Book Fair has evolved in recent years?
The evolution is, of course, the inclusion of local English-language authors.  Highlights? For some it will be attending the forum of big-name writers David Tang is hosting. Perhaps a few people will even show up to my event.  

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Xu Xi

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