Tales from a darker side
Celebrated Hong Kong novelist Xu Xi tells Joey Li about her latest collection of 13 engaging (and somewhat dark) short stories
Described as ‘a pioneer English language writer from Asia’ by The New York Times, Xu Xi’s name has become synonymous with Hong Kong fiction. The accomplished novelist, a finalist in last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, has 11 books behind her – and her new fiction collection, Access: Thirteen Tales, continues her off-the-wall style in fine form, tempered by a strong sense of déja vu. The book contains 13 short stories, split into four sections, which explore the theme of ‘access’ – be it access to society or access to love – often in a dark, eerie way. Xu Xi, who has an Indonesian-Chinese background and is also writer-in-residence at The City University of Hong Kong, says they’re more ‘tales’ than ‘stories’.
So, tell us about your new book.
It’s about who has access and who doesn’t, in all kinds of situations. They are all short stories. I call them tales. Short stories tend to be a bit perfect, while tales feel more sprawling, more saga-like, more like the old-fashioned stories. They are about different people. They happen all over the world, very much like the Asian diaspora, but the Asian side of them is not the primary thing at all – it’s about what the characters are and what they are going through.
Why the cover?
I did not pick the cover, but the publisher did. The really deep red centre evokes the kind of emotions I feel for the book. And it gets to the sexual undertones. It has different levels of red, which also speaks about the blood in the book.
Why are women recurrent subject matters in your stories?
When I started writing, I didn’t think about writing about men or women. I guess it’s because I was a career woman in the 70s. I wasn’t, perhaps, when I came out of college, a feminist, but by the time I finished my 18 years in marketing management, I had become a very committed feminist. I have always been somewhat active in women’s issues, without being a real activist, through my work and through my writing. So I can write about women and what they care about and think about. I think the biggest myth is that women can have it all. This is just bullshit. Maybe one day we can, but not yet.
We understand you became a full-time writer in 1998.
Do you know there’s something called the Peter Principle? [laughs]. It actually means people rise to their level of incompetence. I felt I had risen to my level of incompetence in corporate life. I knew that if I wanted to go further up, I would have to take my corporate career entirely seriously. I was thinking if I was given a choice between reading a novel and a business book, I would choose the novel. My passion and love was always with literature first.
What’s the greatest challenge to being a writer?
You can never entirely just be a writer. There was a time when people were writers and they were able to make a life out of it. Those who can make a living now write romance novels, mystery novels and thrillers because that’s what sells. Most writers from serious literature, they are either from really wealthy backgrounds or live in terrible poverty. Herman Melville, in his days, lived in great poverty. Today Moby Dick is part of American literary culture. Van Gogh is the same, as a painter, never mind the ear-cutting-off and all that drama. He wouldn’t have cut off his ear if he had earned millions of dollars from Sunflowers. He would have been much happier. You need to acknowledge how you can make a living when you want to become a writer.
Access: Thirteen Tales is published by Signal 8 Press, priced $140.