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Xu Xi 許素細: Pigeonholes and Portals and Third-Culture Peeps

June 30, 2014

Why is the nation state at all significant for who you are as a writer?

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Image from Flickr via Ken Mayer

by Xu Xi 許素細

Pigeons poop. A lot. The favorite pigeon port-o-lets are the city centers of the world. The world knows this, has known this long enough to sidestep the pigeonhole. Yet our language does not. To pigeonhole, the verb, is alive and well in English language publishing, as any writer of color (or of any other non-mainstream ilk) knows. We are meant to fit neatly into that avian space, and not, heaven forbid, disturb the universe, despite Eliot. Having long relied on pigeon post in my transnational life before email, it took me awhile to catch on.

To write is to participate in the culture of your world. That world evolves out of language, ethnicity, class, gender, place of birth or residence, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or, in other words, all the pigeonholes that can and do define literary writers and their work. Notably, each of the above can be plural for any one individual.

The problem of Hong Kong as a birthplace is that it was a British colony when I chirped into existence, and was, and still is 95 to 96% Chinese, mainly Cantonese.

I am a New York-Hong Kong writer with a published oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction that addresses issues of the Chinese family and diaspora, cross-cultural and inter-racial experiences (in particular, sexuality, especially transgressive), and contemporary transnational, cosmopolitan and international life. I write what I’ve lived, and still live, to solve what I don’t understand about my sliver of that mortal coil. In forty-plus years of writing and publishing, the pigeonholes that have housed the writer me include Asian, Asian-American, Chinese, Woman, Feminist, of Color, Transnational, International, Cosmopolitan, Hong Kong, New York. The newest slot, one I occupy for its comfortably feathered nest, is “Third Culture.”

Yet the one that has proven the most problematic of all is that of my “country of origin,” a literary pigeonhole problem rooted in the notion of the nation state.

Why is the nation state at all significant for who you are as a writer? Since parents, place and moment of birth generally define your nation statehood, or nationality, then blame may be laid at the altar of my birth. For one thing, your nationality can and often does determine “native” language(s), where you may live and work, who you consider your tribe. The problem of Hong Kong as a birthplace is that it was a British colony when I chirped into existence, and was, and still is 95 to 96% Chinese, mainly Cantonese. It also has no significant literary tradition of its own in English. Which means that to be a Hong Kong-er who writes in English, who is ethnically only part Chinese but not Cantonese and an Indonesian national to boot, thanks to your parents, you’re fucked. Even though I am a permanent resident (so the nest is guaranteed at least), and am entitled to a Hong Kong passport and “citizenship” (and for the foreseeable future will continue to be), Hong Kong was not, is not and likely never will be a nation state.

So what, you say. A nation does not define a writer.

Doesn’t it?

Almost every major literary prize is defined, at least in part, by language and the nation state. Literary traditions are born in nations. We speak of the great Chinese, American, Indian or Russian novel; smaller nations point with pride to their literary lions and lionesses, as they do in the city state Singapore, or in sparsely populated countries like Norway or New Zealand. The Nobel, of course, is political roulette for which nation wins next to disturb or not disturb the balance of power in the world. Even urban literati—Paris, Tokyo, Budapest—are ultimately linked to their country of origin, whether foreign, e.g.: the Indian or Sri Lankan writer in London, or regional-rural, e.g.: the mid-Westerner in New York such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 1979, West Germany was the one Western European nation that offered visa-free tourist entry for Indonesian nationals. Thrilled, I toured East Berlin and Dachau, two of the cheerier destinations on the planet.

But what happens if you’re neither of these fish nor fowl? Does your anthropomorphic critter reside in some feral pigeon circling the globe, peeping and pooping, that international purveyor of disease, that prized athlete in the racing sport of princes and paupers alike?

The privilege of forgetting or discarding nationality belongs to those for whom it was never tenuous. It’s easy to ignore that which is neither acquired nor chosen, especially if your passport does not prevent you from living where and how you wish. I carried the absurdity of my Indonesian one for 33 years. I’ve never lived in Indonesia, do not speak the language, am only superficially acquainted with the culture, have read perhaps two Indonesian authors in translation (plus a handful who write in English), never travel to Jakarta for the food, preferring Singaporean cuisine as the tropical comparable. Once, when I went to the Indonesian Consulate in New York to renew my passport, they did not quite believe I was “an Indonesian.” However, I still pay attention to national politics the way my father did. And because my father gave me a Hobson’s choice when I was young—you can take a Hong Kong British passport or a real one from a nation state—I chose, perhaps unwisely, to please the parent I adored.

For many years, my Indonesian passport allowed me to live in Hong Kong without problem, to obtain the F-1 foreign student visa for college and grad school in the U.S., and to travel with minimal or no visa hassles to certain nations. To all of ASEAN, for example, to which I journeyed, or to Soviet Russia and East Germany behind the Wall. In 1979, West Germany was the one Western European nation that offered visa-free tourist entry for Indonesian nationals. Thrilled, I toured East Berlin and Dachau, two of the cheerier destinations on the planet; years later, I bought a chunk of the fallen Berlin Wall as a souvenir for Dad. I was however prohibited from visiting Israel, and during the trek from Athens to Russia with an onward journey to Paris by train, I was required to obtain a transit visa for every country along the way, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands gave me pause. After all, Indonesia had once been Dutch, and you would expect this former colonial link to enable “third culture” access for border crossings. Of course the Hong Kong British passport did require a visa for entry to Britain even when the city was under English sovereignty. Ironically, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport under China is today allowed visa-free entry to Britain.

So if I couldn’t call myself an “Indonesian writer,” could I name myself a Hong Kong one instead?

Well, yes, perhaps, but what did that really mean? When I arrived for the second time in the U.S. in 1981 as a grad student for the MFA in fiction at UMASS Amherst, I had published a few stories, written a great deal about Hong Kong life and its people and had no idea what kind of writer anyone would consider me. The answer was not readily forthcoming. Instead, what became apparent was the kind of writer I was not. Asian-American, for instance. Or Immigrant. Or American. Or British, as I eradicated British-English out of my English in my newfound American-English literary world.

Nor was I Chinese since I didn’t write in Chinese.

It never seemed to occur to anyone, myself included, that there was such a thing as a “Hong Kong writer.”

New York—Manhattan in particular—should be a nation state.

In the cloister that is the MFA, it was enough just to be a writer. Unfortunately, unlike at the nunnery, there are no final vows to enter permanent MFA-hood. I exited that nest soon enough with the big question still unanswered: who the hell am I as a writer, anyway? By this time, I was on the path toward green card statehood, thanks to the American jazz musician I married. But what had become abundantly clear from my MFA experience was how not American a writer I was. For one thing, suburban life remained foreign and mysterious, and suburbia informed the contemporary American culture in which I found myself “a writer.” What I was writin— and this continued to be the very Hong Kong and international world that filled my imagination—did not sufficiently appeal to publishers or to editors of America’s literary journals, except for my fiction from the margins, the sexual transgressions. The solution that therefore presented itself was to abandon America for New York City.

New York, Manhattan in particular, should be a nation state. Until I moved there to live in 1986—commencing at the southwest border of Prospect Park, then venturing northwards, first to Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and eventually went west across the river to Chelsea where I still roost—I had never believed a physical American space could really feel like home, the way its literature did. So “home to stay” I was, as I finally made headway with acceptances by all the Hawaiian literary journals plus a few on either coast. Most importantly, an anthology with a New York state publisher of “Asian American women writers” titled Home to Stay included my fiction. This was a heady time to be an Asian-American woman writer in New York City, because you were often the only one of your species at readings or writers’ groups. It was a little like being back in the MFA bubble, except that by now, I was American, albeit hyphenated and defined by gender. Things could be worse, I told myself. At least no one expected me to write in Chinese.

The other advantage of the writer growing older is that you increasingly write what you damn well please, in memory of the bookshelf.

But a story is not a story, at least not in the West, if the protagonist isn’t confronted by a conflict-riddled rising action and the reversal of fortune. As the American economy tanked, Asia’s economy rose, and by 1992 I found my way back to Hong Kong where the jobs were plentiful and where my parents still lived, and where pink slips did not hover over my daily rice bowl, threatening starvation or worse.

As a child, I read mostly English language books that accessed the world. I once worked my way through an entire book series of stories from around the globe, borrowed from the public library, one each week, because I had received one book of African stories as a gift. Reading plunged me into the global human condition—culinary delights of a gooseberry tart in Charles Dickens’ London; Anais Nin’s seductive sirocco; the wayward female in the worlds according to Doris Lessing, Eileen Chang or Marguerite Duras; precarious pathways in the labyrinths of Jose Saramago or Kazuo Ishiguro. Peeps the pigeon, ever, ever, evermore!

My return to Hong Kong—the city where literature was muted, the city I yearned to leave as a child—was not in order to establish myself as an author. However, fate had her own ideas. Asia’s international publishing scene was slowly rising, and “returnees” like me became the genesis of Hong Kong’s microscopic English language literary scene. It could have been worse. Even the tiniest petri dish can host a culture that produces life. It’s taken me nine books, four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English, and years of yo-yoing between New York and Hong Kong to silence the madding crowd that demands, why don’t you write in Chinese or who wants to read about Hong Kong? There is a tad more willing suspension of disbelief because time hasn’t abandoned me, and age and an international literary reputation are on my side. You can parse “international literary reputation” however you please, but when the world is only a mouse click away, and technology’s tsunami is transforming the landscape for publishing, nothing is as readily marginalized as “too foreign” as it once was. My transnational, transcultural, global pigeonhole sometimes actually begins to feel like location, location, location.

With age, the advantage is that you worry less about pigeon poop, since it’s obvious the mess will never been completely cleansed from the cities of your soul. The other advantage of the writer growing older is that you increasingly write what you damn well please, in memory of the bookshelf. The bookshelf was my portal to those global cultural slivers that seduced, delighted, educated and shaped the writer in me. “Third culture,” in my books, is the language of literature. It transcends pigeonholes, and roosts where no impediments are admitted to the “marriage of true minds.” There is no single language or ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation that dominates. And the only nation state is the country of imagination.

XU XI 許素細 is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. The most recent titles are Access Thirteen Tales (2011), the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and an essay collection, Evanescent Isles (2008). She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English, where she established and directs Asia’s first low-residency MFA in creative writing that also focuses on writing of, from and out of Asia.

Read the rest of the Pigeonhole or Portal series here:

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: Pigeonhole or Portal?

Sarah Van Arsdale: I Was A Lesbian Writer

Matthew Shenoda: Christopher Columbus Was A Damn Blasted Liar

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