First published on 9 Mar 2012. Updated on 27 Feb 2013.
As Hong Kong’s best known feminist writer Xu Xi releases her latest collection of short stories, Time Out talks to the author about sex in the East and how corporate America shaped her writing.
‘I don’t naturally write short stories. I always wanted to write novels,’ says Xu Xi unapologetically on the phone from Hong Kong. It’s a paradoxical statement, given that we expect the 58-year-old author to talk up her latest work, Access: Thirteen Tales, a collection of short stories that unsentimentally taps the lives of regular people caught between their own lust and loneliness. ‘The short story form today, at least in the English language, obeys certain rules of narrative,’ she says with scholarly authority from her office at City University, where’s she’s been Writer in Residence since 2010. ‘I write stories that sound like tales and are more old fashioned in some ways.’
The daughter of an Indonesian pharmacist and manganese ore trader, Xu, who identifies herself as a feminist and teacher, is part of the transnational writing movementthat’s currently dominating exported contemporary Asian fiction. Her last novel, Habit of a Modern Sky (2010), narrowly missed a Man Asia prize but won her entry into the canon of Chinese feminist writers for her depiction of Gail, an emotionally and ethically confused mother grappling with life on her own in a corporate job. Despite the familiar women-battling-in-the-modern-era subtext, it avoids the hackneyed clichés that bind together other novels in that class.
Access: Thirteen Tales, which Xu wrote while editing Habit, continues the ballsy anti-chick lit theme with its portrayal of characters like Ida (aka Iron Ice), a steely corporate big wig who conducts her romantic relationships over text message, and Anon, whose double vices, gambling and adultery, come back to haunt her in a random chance encounter.
While most of the protagonists are strong women, plotlines also examineinequality and materialism. ‘I was interested in the rise of the middle classes, and how we cross economic classes, because in America there’s not supposed to be a class system – which, of course, is bullshit,’ she says. ‘And in Asia especially where there’s so much pressure on kids to perform and make a lot of money – if you’re a happy hooker, or a happy cleaner, is that so terrible?’
Xu’s fascination with East and West stems directly from her own upbringing. From an early age, home life was filled with streams of her father’s friends from Japan, Britain, Portugal and the Philippines. When Xu was ten, the family went bankrupt and embarked on a life that she describes as ‘genteel poverty'.
At 17, Xu enrolled at the State University of New York. The experiences that followed would go on to inspire her stories: New York in the 1980s – ‘before it became Disney-fied’; working on Wall Street; living in New Zealand; summers at the Kerouac house in Orlando; and workshops with writers such as Robert Stone. But, according to Xu, she left most of the detail out of her stories: ‘It’s amazing what doesn’t make it in,’ she says. ‘The actual drama of life is almost too dramatic for fiction.’
Following in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables, Xu’s fairytales also discuss morality. ‘The whole massage industry in Asia is tied to the idea that it’s really just a cover for sex. For a lot of people it’s not; it’s just a job,’ she says. ‘I’ve been meaning to write a massage story for a long time and I finally did with Chicken.’
Chicken girl, a neighbourhood prostitute, lurks in the background of ‘Massage’, the story of a young Asian girl called Teresa who works at a budget parlour in the hope of one day making big money at a top-end spa. Chicken girl constantly reminds Teresa, and the reader, of the trap she could so easily fall into.
As Xu discusses the tale, she hones in on Asian views of sex versus those of the West. ‘On the one hand, the West can be very puritanical, very prudish. But it can also be very open because the media does [sex], Hollywood does it and it’s all in your face,’ she says. ‘In Asia, it’s less open but everything is much more prurient. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here that would be shocking in the West.’
Much of this discussion is carried out through the often archaic actions of Access’ male characters. Xu’ stories feature chauvinistic adulterers, such as Ida’s corporate colleagues in ‘Iron Light’, or pathetic, libido obsessives who just can’t help themselves, such as Ted in ‘The Wang Candidate’. Yet she denies this springs from any man-hatred: ‘I don’t object to men,’ she says brightly. ‘I get on very well with men.’
Xu offers an alternative derivation of her brand of feminism. ‘I was in corporate life for a long time and I worked in very masculine industries’ – Xu once worked for Pinkerton National Detective Agency – ‘you couldn’t have asked for a more male industry than that.’ She later moved to Federal Express.‘Culturally women do very well at FedEx but it’s run by a former marine,’ she says. ‘So we were run like the marines.’
Ultimately, Xu doesn’t present herself as a fem freedom fighter raging against the machine. Although her stories are concerned with change she’s more interested in documenting shifting social mores than she is in driving them.
‘Everything evaporates so quickly… and it fascinates me’ she says. ‘I write towards the future as I see it evolving.’
Access: Thirteen Tales is available now from www.amazon.com, priced 95RMB.