Dustin Pearson Interviews Xu Xi About Her New Novel That Man In Our Lives
Dustin: So I understand that this novel took you nine years to write. Can you explain your process of writing the novel over those nine years?
Xu Xi: Okay nine years is sort of deceptive. What happened in those nine years was I moved from New York back to Hong Kong, and to find a full time job I put out two books, three, actually, if you count the one I was editing plus some second editions of other books that came out. So all this other stuff was happening but the actual writing of the book took a little longer than nine years. I hit a point about five years along where I’d thought I’d finished it, and this was in Switzerland at a writer’s residency and I was like “Yay, the book is done!” I went back to Hong Kong and I went “Oh my God, this is all wrong.” And I literally threw it out and started over again. I think it’s because, well, the book is somewhat metafictional. That was something that happened in the second half of the nine years. In the first half of the nine years the book was kind of like a straight novel but something wasn’t quite working. I even had different roles for the protagonist and also one of the main, well he’s not exactly a main character but he’s a very significant character, Peter Haight. He only appeared towards the end in the third or fourth or—it was like the sixth draft I think. I kind of invented him and I thought “Yeah, that’s it, this is a good way to end.” And then I thought “Wait, I can’t end with him, I’ve got to start with him.” So you know how the end is sometimes the beginning when you draft? Well it happened with this book.
Dustin: Gordie, your novel’s main male protagonist, has been described as a Gatsby figure, and your novel exhibits a large cast of characters. Both are notes that put your novel in conversation with other works. Can you talk about those other texts and how your novel is in conversation with them?
Xu Xi: It’s very funny, while I was writing the book I never really thought of Gordie as Gatsby, because he’s very wealthy. He comes from wealth whereas Gatsby didn’t. Gatsby made his wealth. I mean there were some superficial resemblances in terms of the extravagant life they had but, I mean, I’m talking about Gordie at a time when he’s doing the opposite of his extravagance, you know? But when I finished it I realized, but I am talking about what it means to be rich in America, and I think that’s one of the things that struck me. Usually you don’t know what you’ve written until you’ve finished the book, at least I find that’s true, and so the book is ended and I’m thinking about the novel and I think, “You know he is sort of Gatsby-ish.” And I thought more about that and I thought about what I was trying to say about the disparities of income, about what it means to acquire and desire and need and depend on wealth in the way that somebody like Gordie does and to so cavalierly say he wants to give it away, which we still don’t quite believe he can do. Nobody in the novel really believes he can do that, but he keeps saying he’s doing that and he keeps behaving as if he does. So that’s part of it, but what was more interesting to me that struck me even more than the Gatsby thing, because that’s the American side of the novel, is the Chinese side of it. Which I started thinking about when I was talking to my publicist, I said “You know, it’s like The Dream of the Red Chambers,” which is a classic Chinese novel which has something like four hundred characters with fifty main characters, or fifty crucial ones, forty, I think, crucial ones that you’re supposed to be able to remember. And I thought, I’ve never written a book with as many characters as this one, of which so many play a part, even minor characters. Because in Dream of Red Chambers what happens is all these tiny little minor characters make appearances but they all have a role in some ways because it’s to try to show you a kind of society and a kind of world. I’ve been writing this world for a long time. Gordie first appeared three or four novels ago in Hong Kong Rose. At the time he appeared I thought “Oh good! Here’s an interesting guy.” He just kept following me around and part of those worlds intersect with this novel—not directly, you don’t have to have read any of those books to read this one, and all my books are standalones because I’m not trying to write a series, you know? But I realized that the characters intersect because they are a part of Hong Kong, they are a part of New York, they are a part of China, they are a part of Asia, just a very transnational, globalized world. They could just as easily be in Switzerland as they could be in, you know, Norway, as they could be in Abu Dhabi or wherever. And that’s kind of the world I’m representing and I thought, well, there’s a lot of people in different places, and so you need to try to express that. And so I think I realized I was kind of doing a little bit of what Dream of Red Chambers was doing. Which is, you know, that classic image we have of what a Chinese novel coming into the modern world was like. And actually Alex Kuo, the Asian-American author, he compared Gordie to the Monkey King. And Gordie is kind of a monkey character, he’s mischievous in a way, you know, he has a crazy sense of humor, he imitates Bugs Bunny. So, I mean, he’s like a cartoon character at some level, which, in a way, Monkey is too. And although the novel is not episodic in structure, there’s a certain episodic underbelly to it. Especially with the minor characters. So I realize, yeah, I suppose I wrote the Monkey King crossed with Dream of Red Chambers in an American setting, so we have to think about Gatsby.
Dustin: This novel is part of a fictional universe that you’ve built over the course of your other novels. What context might readers miss having just begun their foray with That Man In Our Lives? Might you feel that the universe you’ve created has a certain trajectory or might resolve itself at some point?
Xu Xi: Well if you’ve read the other ones then it becomes that much more rounded and richer. Interestingly, I was looking at Hong Kong Rose again, I kind of forgot about the book because I wrote it a while ago. It came out in ’97, and I realized “Oh goodness, look at that” because, you know, Gordie’s father is the Flying Tiger’s pilot, and there is a character in Hong Kong Rose, Rose, the main character, her father was also a Chinese fighter pilot who flew for the Americas in CAT, and he trained in Arizona at a nuke airfield. I had forgotten that—so the author forgets things. I can imagine if you had read that, you know, it’s that much richer. And, I mean, coincidentally here I am in Arizona as the book is coming out. [jokes] You know, I sort of arranged this, actually, it all came together—no. You know, the idea in fiction is never to have coincidences, but of course life is full of coincidences—but I don’t know that you would miss a whole lot, because the role he played in those other novels was different from the one he’s playing here. Here he’s his own person, whereas there he was always kind of an appendage to the other main characters that were there.
Xu Xi (in reference to being asked if the novel may resolve itself): I think that when you’re writing about a large universe and lots of characters, the idea that you can resolve it all would be artificial. I mean, you could insist on that artifice, something like The Transit of Venus surely has—it’s a wonderful novel in which you can follow every thread to its end. I didn’t want to do that, because I wanted to think about how messy the twenty-first century is. And so the trajectory really is about moving from one mess to the next mess. One of the things that doesn’t seem wrong is that as things are going through, it’s like hell in a handbasket, you know? That’s how the world is sort of going. At least that’s the way Gordie feels at that point in time. But I think that speaks to a larger sense of the twenty-first century. From the questions of technology, to the questions of the environment, to the idea that we don’t have enough food to feed the planet, or that we could be running out of water, there’s so many larger geopolitical issues. And anybody that’s flying around the world, you know, wasting too much of a carbon footprint around the world, which is something I do, there’s so few answers to that. I think fiction has to find a way absorb those issues and speak about them. So I didn’t want to be definitive, I didn’t want to have an arc that was as clear because I think that the arc of our century is so uncertain. I used to feel like Cassandra when I was younger. I always felt like I could see the future, and for a long time I was actually right, because every novel I wrote seemed to come true. And I was a little bit daunted by the idea that I’m foretelling the future, and I got a little bit upset at this—not power—but this propensity I seemed to have. So for this novel, I was struck by how hard it was to see the future. I can’t see Gordie’s future. I thought I did. I thought I did when I first started writing and even halfway through, I thought I did. In fact, there were many earlier, very different versions where you actually know where Gordie ends up. Yes, I sometimes think I know where he ended up. But I’m still not certain, and I kind of want that unknown to be part of the trajectory, because I feel that’s the way the world is right now.
Dustin: Your novel has been said to “examine the shifting balance of power between China and the U.S.” I feel that examination largely plays out in your characters’ desires and their acting on those desires. In the novel’s prelude, the narrator states, “When you arrive in America, China becomes merely a thing of the past, of foreign bodily feeling. You arrive in America because to arrive is to shed the longing for self in favor of the self America confers. Can choose to confer. Gordie was America. All that was so easy to love, to idolize, all others above.” At times, your characters demonstrate a longing for China. Do you agree that the theme of desire factors into your examination, and if so, how?
Xu Xi: Oh yes, it’s all about desire. Actually the word that I think is more interesting than “desire” is the one that Robert Olen Butler likes to use, which is “yearning.” I think that that’s the underpinnings of a lot of fictional characters. You want to get to what they yearn for, because that speaks to the human condition. I do think that there’s a longing for China or something about the culture that is China. It’s perhaps not actually the physical geographic space of China, but what it represents, what it means, what its culture and history is about. Certainly for Gordie, you know, he studied Chinese at a time when it wasn’t necessarily the “it” language to study. Every dude’s doing French still at that point. But he did Chinese early, and he kind of fell in love with China as a young boy, or Hong Kong really, and by extrapolation, Hong Kong was a Chinese space and world, and he found himself quite comfortable in that. So I think, yes, that idea of a longing for something that you can glimpse at, but can’t completely see and that you feel deeply inside of yourself because, you know, you’ve studied it or you’ve lived there like, say, Harold for example, one of the main characters. He actually moves to Hong Kong and works there for a while and his life transforms. He ends up divorced as a result, he didn’t expect that part, but his life does transform and in the end he becomes a different person. I think we are all very different people, and since this is a long period of time of the friendship of these three men that I’m writing about, I think over time we all become different people at different stages of our lives. We’re fundamentally the same person, but we can watch ourselves and perhaps not even recognize who we were when we were twenty or thirty or whatever, you know? And I think that that’s sort of what is going on for these three characters. They are speaking to some of the desires that they had, and yet at the same time, they are also finding that some of those desires that they had so much when they were younger are so different from what it is they yearn for now when they’re in their fifties and sixties. It’s probably at the fifty point, really, where they all are at.
Dustin: The novel establishes a color spectrum that’s at once racial, otherwise social, and linked to China’s colonial past. At one point near the middle of the novel, the narrator states, “Bino is dark chocolate Asian while I track somewhere along the spectrum between Meyer lemon and chocolate. The thing is, we both surface from time to time when the fiction becomes too real. We pretend like our race and complexions really mean something but we’ve been whitening, lightening, de-tanning, demeaning anything darker than white.” Can you speak to this moment between the narrator and Bino?
Xu Xi: Yeah, this was one of those great moments in writing a book where you never thought you were gonna put something like this in, and all of a sudden you go, “Hang on! This is what it’s about!” and you gotta put that in there, you know? It’s funny because Bino is a real person. Bino Realuyo is a real novelist. In fact, I saw him a few weeks ago and I said, “You remember when you said to me, you know, ten years ago this?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I vaguely remember,” and I said, “Well, here’s the novel,” and he said, “Really?” He was really really surprised. I mean, it’s not China’s colonial experience, I think it’s sort of the colonial experience largely in Asia, of which China was a part. And it’s interesting because, China itself was not, per se, colonized, but bits of China was. And how do you define colonization? Because, you know, the Philippines, which is what Bino is speaking to, is a kind of American colonialism, American imperialism, and of course Hong Kong is British, you know? As is much else of Asia. But also the presence of the West in China, especially in Shanghai, and the concessions—it’s a part of Shanghai that still feels like the middle of Paris or something, you know? So, I mean, there is that sort of dangling ahead of you, this idea that the West was the thing to be. Which translated into “white,” basically. And while within China itself there is a color spectrum, the beauties of China, the famous beauties of China, are all fair skinned. And if you look at the paintings, that’s the whole idea. The ideal is this fair skin, and in the modern incarnation of that, sadly, very often, you see so many young women in Asia doing this skin lightening to the point of burning themselves and really destroying their complexions. Because to be dark skinned meant that you were lower class, you were a peasant, you were, you know, working in the sun, say the qua women, you know. So that wasn’t as prestigious. So you wanted to be closeted away, you know, in the red chambers, because that’s what the chambers were all about for all the concubines and the women with bound feet. But, hello, that’s a pretty weakened state to be in also, so it depends how you look at what privilege is. And I think that the color spectrum borrows from what we know, say, in America, say, the black/white question for certain. But it’s not the same kind of thing, and yet, there are many parallels you could probably draw. Like, dark skin is not as good. I mean, I grew up with this idea being I’m mixed, Chinese and Indonesian. So I have Indonesian blood and I just go brown, I don’t have to think about it. But it’s something that the Chinese side of my family says, “Oh, you can’t get dark. Oh, that’s terrible.” And I’m like, why? Why is it terrible? So, I’ve always challenged that idea even as a child, and I’ve always wanted to play it out. And Bino is kind of perfect, because he is kind of chocolate colored, and I can go sort of dark, you know, as well. And that’s kind of interesting. Well of course the idea of yellow, you know, is also the color that’s ascribed to Asian, or what do they say, Oriental skin. And yellow is such a peculiar color when you think about it.
Dustin: The novel doesn’t shy away from discussing the social and sacred meaning of sex and sexuality, and how those two meanings have changed over time. I’m going to quote a bit from a draft of Larry’s book, “This world, in its Chinese context, is meant to be joyous. In an era where sexual relationships are not necessarily the most intimate connection any longer, a platonic friendship can prove equally as, or even more joyous while still allowing room for others.” I found some of the sexual relations between characters to be moving and sad if only because of how empty they ended, despite the intention behind the gesture of entering into those relations. Can you say more about this subject?
Xu Xi: I was listening to, I think it might have been NPR or a documentary on television, where the subject was sort of the sexualization of young children today and how readily they are exposed to a sexualized idea of how to behave, how to dress, even how to have sex. And one of the sort of stats that was being quoted was how many young men and women just sort of, readily engage in oral sex, which, when they compared to say twenty or thirty years ago, would not have been so common. And so I think about this in these characters who are all trying to connect in some ways. The intimacy that they all seek and desire is for a deeper connection. And the term that Larry is referring to is the Chinese term “yee yan sai gai” or “er ren shi jie” which is a two person world. It’s an expression. It’s used a lot in Hong Kong for romantic ads for weddings and things like that, “Oh, these two people in the world,” and how wonderful it all is. And it’s all an illusion, of course. That’s the thing, like most weddings are illusions, and all wedding advertising tends be, “Oh, here’s this perfect most important day.” And I’m like, but you have a whole life, you know, it’s not just one day of the wedding. And of course with what happens to Gordie, often, there are those grand gestures that completely go awry. He has this great romantic thing and then it completely disappears. I think that a lot of my earlier work, especially my earliest books, were very sexual in nature. I was considered transgressive because I wrote about incest in families. My second book was about very promiscuous women. And since this came out in Asia this was very controversial. But it’s ironic, I think, because despite all that controversy, Asia likes to present itself, and China especially, I don’t know if the term is moral. Maybe it is. So very moralistic and prudish, rather, and conservative about how to have sex. But in the meantime, everybody has mistresses and people have concubines, and even though concubines are not legal anymore, a lot of men have what virtually are concubines and second families, and this just goes on. So I look at that, and I look at say, America, where here the idea of romantic love and the idea of two people having a relationship, I mean, I think among young people that’s probably the big question. If I look at fiction by young writers it’s always about “the relationship.” The relationship takes on this, you know, paramount importance. Which is quite different than in Asia where it’s about marriage. It’s about doing the right relationship as opposed to the love relationship. You know, you still have arranged marriages today in China and India etc., and even among very modern young people. So you have the sort of contrast of how people behave and yet how do we actually achieve that intimacy? Sometimes it’s not in the situations you would expect. They need not even be that familiar, like Patti and Gordie for example, who have this weird sexual relationship over the years, and yet they don’t really know each other that well. But Patti has always had a thing for him, and he obviously has had a kind of thing for her, too, and she is his best friend’s younger sister. And of course the best friend, in the meantime, completely has no idea and he keeps thinking, “What a shame they don’t get together,” you know? And I wanted to look at how we try to achieve these forms of intimacy, even in what would seem like that’s not gonna work, you know? Because sometimes the marriage is where less intimacy happens, or at least some intimacy happens, but other things are kept out of it and it goes somewhere else. So that’s what I was looking at a lot, especially thinking about how in Asia it is. I grew up at a time in Hong Kong where concubines were legal. So I had friends who were children of concubines and I used to wonder about that. My mother used to always joke about my dad and say, “Oh, he goes to Japan all the time, he wants to go to all the Geisha houses,” which he did, but because that’s what you did, you know? And she always said, “Oh, he would just love to take a concubine.” And I used wonder about that, what would it be like to have another family, you know?
Dustin: Given Gordie’s talent for impersonating Bugs Bunny, I found Larry’s prospective comparative study of Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear to determine their symbolic significance for American culture to be fascinating. At one point, in a conversation with Wing-gaau, the narrator asserts that Bugs Bunny, if not gay, may have been travestite, which is interesting given the ambiguous nature of Gordie’s sexuality throughout the novel. Do you have any thoughts about the conflation of Bugs Bunny, sexuality, American culture and Gordie or Gordie’s character.
Xu Xi: It’s funny, you know, the idea of Bugs Bunny. You know, my partner who is an American, and who is as lunatic about cartoons as I am, you know, we both kind of grew up on a diet of cartoons and we can quote cartoons to each other. But the first person who actually said to me something about Bugs, he’s like, you know, that transvestite thing that he does. And I thought about it and I thought, you know, Bugs was always dressing up as a woman and Daffy did too, you know, Daffy Duck. And I was like, of course it’s like a cartoon thing, it’s meant to be funny, but it was a way of doing it at that time when American culture was not yet as comfortable about talking about transgendered or homosexuality or, you know, gay culture and all that. And of course I can’t say it’s completely changed, but it’s come a long way and we have a much more open culture here to talk about these things. So I always thought that it was curious how Gordie—since this is a book about him and his two best male friends—how male friendships skirt the lines sometimes about what is gay and what isn’t. And how men of their generation, born in the late forties, fifties, would be very allergic to the idea of being considered gay, you know, the homophobia was much higher in those times. And yet Gordie, he was very close to his mother, he’s very comfortable cooking and doing a lot of very domestic things. There is a kind of, I don’t want to say feminine side, but he’s certainly comfortable around women. One of the reasons he’s such a great lover of women is that he knows how women think, you know, and he knows how to get inside their skin and that’s why he’s successful as a lover with his many conquests, if you like. So I do think that one of the reasons I had Larry, and Larry was a later character too, he wasn’t one of the original characters. I came up with this idea for him and I started thinking about him and I thought, you see, years ago when I was in Greece one time I was talking to a couple and the guy was a scholar in pop culture, and he studied Superman, and we started trading Superman trivia, and I thought, oh my God, somebody in the universe that actually studies this stuff. And that planted the seed, and so it was that idea that years later I put into Larry, because I thought he could be somebody who wants to study pop culture. And it’s interesting to me because I looked around to see how much was written about, you know, my favorite was the Warner Brothers, and there wasn’t that much. And I’ve spent time sort of analyzing Warner Brothers vs. Hannah Barbara and there’s a distinct difference, you know? Just like you look at Superman and Batman, you look at Marvel Comics and all that, there’s some distinct differences and that speaks a lot to a kind of American popular culture at least, which is reflective of the larger culture out there. And certainly this sort of uncertain sexual identity and I think, again, the twenty-first century is a time when I think there’s much more tolerance for transgendered people now. Again, this was something I was watching on television recently and thinking, “Oh my God, twenty-five years ago we wouldn’t have seen a program like that talking so comfortably.” It was about a young woman swimmer who was transgendered, and she became a man, and now she had to swim with the men’s team. One of the things she said was, “Well, I had a choice. Did I want to be more a man or did I more want to win,” because as a woman she always won, but as a man, she said, “I come in fourteenth.” And I thought that is so interesting that this young twenty-something year old person can talk about this so openly and had very supportive parents as well, and a supportive university swim team, and a supportive university. And I’m thinking, in my lifetime, this is really change, because I would not have seen something like this on television, on national television. And I just think that that slipperiness, for me, it’s actually an evolution of our understanding of gender, we’re not so strictly, you know, we’re not so restrictive in our thinking that one is either male or female and they can only be this or that, you know? And Gordie’s just somebody who, I think, even as a child was probably sliding between both and not worrying too much about it. I think he just naturally was like that.
Dustin: Your narrator seems to have an intimate knowledge of your novel’s entire cast of characters, in addition to having her own plot arch within the novel, but her identity is never revealed. There are what I’ve taken as clues in the novel’s dedication and acknowledgements. Both sets of clues point to you as the narrator, which I’ve taken to make sense in both a meta and possibly autobiographical way. Can you walk me through your narrator’s conception and larger role within the novel?
Xu Xi: Well, like I said, this meta part came in late. And it was because I was thinking about what Bino said, you know? And I thought, you know, because he said, “You’re just too much in love with your character,” and I’m like, “Screw you, of course not.” But in fact he was right, and I had to examine that question, that idea, because I’m in love with an idea essentially, because this is my own creation, right? And I started listening to a lot of, you know, the American songbook and jazz standards. I was most interested in the American songbook songs that moved over into jazz standards. And there was one in particular “Isn’t it Romantic?” the song which is sort of an underpinning to this. And I remember, this is long before the novel, that I first heard this song on Sabrina, the movie with Audrey Hepburn. It’s an interesting tune because there was one point that, and I play piano, I tried to play it and I thought, “This is a really tricky rhythm, I can’t get it right.” And I kept listening to it and figuring out why can’t I play it right, so I listened to as many versions as I could. Then I started looking at the words of the song, at first I thought, “That’s just a silly romantic song,” but it’s not. It’s actually quite interesting, the lyrics, and then of course, as in a lot of American songbook songs, and this was Rodgers and Hart in the early days, there’s an introduction section. And those introductory lyrics are sometimes very revealing. So I went and read those and I thought that this is the lyricist really having fun with, you know, being ironic and just doing all the crazy things that he wants to do. And as I looked at all of that I thought, you know, lyricists often write intros almost like a meta comment on the song itself, but sometimes they’re not exactly like the song. I thought, “I wonder if I could do that too,” and I think that’s where the gem of it started. And I heard that song again. I remember the second time that it really struck me. I was having lunch in some hotel in Cincinnati when I was working there, and all of the sudden the band started playing and I thought, “I recognize that,” and instead of paying attention to this business meeting I was supposedly in, I kept thinking about this song. And so this song had dogged me for a long time too. I guess I was sort of trying to figure out, you know, as a novelist you’ve made up all these characters, you put words into their mouths, you put the consciousness into them, you try to make them have their own story arc, but with so many characters going on, I’m thinking, but while all this is happening, there’s all these other people that exist in their lives, because the title is That Man in Our Lives and I deliberately wanted to do that. Those people could tell me quite a lot about what the heck is going on in terms of “What are they thinking about?” And so I got this idea that I could actually have a narrator of sorts talking to these people. You know, I’ve been talking to Gordie for years, I mean he travels with me. We have these conversations, we have lunch together regularly, we have dinner, we have drinks together, and I yell at him a lot. And he’s very charming, he never yells at you, you know, and that makes him very irritating also. It’s like, “Goddammit, why won’t you get mad at me?” you know? So I’ve had this kind of a conversation with him probably more than with any other character I’ve ever created. I talk to all my characters, but him in particularly I found myself yammering away with for a long time. Plus, I had to do so much research to create his background because I know nothing about the Connecticut coast, I had to actually figure that out. I don’t know a whole lot about the Flying Tigers, I did a lot of research on that in order to get to understanding where Gordie could have come from. I was not born on the East Coast, you know, I didn’t go to an Ivy League, and Gordie went to Yale, so I did all this research on Yale. I didn’t study Chinese at Yale, and the interesting thing about studying Chinese at Yale is that it uses a different transliteration. It has it’s own, which I found very interesting, and I had to go chase down that transliteration as well, which I found in New Zealand of all places, in a library. A librarian found and got it for me, which was really nice. Because I’ve been talking for him for so long I wanted some relief, and he wasn’t going to talk to me in this novel because he disappears at the beginning. So I’m like, “Okay, you’ve disappeared. Who am I going to talk to about this?” So I started talking to the other characters, the minor characters, and they started to reveal all kinds of things about him that I hadn’t thought about. And you can say there’s a sort of autobiographical element, but if there’s anything that is autobiographical at all it’s me and Gordie, because we’ve been together for so long. The other characters are actually a lot less autobiographical, because they’re based on different people I might have known, all that, but I can’t really pinpoint, I mean Stella, for example, is a character I have no idea where she came from. She’s so kind of odd, in a way. Patti is another one that I can sort of see, but I can’t quite tell you where she came from. I mean, what she does in her work and all that, I sort of know where that comes from because I’ve done a little bit of investor relations type work as well, but I didn’t really know who she was. But I knew, strangely, some of the more minor characters. John Haight, for example, her younger brother who’s really minor in this book. He was in one of my other books, but I thought, “I know him, I’ve met him.” I’ve met his type, if you like, many times. I knew Violette. I didn’t know Colette. I was like, “Who is this woman who cuts her hair in two lengths and has a tattoo on her tummy?” I don’t know people like that. But I knew Violette. So I knew the minor characters better in terms of the kinds of people they were, so I thought, “Well I’ll talk to them, and then I’ll figure out more about the book.” That part is definitely meta, you know, it is a narrator. On the other hand, the autobiography really stems more from Gordie and me, and then, because he wouldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t rely on autobiography anymore, I had to turn it into fiction.
Dustin: With such a large cast of characters, and the roundness of each of those characters, I found myself somewhat surprised by who ended up being major and minor characters. Given that you write out of and maintain a fictional universe, do you see yourself returning to any of the secondary characters in future works? Or returning to any of the characters in general?
Xu Xi: Actually, that’s something I’ve done for quite a long time. The characters that appeared in my first books, novels, usually the ones in the novels repeat, although some come out of short stories and then turn into a novel or something like that. They do repeat, and one who was a minor character becomes a major character. Like Gail, who is a very minor character in this book, she’s just mentioned once, is Gordie’s half-sister, but she was the protagonist of my last book. And prior to that, she was in a previous book where she and Gordie had some role, but she wasn’t the main character. And I was thinking about that with this book, because I created all these minor characters, and I thought, “Which one of these will come back?” And part of me sort of wants to make John Haight come back, because he was first imagined back in, you know, I can’t quite remember if he was in Hong Kong Rose, I don’t think he was. But he was definitely in Unwalled City in a very minor way, and then he reappeared again in a more significant way in the last book, Habit of a Foreign Sky. And I think the idea of somebody who’s life, in some ways, is a kind of more conservative version of Gordie. I mean, he actually has a real job, you know, he is lawyer where as Gordie doesn’t really have a job, but who seems so easily able to, you know, woo women but doesn’t commit to anyone. And he strings them all along, you know? But he also studied Chinese and Japanese early in life at a time when nobody was really doing it. Well by the time he did it, there were a lot more people studying Japanese, and so that’s where he goes first, he goes to Tokyo, and then he ends up in Hong Kong. And I kind of thought, “Now why did he make himself present?” He does something very interesting in this novel in terms of refusing to go home for his mother’s funeral. In a family that is actually a very close knit family where everybody looks out for each other, and I’m thinking, “Now why doesn’t he do that?” And I figured I didn’t have to answer it in this book, but then it got me thinking maybe I’ll answer it in another book. So yes, I find that they do re-“present” themselves in some ways. Sometimes I just kill them off, that’s a way to take care of them. But yeah, I think they do.
Dustin: I was getting really into, even though he was in the book in a kind of minor way, he seems to have a very strong personality, and seems to—I guess I got really invested in the ending of the relationship between the narrator and—
Xu Xi: Wing-gaau, is that the one?
Xu Xi: Yes. Now that was an interesting turn, and I think actually that’s informing the novel I’m writing right now. Although, it’s not in the form of Wing-gaau. He doesn’t actually appear as a character. Years ago I read a book by, I think his name is Robert Rodi, he’s a gay writer, and it was a book titled Fag Hag and I had never seen that term before. It was years ago in Singapore, I saw it and I thought, “What is this?” And I picked up the book, and then I was on a flight and I could not put it down, it was so funny. I met him some years later. I went to a reading he was giving, and I told him that I actually had read that book and I really liked it, and I bought another one of his books. But he has a really comic sense and he’s able to talk about something like that. But one of the reasons I was interested is that I did know a woman when I was much younger who was very much in love with a gay man, and you sort of look at that, and go, okay, maybe when you’re a teenager you have a crush on a guy who’s gay, and you don’t know he’s gay, that’s one thing. But here was somebody who had a crush on a guy who was gay, and it was pretty obvious that he is gay. So you think, “Where does that go?” And of course you see this now in television and movies, it’s in popular culture. So I was kind of curious about, again, this idea of sexual identity. I think writing that scene with Wing-gaau, that section with Wing-gaau, was a way for me to explore something that I’m already thinking about, which I’m working out in my new novel, where somebody wants to see this woman that he had an affair with years ago and has always sort of carried the torch for, so to speak, and then discovers she’s lesbian now. I mean, she wasn’t when he knew her, she was married, as a matter of fact. So the relationship, his desire for her, has always been somehow outside the bounds of what you’re supposed to do, you know? And so I’m thinking, “What happens there?” He finally gets to see her again and then lo and behold, she’s got this beautiful female partner, and he’s actually very attracted to the female partner. So I’m thinking, you know, this is a good way to examine it, in this scene, and now I think it’s going to inform, and I think that’s why it was so strong. Because I was thinking about it, and I think it’s where some of my thinking had gone, and some of the short stories I’ve been writing also have sort of that slippery gender identity. I do think it’s a big issue in the twenty-first century. I think it’s something that’s very much a part of our culture. I mean, with gay marriage being legalized, I thought that was a big turning point in the culture, and that’s something you cannot avoid almost as a writer. Also, because I do have a lot of gay friends and gay associates and always have. So I’ve been interested in that. And at one point in my life, when I was in grad school, I worked in a lesbian book shop, or at least a lesbian run bookshop, I should say, even though the books were everything. In fact, it was second-hand books and a lot of romance novels and all that. It was quite an experience for me. So I wanted to kind of examine that, and I think you’re right, that is one of the characters that comes across quite powerfully, more so than some of the other minor characters, who maybe helped move the plot along a little more than, you know, that.
Dustin: Is there anything you’d like to say about the novel that I haven’t given you the opportunity to say? Or might there be anything you’d like to ask me as a reader of your novel?
Xu Xi: Well, I wondered about the musical backdrop to it, because it’s not essential that you even know any of these songs, but I’m actually quoting a lot of American songbook lyrics. One of the early inspirations was Nixon in China, the opera by John Adams. But, you know, I wondered if that musicality that I injected into it, how does that come across to a reader? I’m curious about that.
Dustin: Well, I thought about that when I was reading over that Gordie was involved in jazz, and I know that one of his past serious love interests had this relationship to music, and it kind of came across in Gordie and his abilities, and, I guess, his philosophy. I kind of just attached it more to his other talents, you know, being in this world that he’s involved in, the kind of people that get attracted to that world, and the kinds of politics that end up, I don’t know, coming out foremost in their lives. You know, when they’re involved in the entertainment industry and are around all of these people and this lifestyle. So I thought it blended right in with that world. It kind of made a lot of sense for another way of characterizing Gordie, and perhaps some of the things we find Gordie doing. I think, at first, I got really into him being this vocalist. That was a conversation I think that, when Larry was explaining his experience, his last time seeing Gordie, that was one of the major discussions that he had. And just thinking about how Gordie acquired his Chinese name. There were different associations that I made with it, but I think ultimately I just felt the musical aspects, specifically, as being more of a cushion for the world and the drama that surrounds Gordie and how he infects the people that he’s interacting with.
Xu Xi: That’s very interesting because I wondered how it would play out. Because in writing it, of course, I spent so much time with the music, but I knew that you can’t write music onto a page, at least I can’t. I mean, they’re have been novels that have tried to do that, but I think it’s hard. I think it’s hard to write music onto the page, because it assumes that the reader knows the same song, can hear it, and even if you were going to put in, like say, an electronic book, okay link it, so you can play this song, that still doesn’t do the same thing. They are quite separate. You’re asking that to sort of invade the universe of the novel. But I had to spend so much time with the music, I have like, I don’t know, ten versions of “Isn’t it Romantic?” I don’t know how many versions of “My Romance” and all these songs are a part of it. And I listened to that Teresa Tang song until it was driving me nuts. That’s a very popular old song, you know, old pop song in Chinese, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong, you know. She’s very well-known from an early era, and I don’t sing Mandarin lyrics easily, not Cantonese either actually, although Cantonese is easier, and I had to listen to it and I got somebody to write down the lyrics for me so I could try to hear the sounds of it. And it just took forever. And yet so little of that really needs to be, you know, up front in the book. It just needs to be layered in so that when you use a line or something, it doesn’t matter whether the person recognizes that this is a lyric, just so long as you have some credit for it or acknowledgement in the book, which I do. But I spent all this time thinking about lyrics, and discarding some, and actually finding names for characters from some of these song lyrics as well. That’s how I got Rosemarie Haddon’s name. There’s a song, “Rose Marie,” it’s really corny. It’s an operetta and at first I was going to use it, and I was like, “No, this is just too awful.” But it was, in its day, a very popular song. Well thank you, that’s interesting to hear.
Dustin: Absolutely, thanks for sitting down with me. I’d say that one of the quirks that I think that I’ll be taking away from this novel, that doesn’t really matter in any kind of scope, is “gan bei.” I looked that up on YouTube, there’s actually quite a funny video that shows a bunch of people toasting at the end of the dinner.
Xu XI: Yes, well now you know that, so you can use it when you’re in Hong Kong and China, yeah.
Dustin: Absolutely, I think that will help.
Xu Xi: Actually around Asia it’s quite common, because a lot of people speak Mandarin anyway.
Dustin: Good deal, thanks again.