Hannah in the Attic

The sun drifted in through the triangular window of the attic as I pieced together the interview with Kaitlin Solimine (see previous post). I’d chosen to stay in the tatami room in a guest house with other writers for a couple days as we retreated from city life and let the quiet canal lanes accompany our work.

You could say its luck, you could say it’s my insistence on putting myself out there, but I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know artists through the Shanghai Literary Review. It started with a translation I did back in the summer, and became a doorway into a welcoming community of thinkers and doers. We’d sit around the dinner table every evening and have long, winding conversations about everything: optimization, the existence of ghosts, the history of fashion.

Down the lane, the touristy area of the canal, complete with coffee shops and neon purple lights in the evening. I walked through it only briefly, the sudden press of people around me a shock to the system after such calm and quiet. I’d eagerly return to the house, looking out on the garden below from above.

Honestly when I think back to that house along the canal, I’ll think of those sunlit hours in the quiet of my little tatami room. The slanted ceiling, the low table, the tiny wooden tables out on the small balcony, the comfy chair propped up by the orange lamps on the floor.

There, I could be a Hannah in the attic, a creature best left undisturbed, but who would venture out when the time is right.

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Interview with Kaitlin Solimine on her new novel, Empire of Glass

(This conversation also appears on the Hangzhou Writer’s Association website).

For those of you who read my last post, you’ll remember that many literary happenings are coming into play in Hangzhou. One of which is the absolute privilege of being able to interview Kaitlin Solimine on her novel, Empire of Glass. We talked for over an hour about many things, and it was downright painful for me to edit it down to an article length, but without further ado, here’s some information about her stunning novel.

Empire of Glass is a fictionalized account of her experience living with a Chinese host family in the mid-1990s. She was a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow in 2006-2007, and has received numerous awards for her brilliant prose (which you can read more about in her bio here). I was blown away by her diction, with lines like: “Autumn in Beijing falls like a knife slicing a pig ear — indecisively slippery,” flowing naturally throughout the narrative. Empire of Glass has a unique, experimental structure, being presented as a translation of a diary given to “Lao K” from her Chinese mother, Li-Ming. This diary tells the tales of Li-Ming and Lao K’s host father, “Baba,” while also raising questions about Lao K herself as she becomes a central character in the story. With the translator’s own story told in footnotes, the novel challenges the reader’s perspective, while also offering a nuanced look into Chinese life.

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Empire of Glass has been short-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. You can learn more about it on her website (link here) and purchase it on Amazon (link here).

Now, join me as I chat with Solimine about her novel, China, writing and more.

As a writer, you can’t help but feel that once you’re published, you’ve “arrived.” How does it feel for you writing this first book?
The path there is challenging and the fun part there is that, unless you just plan to publish one book, there’s no end to it really. It’s definitely more of a literary experimental book, so my goals around it were never really commercial success. So you know, my parents are always like, “How are the book sales?” That’s not how it works with literature! I’m not writing a spy thriller, so that piece of it wasn’t the point for me. What I really wanted was to have it published by a press I really respected, and for it to reach readers and start conversations.

Why did you choose this experimental and complex structure?
I was never really attracted to books in which the structure wasn’t critical to the book. I was always really attracted to narrative frames, diverse voices and different perspectives in a work that had some sort of structure that explained scenes of the book. There’s more nuance to it. In my MFA program, I thought about what it meant as a writer to approach a Chinese story when I’m not Chinese, and how I could show that I was aware of that. I was playing with that notion in the text itself.

Writers are often told to “Write what you know.” How did you approach a story like this, and would you have approached it differently if it had been set in American culture?
The weird thing for me is that what I “knew” was this relationship that I had with the family I lived with. It started with this question: “What do those relationships mean? Where were they productive, and where can they be really disjointed, problematic, or dangerous?” The fact that it took place in China and that I was not Chinese is such a critical part of the piece in general. There are questions of allowance and cultural appropriation. I think at the end of the day, when you say “Write what you know,” Well, you know things, but you also don’t know much even about your own identity, because identity is so layered and fluid. There’s a really important act of literature that happens when you write what you don’t know.

How would you compare those three different identities: Lao K as the teen in the book, Lao K the narrator, and then you the writer once known as Lao K? 
I think that was something I was questioning. I didn’t want to get too biographical in this book or in this work. People that know me wonder “How much of this is you and how much of it isn’t?” My brother even said “You had a red bathing suit in high school! Did you have those relations with Baba then?” I wanted it to have a kernel of truth in terms of who she was and who I am, but there are many differences. You take yourself, and then you put yourself into a fictional situation, and then see what happens. Any experience I think of examining one’s history, whether that’s personal or collective, is layered in that way, and we have to recognize that when we hold onto any things that we think of as being Truth, just how malleable they actually are.

Is there something that drew you China specifically?
I actually had a very ‘happenstance’ road to China. I wanted to learn Japanese, but Japanese class was full. So, they recommended I take Chinese. These home-stay programs were unique at that time, just living with a family for an extended amount of time. I don’t think it was necessarily China specifically at that point for me. I was so pure. I had never left the US. It’s kind of this terrible analogy, it’s like losing my virginity. It was so formative, and you’ll always remember it, and I’ll always remember China, the place where I first was a foreigner.

I can tell just from your writing in “Becoming Li-Ming’s Daughter” that the family left a big impact on you, especially with your relationship with Li-Ming. Do you think she lives on with you and your own daughter? How does she influence your life as a mother?
I think that was something I was investigating in that essay for sure. I think she was this worldly person, and confident woman who has never really lived that out in the way that a global woman today would. So there was something really beautiful, but also poignant in that. She didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, or her daughter has. She lost that. And so I think this was something I was exploring in the book: what would it be like to be as independent, as inquisitive as Li Ming was, or even as I am, or you are, or anyone who is going to China to do a different thing, but yet not have those opportunities, or to have history not on your side? I certainly learned a lot from her, or at least from my version of her.

So you know from my blog that I do a lot of traveling. I meet other travelers and other writers, and they’re always trying to understand or portray what they like to call “Real China.” How would you interpret “Real China,” and is there such a thing?
Well, no. There’s not. I mean, what is real? I think about my early romance with China and feeling like I needed to know the real China, and that the way to do that was by learning the language, or marrying a Chinese person, or you know all of these different ways of doing that. It was this little breaking down, realizing it’s a young, naive notion. You have all of these histories within these regions as well as cultural practices. You have all of the ethnic minorities. And this diversity of experiences is really what China truly is. That, to me, would be more representative than any one thing. You’ll never have one specific definitive version, but I think that’s what’s so beautiful about that journey, too. As you pursue that path, whether as an individual or as a writer, it will continue to challenge your understanding of not just China but of place, and of history, and of individual and of identity. It starts to ask bigger questions about yourself, too. But I think that’s why it’s so important to be outside of your comfortable places. I empathize with that journey, because I’m still on it in some ways.

Thanks to Kaitlin Solimine for her interview! Be sure to check out her novel, Empire of Glass.

Literary Hangzhou

As far as artistic cities goes, Shanghai pretty much takes the cake. It’s had (for better or for worse) some of the most integration of international cultures, and Chinese literary giants like Mao Dun, Lu Xun, and others lived there for a spell (much like modernist writers and New York/Paris).

But I’m pleased to say that literature is in the air in Hangzhou!

Right after I come back from my next trip, the Hangzhou Writer’s Association (website here) will hold an Africa-themed poetry night, which came into being when I went to a friend’s party and got to chatting with another poet. She had the idea and a venue, I had the poets. Done and done!

But before that, something even more exciting: I will be conducting an interview with writer Kaitlin Solimine (writer website here) about her debut novel Empire of Glass. It’s a mind-bending novel about China that uses experimental forms, but still tells a story with a lot of heart. I won’t say much more, since our Q&A will be forthcoming, and besides, you should go out and read her novel yourself! Until then, enjoy some of her writing in this essay she wrote (link here) about her connection to her Chinese host mom in Beijing.

Although in a couple of days, I’ll be kicking back with the Shanghai Literary Review community, I can say without hyperbole that it’s exhilarating to be surrounded by literature, especially considering that our little Hangzhou-writer’s-community-that-could is starting to take off. Sometimes if you want something to exist in the world, you have to create it yourself.

Stay tuned for Kaitlin Solimine’s words on her book, writing, China, and more.

The End of the Tours

As many of you might know, I’ve almost been to every single province/territory in the Chinese Mainland (and have also been to the “One party, Two Systems” areas like Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, aka the “Don’t mention them if you don’t want to get in an argument” regions). In one month, that “almost” will change into “have,” as I hit the last provinces, Jilin and Liaoning and complete years worth of tours and circuits.

Had I planned to go to every province when I did my first backpacking trip in Spring Festival, 2013? Of course not! But, here I am, and man it’s been a ride. I’ve been up in the mountains, out in the deserts, swimming in the ocean, hitchhiking on a wagon, and even biking in a valley. I’ve stayed with nuns, worked at a beach-side hostel, and even visited Chinese Hell.

What lays in store for me next month? Well, I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to be the best of my trips, because I’ve already had great trips. And true, it might have made more sense to have saved Tibet for last, but I’m happy that my last major trip is more akin to what I’ve done in the past: just me and the road.

Be excited.

A Song of Summer

I decided to bike out along West Lake because I thought there were free tango lessons in one of my favorite bars, Carbon. But once I got there, it was as though being transported into a different Hangzhou. One that better resembled the one from a year ago, during the G20 International Summit.

Though I don’t know the particulars, some kind of Important Person decided to drive around West Lake, which meant that police had to block it off from regular traffic and stay stationed to make sure no one did anything stupid. At least, that’s what the people puzzling the situation on the sidewalk told me, trying in vain to cross the street to see the lake in this rare calm.

And it is rare, to feel such calm in a big city, or to find a pocket of stillness in a life blaring with all kinds of distractions. I often find myself feeling overwhelmed at the end of a day, not because I’d done a lot per se, but because I’d been immersed in a lot of noise: the Internet bogey, the stream of events happening in Hangzhou. It’s like a quote from a book I read recently (The Circle, by Dave Eggers): “You know when you finish a bag of chips and hate yourself? You know you’ve done nothing good for yourself. That’s the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished.” Harsh words, to be true, but true nonetheless.

And perhaps that’s what made it so marvelous, that summer evening, by a still and eerily quiet road along West Lake. I could hear crickets chirping, and see the street lamps reflected in the dark waters while lotus leaves rose in their majesty to the full, yellowed moon. I could walk along blackened waters with waves ruffling through them, and admire without commentary, which is the most precious thing of all.

I ended up staying in Carbon, although the street blockages meant that no other customers were there, and that I was also hilariously wrong about the tango lessons. I stayed there alone because I could, and I sipped a cool mojito on their rooftop terrace, as if the lake was my own.

And it felt like the perfect song to end a summer, and to transition into a fire-tipped fall.

30 Days of Poetry

Some of you following this blog may have been wondering about my brief hiatus. Well, those who have followed me longer know that sometimes I just kind of disappear like this, but this time, it’s not because of faulty internet connections, or from being extremely productive (if it ever is).

This time, it’s because I’m participating in a 30-day poetry challenge!

As I’ve mentioned before, we in Hangzhou have started our own poetry society, (check out our website here) and over the past year, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. From more active members, to a greater desire to write poetry, we’ve been able to build a creative community to enjoy.

For summer fun (and to beef up content cough cough) one of our newest members suggested we do a 30-day challenge.

Well, we’re about halfway through already, and I can tell you that it’s harder than I thought. In the beginning, ideas were exploding all over the place and it would take me about 10 minutes to write a draft of something. Cut to several weeks later, and I’m staring at my notebook, wondering if I could get away with writing another nonsensical haiku to meet the deadline. True, we have no way of making sure that people aren’t just recycling already-written work, but there’s no point of doing the challenge if you’re just going to cheat.

So anyway, this has been occupying my brainspace for a while (along with reading articles/books for my thesis, translating a knock-off Transformers script for work, and watching an ungodly amount of Game of Thrones). I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote about one of the magical forces that’s keeping me going: coffee.

“Coffee”

Sweet poison of mine
who breathes life with every kiss
and death once away

strangle my insides
set fire to my mind and fly
phoenix-winged as dawn —

strike fast the heavens
curl up like the smoke-tails
that rise from my tongue,

my “Hallelujah”
your inferno and rebirth —
my teeth, but your bite.

Look Up

All across the United States, people looked through comically-shaped paper glasses to the skies, where the heavens were on display. My Facebook feed exploded with friends who had traveled all the way to Portland, Oregon to join the eclipse-watching party, as well as those who stayed closer to home and saw what they could. (And also pictures of overcast skies and comments like “So glad I could see the eclipse.”)

Here in Hangzhou, the skies have been a brilliant blue, with fluffy white clouds rarely seen this side of the Pearl Delta. Rainstorms have come and go, and in the evenings after the sun finally goes down (along with the temperature), the streets take on an orange-ish glow from the street lamps. There’s not much sky to be seen from the ground view, and much of the heavens get overtaken by the lights and buildings surrounding me like cornrows. Now that it’s extra hot outside, I stay in more.

Yet, I never fail to look up anyway.

Most of the time, I can only see a handful of stars, if even that. Sometimes I see silvered clouds and the moon dancing along them like a gypsy. On the rare occasion I see a full constellation, I usually message a friend and tell them to look outside before it goes away.

To some, this probably sounds sad. That’s just the way it is in urban China, and it makes us city-dwellers appreciate the skies all the more, and all-out rejoice when there are blue skies. And whenever I go back to the US, I’m always floored by the brilliant skies and colors that abound.

So now in the hazy summer days of Hangzhou, I instead look up from the reading nook in my bedroom. From this vantage point, I’m looking up through the Tibetan prayer flags I’ve put in the window, and into the sky beyond. Some nights, I see nothing but the faint press of stars behind haze. Others, a silent lightning storm stuck in the clouds, its white cracks splitting the sky in half.

Most of the time, I see a moment that hasn’t gotten devoured by other lights and other deadlines, and that in itself is worth looking up into.