(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.
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.