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.


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.


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.

Literary Shanghai

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There are four main things I seek out in Shanghai: good Western food, flights, friends and books.

Of course there are books in Hangzhou and even English language bookstores, but what Shanghai has that Hangzhou doesn’t (yet!) is a strong, prolific international literary community.

(But we’re working on that!)

I’d submitted a translation of a contemporary Chinese poem by Zhou Jingzhi to the Shanghai Literary Review and hadn’t expected much since it was my first translation attempt. But they accepted it, and in the following months, I worked with an editor to make it even better. I’d actually never worked with a proper editor before and was lucky that we had a good rapport. He made sensible suggestions and the end product indeed felt better than the one I’d submitted.

I came to the launch party excited if anything to meet the person behind the emails and other writers. As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, the head editor came over with a huge smile and said “It’s Hannah! We’re so happy you’re here! Welcome, Hannah!” And the translation editor came over to welcome me too, and in the course of the evening I met editors, painters, poets, and more.

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The editorial staff gave me and other contributors a bouquet of flowers, a keychain, and a free copy of the magazine.

Later we ate the cake they had ordered (though were also loathe to cut because of its impressive design).

I really do hope that the magazine takes off and does well. The editors were trying to create a more international magazine that could even find a place with lit magazines in New York.

Whatever happens in the future, I will at least revel in the glow of an evening schmoozing with my kind of people: the kind who find meaning in dust motes and with enough words to fly.

And now, as I disappear into the west, I carry that glow, along with a bouquet of flowers and a book of good words.


A World of Verse

Flash back to April. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday/deathday, and Katie and I are in a coffee shop, nervously moving tables around until the clock strikes 7:30 pm. Chinese, expat, all sorts of people filter in, and sit at the tables with drinks and random pads of paper. We welcome them, and our Great Experiment begins: our very own Hangzhou poetry slam.

I’ve participated in poetry slams before, but will admit that it had been a while (though I can still remember pacing backstage as I ran through a young poem I’d only recently written). I’d done it in Decorah, Iowa, a very warm community that welcomed anyone to try and never faulted anyone that did. That was what the spirit of poetry events ought to be in my mind, and Katie agreed, having been in poetry events herself in the US. Sadly, the school-run poetry events that I’d attended at Zhejiang University were very stilted, complete with professors offering critique after each one, though it was advertised as a mere poetry reading. “It needs…more,” they would say, and everyone would ‘mmmm’ though I’d read an English poem that no one understood. I thought of that moment in Amadeus when the critique was “too many notes.” This felt so wrong for poetry. I never saw people laugh or smile or go “mmhmm” or “yeah!” during the poems, and as they were read, they felt like static pages dropped from a book. Katie and I agreed: we could do better. (Besides, if you want something to exist in the world, you have to create it yourself.)

Pass over a couple bumpy poetry nights, some successful because of the enthusiastic participants, others less-so because we hadn’t quite tapped into the literary community just yet and had sparse turnouts. We substituted slams for writing activities, and then…

Fast forward to now. November 19, the day before my 27 birthday (a number that always seemed faraway until I actually reached it.) The room is packed, and as we announce the sign-up sheet for both the slam and the open mic portion, people come forward with enthusiasm. Some of the writers clutch their notebooks to their chests and apologize before even beginning, and by the end, they’re loud and clear in the slam as we say “tell me more! Keep going!” with our applause. First-timers say “I’ll be back!” as we hand out the prizes (this time, English books instead of random keychains), and even when the event ends, poets linger to share more. “Have you read this poem?” “I liked this line that you said! Tell me more!” “Can we hang out more?” There’s a hunger for the written word, a need perhaps cultivated by the surrounding blare of Chinese characters on the streets. In class or attending lectures, I feel as though there is simply too much to say, but no way to get it out because I simply lack the vocabulary. And yet here we are, making verses, sharing words, and arriving at those big numbers in our lives without a second thought and with a hunger for even more.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for these events, but I do hope that the welcoming spirit that found me in Decorah and took me by the hand into the world of spoken poetry continues to live on in Hangzhou.