On Tuesday the Hong Kong International Literary Festival program included simultaneous events at the Central Library. I was responsible for picking up noted author Brian Castro whose session was about his book: SHANGHAI DANCING. I bounced back and forth between his event and the one next door in which Hong Kong author Xu Xi talked about her latest book: HABIT OF A FOREIGN SKY.
Shanghai Dancing: Truth or Fiction? with Brian Castro
Brian Castro was soft-spoken and kind. He looked the part of a university professor, and his talk had a bit of a lecturing feel. His book is a “fictional autobiography” about a journey through Shanghai, Macau, and his father’s life. He read passages from the book to demonstrate its stream of consciousness style, and this sentence stood out to me: “I packed a suitcase and walked out of my life forever.”
Castro spoke about the divide between truth and fiction, and what it was like for him to question and ignore the boundaries between the two in his book. He wanted to do something that no one has done before. He explored unreliable narration as he wove his story through different threads, and used photos to both add and take away the truth from the fiction. He said he needed to work through things that he had heard and misheard as a child, and writing a fictional autobiography allowed him to do this.
Castro wrote this book in an effort to do something completely new. He talked about how publishers were hesitant to take on his book because it did not fit easily into a box, and he argued that publishers do not know how to read literature anymore. James Joyce heavily influenced him, and his book bears a strong resemblance to ULYSSES. He described his work as similar to Joyce in that he too wanted to make a difficult journey in literature and tell his story in a purely original way.
Habit of a Foreign Sky with Xu Xi
Xu Xi is also a university professor, and she is currently the writer-in-residence for the MFA in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong. She is a dynamic speaker and a dramatic reader. She spoke of her love for Emily Dickinson and quoted the poem from which she drew the title for HABIT OF A FOREIGN SKY. She read sections from the book and talked about the moments that form her characters.
The main character in HABIT OF A FOREIGN SKY is a Eurasian woman in Hong Kong. Xu Xi talked about the challenge of being comfortable in your own skin and addressed the feminist themes in the book. She believes that with the rapid changes in the world we are poised to see something we haven’t seen before. She is encouraged to find women everywhere able to do just about anything they want. At the same time she said she is confused by the return of stiletto heels (which she described as foot-binding by choice) and the way women choose to behave in a world where they can do anything (think Real Desperate Housewives and their ilk).
Xu Xi spoke about her characters as living, breathing people. She talked about how some of them follow her around from book to book. They catch her attention and come back when she doesn’t expect them. They get under her skin and hang around until she has done their stories justice. She has a living relationship with her craft, and she is clearly passionate about her work.