life & times
XU XI is the author’s pinyin* short form name which is also her byline, but she is most assuredly not the following beings with the same pinyin name: a Chinese painter & sculptor; the author of tomes about acupuncture; a nationalist or a dissident-in-exile of any nation-state; a reality TV show host in some special economic zone or on YouTube; an Academic in any Intellectual Discipline, real or imagined, as capitalized by Pooh or some other friendly wild thing. She has however had three legal English names (as well as several best left unnamed of dubious legal quality) and strives assiduously not to acquire any others.
However, she really is the author of thirteen books, including five novels, six collections of short fiction & essays and most recently Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories, released June 15, 2018 by Signal 8 Press; the memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City (2017), as part of Penguin's Hong Kong series for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. She is also editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. Forthcoming from Nebraska Univeristy Press in March 2019 is an essay collection This Fish Is Fowl.
A former Indonesian national, born and raised in Hong Kong, she eventually morphed into a U.S. citizen at the age of 33, having washed onto that distant shore across from Lady Liberty. These days, she splits time, unevenly, between the state of New York and the rest of the world (sightline towards that land of childhood memory, Indonesia) and mourns the loss of her beloved writing retreat in Seacliff, on the South Island of New Zealand, where she hovered, joyously, for seven years.
*pinyin = transliteration for Mandarin Chinese or Putonghua (P), the official language of China although Xu is far more fluent in Cantonese (C), that being the people’s language of her birth city, Hong Kong.
These days, Xu roams the universe of her latest novel That Man In Our Lives (2016), starring Gordon “Gordie” Ashberry, this most enigmatic fictional character. He followed her around the world through three novels, making his first appearance in Hong Kong Rose (1997) as a young man in 1970’s Hong Kong who met his Chinese “picture bride.” He then resurfaced in The Unwalled City (2001), to provide a little comic relief as Hong Kong sped towards its 1997 D-Day return to China. Having met his half sister Gail Szeto in that book, he occupied even more space in Habit of A Foreign sky (2010) to accompany his sister's transition from Hong Kong to New York in the wake of the 1998 Asian financial crisis.
And now, it looks like he's re-inserting himself into her latest work-in-progress Memories of You.
What’s a novelist to do in the face of such a peripatetic and persistent character? Ruminate of course, while listening to jazz.
If they asked me / I could write a book / About the way you walk and listen / And look / I could write a preface / On how we met / So the world would never forget . . . “I Could Write A Book” Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart (1940)
Which is how Gordie finally got his own book.
From 2010 to 2016, Xu was writer-in-residence at a university in Hong Kong, although that life was annoyingly distressed by the university’s closure of Asia’s first low-residency MFA program, the very one she came back to the city to establish in 2010. Click “Writing Life, Interrupted” to read the saga of this closure. It could have been an episode for Monty Python, this dead parrot we’re all still trying to return for a refund.
More happily, she managed to exit, stage left in spring of 2016 to be writer-in-residence at Arizona State University’s Piper Writers Center where she bicycled regularly under desert skies.