Pacific Rim Review of Books

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From the Chinese Diaspora

by Martin VanWoudenberg

Overleaf Hong Kong, Xu Xi. Chameleon, Hong Kong, 2005.

Overleaf Hong Kong, Xu Xi's collection of short stories and essays contains a number of the author's collected writings from 1979 to 1992. Although divided between fiction and non-fiction, the voices that speak in every piece are all undoubtedly hers. Xi is primarily interested in the Asian diaspora and how it views, and is viewed, by the rest of the world. Being Chinese-Indonesian and having grown up in Hong Kong gives Xi the ability to recognize and internalize issues of race and culture, and her frequent journeys about the U.S., New Zealand, Norway and Great Britain has given her perspective. It is that perspective that Xi turns inward, wrestling with issues of family and responsibility in an increasingly globalized world, and the reader gains permission to come along for the ride.

Shauna Singh Baldwin's English Lessons, similarly deals with the Disapora, though from an Indo-Canadian perspective. A collection of short stories, Baldwin's title may at first appear to have much in common with Xi's. However, whereas Baldwin's stories play out on the stage, with the reader watching from the audience, Xi's short stories bring the reader inside the head of the different narrators. Reading Overleaf Hong Kong is like sitting behind the eyes of the actor, seeing what they see, even hearing their thoughts, but being unable to do anything but accept the visual and mental impressions as they come. There is an intimacy here lacking in other works, but the experience can also be somewhat disconcerting.

If we were to analyze our own thought patterns, we would quickly see that they do not flow evenly and with single-minded focus, but are a mish-mash of images and emotions. We become distracted, we go off on tangents, and we catch ourselves wandering, dragging thoughts back to the issue at hand. "Famine", a story about family and food is perhaps the best example of how Xi allows this jumble to flow almost unchecked on the page, leaving the reader with snatches, instead of the focused narrative we expect in a short story. Thoughts drop off suddenly and incomplete. Memories from early childhood to adulthood mix without concern for linear progression. As things dash across the mind, the reader gets them, seemingly unedited. "The Raining Tree", "The Sea Islands" and "Apollo kissed me", all follow this pattern of apparent randomness. Yet, as Polonius said, "Though this be madness, there's method in it." Although the narrator and setting changes and dances, what the reader hears in it all is Xi's voice, thoughts, and concerns. The things she personally finds important come through loud and clear.

Reading the essays that make up the latter part of the book, is a lot like reading the short stories, though without a layer of fiction wrapped around the issues. It comes out straighter though, unapologetic, and ultimately refreshing. Yet, whether the voice is purely hers, or she speaks her thoughts through a character, Xi never cowers or falters in the face of controversy. Instead, her words are bold, at times openly defiant. She is quick to address her detractors in Hong Kong who disprove of her writing in English. She is likewise apt and ready to speak on the state of a post-911 America and a culture of fear. Xi addresses the personal side of war in "Light of the South," and deals with death for the young and the elderly-all equally with presence and purpose.

Overleaf Hong Kong is ultimately a book of reflection and introspection. Little 'happens' in the short stories, and the focus remains on small groups living personal lives as best they can. The essays are Xi's efforts and reflections on doing the same. Meeting Xi here is a lot like reading poetry-there are passages that call for a second read, and many of the images are not entirely clear, but continue to ruminate after the book is closed and put away. The reader leaves with the sense that in some small way they have gotten to know the author, and are better for it.

This is not an award-winning book that will make the best-seller lists, but it carries no such pretensions either. The work is about experiencing the world through another's eyes. It is about crossing the gulfs of race, class, and prejudice that divide us, and seeing that the side of "The Other" is a lot like ours. As Xi states, "Isn't that why I write, to record the profane and sacred permutations of courage, shame, love, hatred, desire, passion, uttered in multiple tongues for this Babel of races we inhabit? Isn't that why I write, because it is a way of participating in humanity, the terror, the beauty, this deep well of collective anger and sorrow? Isn't that why I write, to tell the story of this era I belong to, before my time is up?...It is with this idea in mind that I've said what I have today, and trust that these words have been worth saying."

They have.

Martin VanWoudenberg lives in Aldergrove, B.C. where he works at web design and completing an English degree. His poetry collection, Naked Shall I Return, and a guide to romance are published by Marnick.