Hong Kong and the Hope of Cosmopolitanism: Reading Xu Xi’s Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations – Michigan Quarterly Review
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Hong Kong and the Hope of Cosmopolitanism: Reading Xu Xi’s Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations

On or about the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, writing Twitter began to buzz with jokes about “the long 2020”—a riff on the convention in literary studies to speak of historical epochs like “the long eighteenth century.” (I can’t recall where I first saw the term, though it may well have been in a tweet by poet Lesley M. Wheeler.) Several years later, we’re still under the elongating pall of 2020’s shadow—the ongoing COVID pandemic with its various waves and mutations, the political instability fomented by the rise of right-wing nationalist movements, the wildfire proliferation of misinformation and deep fakes, rising sea levels and temperatures, the humanitarian crises at the southern border of the United States, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Chinese clamp-down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, to name but a few. The post-2020 world, it would seem, is surging toward disaster.

Yet, disaster—along with dislocation and displacement—needn’t channel us inexorably toward the tired academic discourse of “precarity.” As Pallovi Rastogi has argued in her book Postcolonial Disaster: Narrating Catastrophe in the Twenty-First Century, literary writing mediates the endless march of ecological, viral, and political tumults—both by representing the calamities of a global, postcolonial world and by couching them in the local, private knowledge accrued through personal experience. Like the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” Rastogi argues for a literature that accounts for loss and disaster without diminishing the sway of nostalgia and hope alike.

Few writers are as adept at meeting this moment’s demands as Xu Xi, the Hong Kong native whose numerous books include the ekphrastic photo-essay That Man in Our Lives (C&R Press, 2015), the elegiac memoir Dear Hong Kong (Penguin, 2017), the lively and electric tales of Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (Signal 8, 2018), and This Fish Is Fowl: Essays on Belonging (Nebraska, 2019). Xu’s newest collection from Signal 8 Press, Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations, responds to this moment of disaster by alternating the narrative currents between hope and caution, wisdom and humor, patience and urgency. Its sixteen pieces of prose dissolve the boundaries between genres and modes, between fiction and nonfiction, between the actual and the possible. To instill hope in her readers while navigating the disasters of the present, Xu imbues each piece in this volume with a luminous, but steely, cosmopolitan ideology tempered through her own transnational life.

The collection’s title hints at how we ought to read its chorus of fictions, nonfictions, and hybrid forms: as speculations, rather than definitive solutions to the questions of nostalgia, longing, and belonging situated in Xu’s various renderings of Hong Kong. Effectively, Xu weaves the many strands of the literature of migration, expatriation, exile, and return into a single text. Monkey in Residence dabbles in the memoir mode, in dialogue with writers like Ha Jin, Laila Lalami, Salman Rushdie, and Porochista Khakpour, even as its fictive meditations on homeland and distance recall the fabulism of Leslie Nneka Arimah and the emotional timbre of Edwidge Danticat’s depictions of Haiti. And, as I suggested earlier, Xu’s Monkey in Residence dovetails with scholarly accounts of the postcolonial world, like Rastogi’s work or Kavita Daiya’s Graphic Migrations. This elastic vision of genre is one of the collection’s prime contributions to the stellar literature of migration, expatriation, and exile. Rather than assert that this work belongs to a single genre, Xu Xi illustrates that the moment demands the full voice of literature, the full chorus of our assembled genres and forms.

In gesturing toward this international literature, I do not intend to diminish the role of Hong Kong as the center of gravity in Monkey in Residence, but instead hope to contextualize the collection in a moment of literary cosmopolitanism. This move aligns with Xu’s own project. As Xu herself asks in Monkey in Residence, “Why shrink the possibilities of a large city [like Hong Kong], especially in such a globalized world?” In writing about her fascination with the “jumbled set of emotions” spurred by her early years in Hong Kong, and her keen interest in how that tumult shapes others, Xu’s cosmopolitan imagination engages with and extends the two-pronged definition of the term that Kwame Anthony Appiah charts in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers—(1.) that we have an ethical duty to others aside from ourselves and our families, and (2.) that we must take an interest in, cherish, and uplift the individuality of others and their cultural traditions. This ethic infuses Xu’s collection, and she even cites Appiah as a key thinker in the essay “背景 The View from 2010,” included in this collection.

In Monkey in Residence, Hong Kong functions as the prism that catches and disperses this energy. With her subtle humor and sly wisdom, Xu showcases each paradoxical facet of modern Hong Kong—a former British colony with democratic aspirations steadily quashed by the transition to Chinese rule—while swiveling the prism so that we might still glimpse the glints of nostalgia, hope, and disaster. The collection’s first piece, an essay entitled “Where the World Unwrapped 拆開世界,” stages Hong Kong as an epicenter for these deliberations on the ties that bind us with peers, family, neighbors, and the world. The essay’s first paragraph provides a sampler of the complex notes that recur throughout Xu’s collection—honeyed with nostalgia, but with a vinegary sharpness that awakens the senses. Introducing these conversations, Xu writes:

We were not truly native but we were resident. We were not expatriate but our passports were foreign. We were not temporary but we were not permanent. Only a few live in Hong Kong now, but we all look back at the city as home, because this was our city where the world once unwrapped all of our senses, the city whose qi still exhales a universe of dreams.

The early days of the COVID lockdowns are the context of this invocation. Through virtual platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp, Xu and former primary and secondary school classmates could convene and reflect on these questions of citizenship, belonging, and their attachments to the Hong Kong of the past and present. As Xu writes, Hong Kong is the nexus point for these discoveries: “We were all girls there once, we part-Chinese, not-quite-Chinese, locally-born other, mixed-race or Eurasian, we Portuguese, English, Indian, Laotian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Danish, Spanish.” Yet, the essay resists the saccharine, the easy yearning for the past. Here, Xu’s protean prose and formal play rill through economic privilege, multilingualism and multiculturalism, the city’s infrastructure, and waterways and swimming pools. By interrupting these meditations with photographs and the occasional footnote, Xu constellates multiple iterations of Hong Kong, their shadows, and their ripples across the decades.

The book contains other essays that chart similar intersections across space and time. In “When Your City Vanishes,” Xu uses the COVID pandemic as a pressure point, one that leverages the dissolution of time to question dreams, memories, and futurity. Xu presses her readers to consider the ways in which history, experience, and temporality form and inform each other through a keen-eyed critique of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, which Xu describes as an “excruciatingly beautiful and romantic [. . .] film [. . .] about love, obsession, and nostalgia for the way we used to be as well as the way we perhaps wish we could continue to be.” Glossing the film’s dystopian elements and its echoes of Hong Kong’s “decolonized-recolonized one-country-two-systems arrangement,” Xu’s essay moves toward a cutting, yet candid, rhetorical pronouncement: “Memory tricks you into thinking the past is like the present, doesn’t it? Yet what we think we know about life is a perpetual present tense in this deluge of knowledge, blurring conflict into a predictably repetitive cycle of I-scream-you-scream, like the song about ice cream, a sweet indulgence which, in the heat of the moment, melts and disappears.”

This hot-and-cold, danger-and-play, transience informs other pieces in the collection, as well. To linger with Xu’s nonfiction for a moment longer, the aforementioned “背景 The View from 2010” selects that year as a transtemporal launchpad. The essay’s orbital point is February 2010, when Xu returns to live in Hong Kong—“the last time I’ll do so,” she writes—in order to serve as writer-in-residence at the City University of Hong Kong (and founder of its low-res MFA program). From that vantage, the essay quantum leaps with the heart-string logic of the elegy, between recollections of the news coverage of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989, the transition from British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region in 1997, to the death of her mother in 2017, to the pro-democracy sit-ins of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. In the view from 2010, a time-hopping glance infused with the past but tinged with the future, Xu writes of what exists in Hong Kong: “A hybrid culture has evolved, one that is peculiarly apolitical but prescient in its view of the future of humanity.” Xu’s Hong Kong exists at the confluence of Western pop culture, British colonialism, Chinese autocracy, and the world’s literatures and histories; this vast repertoire of cultural artifacts allows Hong Kong to adopt a guise of apoliticism that, paradoxically, enables resiliency and resistance against the recurring forces of imperialism. Xu presents the low-residency MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong as an example of this hybridity and, in doing so, articulates a role for the arts: “We are a space that writers of all ethnicities, origins, and native tongues can choose to express themselves in English, the world’s lingua franca, even while questioning the imperialist influence of that language in global publishing.”

Never static, at once local and remote, Xu’s Hong Kong is a multiverse of timelines and experiences, inviting speculations that transcend the confines of genre and form. Indeed, part of the book’s project is to dissolve the membranes between fiction and nonfiction, to interrogate the authority and control that readers and critics grant to the narrators of short stories or the authors of essays. The collection’s speculative nonfictions smudge genres by gradating the conventions of authoritative, academic prose with the inherently fabricated nature of fiction. For Xu’s nonfictions in this collection, the aim is not to assert a narrow band of facts, but rather, to paraphrase Lee Gutkind, to use the dramatic elements of storytelling to communicate philosophies, ideas, and ways of experiencing the world.

For instance, “A Brief History of Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief by 飛蚊 FeiMan” concocts a fabricated journal, World Tongue Findings in English, and turns the conventions of citations, footnotes, literature reviews, and peer critique into a work of speculative literary scholarship that invokes the colonializing specter of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver. In a pseudo-commentary on the culture of academe, this article’s narrative of the collapse of the fabricated journal Deficit, Disquiet, & Disbelief devolves into gossip and conjecture, as the author cites a bevy of hearsay that accounts for the mysteries swirling around the publication. One example in this speculative nonfiction revolves around the anonymous editors and their ploys to increase their circulation: “Despite its [i.e., Deficit, Disquiet, & Disbelief’s] inauspicious beginnings,” the narrator intones, “the journal continued to have a highly successful run for the next few years, attracting thousands of subscribers with their giveaway of a catty of flying fish.” (Here, the essay uses one of its many footnotes to define “catty”—a “Chinese unit of measure for food, a little over a pound”—between other rumors and suppositions.) For the speaker of this speculative essay, the subscription incentive begs the question of how the editors “Anox+1 were able to acquire such a lot of fish.” By way of explanation, the article’s author reveals the source: “Eventually I located one Mr. Tseng, a Hong Kong taxi driver and avid fisherman who confirmed that his many fishing trips with his brothers and buddies Diayou (being Chinese he did not say Senkaku) always yielded an extraordinary catch.” The academic narrator of the speculative essay can “confirm” this detail—a literal instance of a fisherman’s braggadocio, replete with the local distinctions key to a cosmopolitan worldview—but somehow cannot confirm a question of forensic accounting as basic as “how the journal obtained money to pay writers.”

Gossip and conjecture: these are the narrative tools that invite speculation in Monkey in Residence, but they are also the sharpened implements of Xu’s piercing wit, her penchant for eviscerating turns of phrase, her cutting humor. In the short story “Interview,” a violinist repartees with a music journalist and pares away at the megalomania of her former friend and classmate—a volatile celebrity with a history of exploiting and abusing women violinists. When she responds to the journalist’s questions—“He told you I was Paganini’s best concubine? What is he, the pimp?”—she reveals the inherent fictionality of the interview as a genre; she is a narrator, providing but one facet of the narrative. However, other narrators in the volume’s fictions leverage their secrets as a mode of activism. In the ghost story “TST,” the disembodied narrator—the specter of a child sex-worker—recounts her encounters with johns as a warning and a call to action. “Listen to me,” the narrator says, “it’s not too late. You can still fix things. [. . .] Fix things so that girls like me can become women, need not always be enslaved, stripped, beaten, fucked, or treated like dolls, created just to satisfy impersonal lusts. You will hear us, me, one of these days, because I know you can if you try.”

These pieces transform rumors and secrets into public knowledge with wry commentaries from their perceptive narrators—a tactic that Xu brings to stories like the quiet yet jolting murder-mystery “Rhododendrons” and the probing character study “Jazz Wife.” In other stories, though, these whispered confidences turn the arc of narrative toward the humorous, the satirical. “The Youngest Child” personifies Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, and Thailand to craft a fable about regional and transnational cooperation that spans the region’s shared (yet divergent) histories. The title story, “Monkey in Residence,” is a fabulist romp in a parallel Hong Kong, set “in the spring of 2017, just after the grave sweeping 清明 festival.” Against this backdrop, the Hong Kong government establishes an endowed academic chair set to rotate through the city’s colleges and universities—the titular Monkey in Residence. Reminiscent of Mary McCathy’s academic satires, and adding in talking (and emotionally volatile) monkeys that call to mind  a Haruki Murakami story, the story pursues the jockeying for academic clout from the assembly of Fire Monkey III and his acolytes to an organization of student activists as fixated on sex as they are democracy. Through the characters’ political posturing, the exposure of systemic corruption, and a concluding gesture toward a greener future, the story’s wry reportage imagines an inclusive, habitable future, where the distinctions between the human and non-human fall away, allowing us “to tell the stories of the real heroes, even if they were just history’s accidents.”

Perhaps it is only through speculation and formal play that prose can revel in the space that Ha Jin, in The Writer as Migrant, identifies as a site of struggle for many migrant, exile, expatriate, and transnational writers. As is often the case, Ha Jin writes, for the communities represented in these literatures, “[t]he present and the future have been impaired by their displacements, and their absence from their original countries gives them nothing but pain.” Through its disavowal of traditional genres, its anchoring in a transtemporal Hong Kong, and its eager cosmopolitanism, Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations navigates these choppy waters of memory and attachment, deftly steering between the reefs of nostalgia and the political currents of the present. The fact that Xu Xi’s collection steers through these perilous waters in our present moment of postcolonial disaster—fraught as it is with the tides of COVID, global right-wing nationalist movements, misinformation, and crackdowns on democratic freedoms—demonstrates that literature still lays out the sea charts for these perilous times, and that all our genres and modes of expression set different courses toward hope and resiliency.

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