Habit of a Foreign Sky: Finding Identity After Loss

Xu Xi's new novel explores personal tragedy, single motherhood

In New York on Nov. 8, Xu Xi shares how her fascination with the hardship of single mothers' lives led to her new book Habit of a Foreign Sky. (1 min., 50 sec.)

NEW YORK, November 8, 2010 -  "That was the second time I've been called a vagabond recently, so it must be a new identity I have assumed." Xu Xi's opening statement at a reading and discussion of her new book, Habit of a Foreign Sky, set the tone for a thought-provoking evening at Asia Society's New York headquarters at which the author was joined by Tokyo-based freelance editor Anna Sherman, the editor of her novel.

Xu's new novel addresses multiple personal and social issues present in our increasingly globalized world through the main character, Gail.  A successful businesswoman in her forties, Gail finds herself completely detached and alone after all of her close family members have tragically died and her husband has left her. The novel finds her at the brink of a new life of personal discovery, making peace with her past and facing an uncertain future.

Regarding her businesswoman heroine, Xu mentioned she "wanted a non-artistic character—I'm tired of all the artists, I already know them. I wanted to try to make someone like (a businesswoman) real on the page."

After the reading, Xu and Sherman spoke about both the overt and subtle themes in the book. The discussion ranged from questions on feminism and social class to language and identity. Gail's biracial background plays an important role in her identity and development. As a Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong who has traveled extensively, Xu's personal experience with identity has contributed to a realistic portrait of a woman expressed through language, image, and roots. "This rather strange sense of who you are gets into a lot of my work... and Gail is grappling with who she is, " Xu confided.

As a successful businesswoman, Gail also maneuvers the complicated corporate world whose social structures also seep into Gail's family home in the relationship with her domestic helper, Conchita. Placing Conchita as a "moral center" in the piece and portraying her living conditions shows the complicated world of domestic workers from the Philippines working in Hong Kong and the complex relationship with their employers.

In a world where women's careers have and can take over their lives, Xu questions what it is that some of these businesswomen really want. Women who have chosen a "superwoman" role frequently face isolation, monotony, and personal stagnation. "Is this what feminism was for? Because I am an ardent feminist and no, it has to be something else, I have to work it out."

Reported by Sumie García Hirata