Xu Xi: Habit of a Foreign Sky

Novelist Xu Xi reads an excerpt from Habit of a Foreign Sky before an appreciative Anna Sherman in Hong Kong on Oct. 7, 2010. (1 min., 53 sec.)

HONG KONG, October 7, 2010 - Suffering, innocence and self-discovery—these are the themes of Hong Kong-based author Xu Xi's latest novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky, as Xu made clear at a book reading and discussion at Asia Society Hong Kong Centre.  

Habit of a Foreign Sky takes its title from the Emily Dickinson poem, "Away From Home" and is set in 1997 Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Manhattan; as the author explained: "This was right after Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China, which was an 'unmoored' time for Hong Kong. This was followed shortly thereafter by the SARS outbreak and the Asian financial crisis, and these events were front of mind as I was writing. I write very contemporaneously. I'm always thinking about what has recently happened in the world that I am trying to document."

Xu's protagonist, Gail, is a mixed-race single mother who loses both her only child and her mother in the span of two years. Untethered from the future she has imagined and her connections to the past, she is left with nothing but a hard-won career at a global investment bank.

As Xu's "women's novel," Habit of a Foreign Sky centers around the relationship between Gail and her mother. "The suffering Gail encounters forces her to confront her past; her mother's rather seedy past. When Gail was younger, she believed her mother to be a dance hall hostess, but as she grows older she realizes her mother was a prostitute and that in fact she, Gail, is an illegitimate child. Her father was a member of the Flying Tigers, the American volunteer pilots; he is conspicuous by his absence in her life.

This illegitimacy is something Gail has always hidden—she has buried all that in a very respectable life. But something then opens up—in losing everything that is familiar, she is forced then to confront not only her mother's life but also who she herself is. There is a release in her as a result of all this tragedy. The realization she comes to is that her life is a vast comedy of wasted effort."

The novel also facilitated Xu's exploration of the masculine and feminine worlds her female characters inhabit, and the "reinvention" these women undertake when moving between the two: "I worked for 18 years in corporate life, in some rather masculine industries. I was often the only woman on the management team. I found that women behaved and communicated one way in work situations and very differently when with their girlfriends. There is something different about what happens to women when they are out in the masculine world compared with their more feminine world. There are a number of scenes in the novel with the mother and her old girlfriends—all of whom are former dance hall hostesses or prostitutes—that enabled me to explore how differently they think about, and behave with, men."

One of the recurring metaphors is the loss of the protagonist's watch at the beginning of the novel: "Hong Kong has been described as a place of transit, where everything is fluid: Time, boundaries, relationships. The novel is also set in a time of great uncertainty: No one was sure of the impact the financial crisis would have on Hong Kong. The main character spends the whole novel not knowing what time it is, because time doesn't really matter anymore. With Gail's losses come a need to revisit and relearn new patterns of behavior. To a certain extent she makes peace with the events of her past. But I am not sure she actually finds herself by the book's end. Resolution doesn't happen so quickly in life."

Reported by Natali Pearson, Asia Society Hong Kong Center