Short speech delivered on Thursday 7 March 2019, at the 2019 Newman Festival (7-8 March 2019, University of Oklahoma):
First, I must say that I am very honoured to be invited to be one of the jurors of the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature 2019, focusing on poetry. I didn’t need to think twice in accepting the invitation, for I knew right away who I would be nominating—a Hong Kong writer I grew up reading; one whose creative and experimental storytelling, linguistic innovation, sense of humour and wonder and curiosity have touched me for years; a Hong Kong writer whose Hong Kong is at once relatable, fantastical and floating, evolving.
Both Xi Xi’s prose and fiction have inspired my own writing over the years. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, I wrote a short story modelled on Xi Xi’s A Girl Like Me. My story centred on the experience of a young woman working in a typical Hong Kong office spending her days in a cubicle that is both a prison and a sanctuary. Xi Xi does not always write from the perspective of women, of course—her range is too great for that and her concerns and interests too broad—but her writings that do explore the daily lives of women and their interior thoughts and feelings have, no doubt, given voice to many women and emboldened them to start writing themselves. And Xi Xi’s poetry about the small, often ephemeral, things that make life more delightful and contemplative, the people she meets, the places she frequents, the tales of seemingly insignificant individuals—what we call 小城故事 (small city stories)—have touch that is simultaneously light and profound. Xi Xi’s approach to poetry has also informed my own verse: to take inspiration from what can be seen, concretely felt, happily or patiently experienced—to take inspiration from life and living itself. Also, when I was an undergraduate student, I did my final-year translation project on Xi Xi’s My City, spending months on the text with my supervisor Diana Yue, who was the translator of Xi Xi’s Flying Carpet.
Still, for all the deep impression Xi Xi has had on my own work, I don’t think I am actually the most qualified person to sing her works’ praises. Xi Xi is a hugely respected and beloved writer in Hong Kong, and also in Taiwan and China, having amassed a large and faithful readership over a long career. Many people, including some of my colleagues and friends, and not least Ho Fuk Yan and Jennifer Feeley, who are sitting here alongside me, have studied and written engagingly and authoritatively about Xi Xi’s myriad works. I have to admit I felt unqualified to be Xi Xi’s nominator for the Newman Prize. I sensed that in front of all these other experts and close readers of Xi Xi, I would, as the Chinese say, only 班門弄斧 (to talk out of turn). I hope that my passion for Xi Xi’s work, speaking to the lay reader’s admiration, might make up for whatever holes there might be in my scholarly appreciation of it. And of course, I would never pass up an opportunity to make Xi Xi’s work more visible and accessible to new audiences, even if the process might have been a bit overwhelming for me.
And it must all have been even more overwhelming for Xi Xi. On Tuesday 9 October 2018, after a long Skype meeting with my fellow jurors, I learned that Xi Xi was named the winner of the latest Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. And I was tasked with checking that Xi Xi would be willing and able to attend the award ceremony in the States less than six months later. To be completely honest, the award ceremony and its associated events did not loom too large in my mind at the time. I hadn’t given them too much thought but was focusing rather on the jurors’ meeting, as I was simply happy to be taking part in the nomination process, as I think Xi Xi was too.
In Hong Kong alone, Xi Xi has declined a number of awards from literary and cultural organisations as well as honorary degrees from local universities, because she has taken the general stance of not attending award ceremonies, even if they are specifically organised for her. Xi Xi has the admirable aura and attitude of writers of an earlier time, when the obligation was first and foremost to writing itself, to the words on the page, and to committing one’s imagination to paper, to later be shared with her readers. This is on contrast to today’s writers who, if I permit myself to be a bit unkind, feel the urge to go public and scream insecurely for attention. Imagine my sense of trepidation, then, when having to call up Ho Fuk Yan, Xi Xi’s friend, editor and long-time literary collaborator, at the ungodly hour of 11:00 pm to see if she would accept the award. To my great relief, Xi Xi’s response, about ten minutes later, was a firm Yes. She said she would come to Oklahoma to accept the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature herself, very much like Mrs Dalloway would go to buy flowers herself.
I can’t express with words strong enough how grateful I was to receive Xi Xi’s positive response that night. And I can’t stress strongly enough how grateful I am, right now, to be seeing her here, surrounded by people who value her work and her, herself. In an interview in 1976, Xi Xi said that ‘whenever there are people caring for poetry, discussing it, poetry will continue to develop, to survive’.
Lastly, I would like to read a poem from Not Written Words, translated by Jennifer, to demonstrate Xi Xi’s subversive, bold and yet also playful take on the self-regard of women:
Many a Lady
It’s common knowledge that
Many a lady
Has something weighing on her mind
Finding Prince Charming
Can’t hold a candle to climbing Maoshan
To track down the Taoist True Man of the Primordial Unity
Blossom of lotus, three leaves of the selfsame plant
To newly mold each miss and madam
Pluck a rib from one and all, and give them back to Adam