Access: Thirteen Tales by Xu Xi
Signal 8 Press (November 2011)
Reviewed by Sybil Baker
For most of her writing career, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s most eminent writers, has explored the tensions and possibilities of straddling East and West, more specifically Hong Kong and the United States. Xu Xi’s most recent novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), which was a finalist for the Man Asian Prize, and her collection of essays Evanescent Isles (2008), focus on a Hong Kong in transition, a Hong Kong often misrepresented or appropriated by the Western media and the expatriates who live there, knowing little of the language or culture. Her most recent book Access: Thirteen Tales continues this conversation of what it means to live in a globalized world, where characters, often constrained by their circumstances, work to find “access” to emotional and physical connections in a variety of ways.
With emphasis on “tale” rather than story, the collection focuses on an urgency to share an experience rather than on a character’s personal psychological transformation. The stories revolve around a theme, or question, or idea of “access”—who has it, who doesn’t, and in what ways—and are divided into tall tales, circular tales, fairy tales, old wives' tales, and beastly tales. The tales often (but not always) concern women of Chinese or mixed ethnicity negotiating a tricky terrain of sexuality, work, aging, and globalization. One feels that these tales are told to allow readers to commune with the characters, to enter a world they may not normally access, rather than being designed to extract the readers’ sympathy or pity.
In an interview about the collection in Time Out Hong Kong, Xu Xi says “Short stories tend to be a bit perfect, while tales feel more sprawling, more saga-like, more like the old-fashioned stories.” In that sense, these tales may have more in common with Chaucer in their breadth than in the carefully crafted fiction often represented in Best American Short Stories and other “best of” anthologies. (That said, the subtly complex “Famine” in the Fairy Tales section, a story about a woman’s desire to live her life fully after her parents' death, was an O. Henry Prize winner). Like the jazz music Xu Xi loves and writes about in Evanescent Isles, these stories can be read as variations on its theme of access, and, like jazz, their deceptively loose and open feeling belies an intelligent attention to technique and structure.
In the worlds of these tales, 9/11 represents one of many examples in which access is restricted. While the “war” is mentioned obliquely in several of the stories, 9/11 is dealt with specifically in the title story, “Access,” which also appears under Fairy Tales. The main character, Elna, living in New York and caring for her aging mother, opens an online bank account that mysteriously doubles her money until she, in the virtual world at least, is a multimillionaire. However, because the money is not real, she can’t withdraw it. “Elna thought about all the access denied to her and people everywhere, how so much of it was simply beyond ordinary control.…How they would never understand…the way they should but couldn’t because the real war, the one true, never-ending war, was right here and also faraway, out of their range of vision, and fought by those who might never, ever, in their wildest imaginings, be able to open a bank account anywhere in the real or virtual world.” Elna’s reflections in this section represent one of the central themes of the collection, which concerns the haves and have-nots in a globalized society.
Work is explored in its many levels, from top executives to mid-level managers, to a young masseuse to an exotic dancer and a prostitute. In “Servitude” (from Circular Tales), a retired widower still works part-time for his former boss, who has Alzheimer’s. Their relationship allows Chung access to the rich and powerful, providing him with his own tales he narrates to his dead wife. When he is relieved of those duties, Chung is bereft; without his servitude to his former boss, he has no stories, and without stories, he has nothing to communicate to his dead wife.
In the section Old Wives Tales, women nearing fifty deal with their sexuality in often humorous ways. In “Available,” Jeena and Dennis seem mismatched but continue to see each other out of inertia and availability rather than any true desire. As their relationship progresses, Dennis calls Jeena, who lives in Singapore, from the States. Jeena reflects: “It has been a long time—years—since anyone had sprung for long distance. It was obscurely present, like catching whiffs of girlhood, a time before men occupied such wholly valuable mental space, rent-free.” Witty observations such as these keep the tales fresh and from lapsing into myopic melancholy or victimhood.
In the final tale, “Lady Day,” a revenge tale, the “beast” is a hermaphrodite in business for herself as a high-end call girl. While she has gained success and independence in her field, she is still haunted by a vicious rape at a boys' boarding school and decides to seek revenge. The story, and the collection, end with Lady Day, named after Billie Holiday, exacting her own deliciously horrific punishment on her schoolmates, a contrapresso that would make Dante proud.
What Xu Xi accomplishes in these tales is not just meditations, riffs, and explorations on the varieties of access: emotional, financial, territorial, physical. Ultimately it is the reader who is gifted access—to a transnational world that transcends personal experiences and boundaries through tales told with expansiveness and wit, without falling into sentimentality.