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Fri, Dec 09, 2011
China Daily/ANN
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No pause at menopause
by Chitralekha Basu

Chinese-American novelist Xu Xi's new book is a collection of 13 short stories, titled Access, in which the distinguished academic, author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies about Hong Kong is largely concerned with middle age.

Her band of menopausal women - who appear as central characters in most of these tales - are often angsty and insecure as they teeter on the brink of losing husbands/boyfriends, jobs, security and the meaning of life. But they are also capable of rising above their situations - sometimes, inexplicably, reconciling with them.

For most of these women - often confident, sassy and powerful, even if they might have their unguarded moments - there's no pausing at menopause.

"Perhaps the stories reflect the fact that I'm 57," Xu says, in a phone call from Hong Kong. The woman, who "inhabited the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong and the South Island of New Zealand" until about two years ago, is more or less stationed in Hong Kong now. That's to be close to her twin concerns - a 92-year-old mother suffering from Alzheimer's and a fledgling writing school focused on writing from Asia (see sidebar).

"I'm around people nearing retirement age. I'm interested in what aging does to the body, mind and spirit," Xu says.

For some of her women protagonists, menopause seems to accelerate desire, and how! They love their husbands but sleep with their friends' husbands, without apology (in the story Anon). They take off for Europe to have clandestine rendezvous with their boyfriends who are married to someone else, but when the date does not show up, they take a walk down the back streets of Stockholm, reflecting on the way their lives have panned out (Iron Light).

There is a lot of sex, and it comes in various forms, sometimes violent, illicit and even incestuous.

"There's always a lot of sex in my novels," Xu says, laughing. "It's probably the reflection of a world in which nothing sexual is held sacred anymore, the way it was before the coming of the Internet."

Her engagement with sexuality - which Xu says began with a curiosity to find out about unusual sexual phenomena when she was still quite young - has opened up newer vistas, pushing her to explore spaces in which desire blurs the lines between gender identities.

"What gender we are is not a very clear-cut idea anymore, physically or otherwise," Xu says. "We have allowed homosexuals to come out. Women are no longer just seen as baby-making machines.

"This new openness has changed our ideas of society. Now we can use sexuality as a tool to explore humanity a bit more provocatively. It's one part of ourselves we're no longer totally in control of."

In the story Lady Day, the protagonist's apparently aberrant sexuality is a "deformity" that sets off a chain of personal disasters - being disowned by family and abused by bullies in a British public school - but is turned into a weapon, a source of power, later in life.

As a posh hermaphrodite prostitute who services business tycoons and Saudi princes in her plush apartment not too far away from Wall Street in New York, Lady Day lives life on her own terms, even as her high-profile clients take a tumble after a journalist runs an expose. She even gets her revenge on the high school bullies.

The great thing about Xu's protagonists is that none of them ends up a loser, although they could easily have done so, as the situations they find themselves in are potentially lethal.

In Crying With Audrey Hepburn, a danseuse past her prime is relegated to taking part in cheap striptease shows. She had married for love, but her dancer husband could not cope with the strains of having to prostitute his art and committed suicide. Her solitary existence is fraught with longing as well as an understated sense of betrayal.

"But even she doesn't feel like it's the most terrible thing to have happened to her," Xu says.

"She's not unhappy with her life. There is a sense of being at peace with her state."

Xu's protagonists are as disparate as they come - a masseur, an MIT graduate-turned-gambling pro, a 75-year-old proprietor of a New York-based financial magazine trying to hang on to the old order while coping with the tide of new-age marketing strategies.

The settings vary, too. They shift from a sprawling house with an un-weeded garden on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island to the opulently laid-out Plaza Suite in New York. Often, the setting becomes a character invested with a role.

Hong Kong, of course, remains the pivot. It's where Xu keeps coming back in her stories, just as she does in real life.

Born to Chinese-Indonesian parents - a businessman and a pharmacist, who always encouraged her to write and indulged her curiosity about things - Xu grew up in Tsim Sha Tsui district.

Although the city has featured both as backdrop and theme in most of her previous works - Evanescent Isles, Overleaf Hong Kong, The Unwalled City, Hong Kong Rose, Chinese Walls - Xu finds Hong Kong an inexhaustible repository of stories.

The most significant change since Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland in 1997, Xu says, is that "Hong Kong feels like it's lost its way. It probably needs 'access'".

Hong Kong is also something of "a cliche in the Western world", she says.

"It is associated with cheap plastic flowers from the 1960s. Whatever informs our image of places also misinforms our ideas about them. It's this difference that's interesting to watch."

For her, watching Hong Kong seems like a lifelong occupation.


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