Photo credit: Paul Hilton
If you are an English writer looking for creative writing courses, be sure to check out the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) offered by City University of Hong Kong.
We caught up with Xu Xi, programme leader of Asia’s first MFA in Creative Writing and an author of nine books of fiction and essays. Her most recent novel, “The Habit of a Foreign Sky,” was short-listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. She was named, “a pioneer writer of Asia,” by New York Times and is a visiting writer or resident at many reputed Universities around the world. She holds a MFA (fiction) from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In this candid interview with Booksoarus Xu Xi talks to us about why she founded an Asian MFA, creative writing course at the Masters level and her personal journey.
Interview with Xu Xi | MFA in Creative Writing (HK)
Booksoarus: A month or two ago we saw the call for applications – “Calling Asia’s Best Writers.” Who according to you constitute Asia’s Best Writers? Is there an ideal applicant profile that excites you when you are sorting through the numerous applications that you receive?
Xu Xi: “Best” is hard to quantify, and it does come down to what we call “talent,” something equally as hard to qualify. Since we ask for three writing samples – creative piece, personal essay & critical essay – as well as letters of reference and a bachelor’s degree, the ideal applicant is someone who strikes the right kind of balance, as evidenced by all the pieces of the application.
So the creative piece is obviously a very important part. We need to be excited by the submission, which could be for any number of reasons, e.g.: in fiction we’d look for a good sense of story and well drawn character(s) but other factors such as language and originality (especially if it’s a somewhat experimental form or an obvious genre like mystery or sci-fi or historical fiction).
Perhaps the number one test for the creative submission in any genre is this: do I want to keep reading this manuscript? That’s ultimately the real test of a good piece of writing, something that makes you want to stay with the work because you sense there’s something more to come that is compelling, urgent, meaningful, surprising. Even if the main reason you keep reading is because something makes you want to give the writer the benefit of whatever doubt you might be feeling, that’s better than the manuscript you simply stop reading.
But we also want to know from the personal essay that this is a mature, independent, creative and intelligent individual, someone who has thought about what it means to be a writer, and why she or he feels the MFA might be the right path. Likewise, the critical piece is important in that we want to know the applicant is capable of postgraduate level critical work. Letters of reference can often be quite revealing – if they come from a former professor we get a good sense of the kind of student the applicant is or if from an employer or associate, we understand how the applicant is regarded in her or his professional life.
In the end though, what it comes down to is whether or not you can say – this is a writer whom our program can likely help in fulfilling her or his desires, ambitions and dreams.
Booksoarus: Let’s talk a bit about the ‘Asian focus.’ Could you de-mystify this for us? Asia is a vast land-mass and culturally it includes everything from Chinese foot-binding to kimonos and sarees to the Thai wai and encompasses attire, behavior, attitude and little nuggets of tradition that are almost entirely heterogeneous. Perhaps unlike the Western world that has, what I’d like to call, a Christian-world commonality, Asia is too diverse. So how do you bring about a writing focus about something that is so varied?
Xu Xi: The English language. That for our program is what pulls us together. Since our MFA is for writers in English, what we do is to take whatever “Asia” is true for each of us and express that in literary genre in English. So it doesn’t matter e.g.: if you are fluent in Hindi or Bahasa, or that you’re Islamic or Catholic, or what your particular ethnic mix is, or how you’ve lived in and experienced Asia . . . in the end you still have to write it in English.
Booksoarus: What prompted you to found this MFA? Give us a little back-story. Did you discover potential or were there forces of demand at work?
Xu Xi: At one level, I wanted a MFA program to exist that would have been the right one for me when I was doing my own MFA. While I think I benefitted from my own program at the Univ. of Massachusetts, I did see its limitations since the focus was very American-centric — there were two English students and we were the three “foreigners” and all the rest were Caucasian Americans. I think there was one Asian American in a previous class and we did have one student who was blind, but that was the extent of its diversity.
We also read mostly American literature, and some English. Forget Canadian, Australian, South African or any of the other Anglophone nations, never mind even Asian-American, the post-colonial English writing or world literature by writers in translation who weren’t Russian (fiction students read a lot of Chekhov) or dead. When I look at this MFA program’s student profile, I know I would have been much happier and probably more fulfilled among this much more international milieu.
But yes, I did see potential for the MFA in Asia, especially a low-residency one. There’s nothing like it in Asia and yet the market for international writers in English across Asia is relatively large and untapped. When I taught at the low-residency Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA, I was struck by the students who lived in Asia or Europe who came all the way to Vermont for residency. Several ended up working with me because of my international background. Which made me think that there was a need for a more internationally focused MFA, and Asia is of course where I come from and where I felt I might be able to make an impact.
While I think a large country like India could actually benefit from a residential, Indian MFA (such as those that exist in the universities in the Philippines for Filipino writers in English), in Hong Kong it made little sense for a MFA to only teach Hong Kong writers.
A residential MFA in a city like Hong Kong might make sense in Chinese, but much less so in English because the local population of potential writers in English is relatively small and local writing in English is historically a very marginal literature (having edited the only two historical anthologies from the mid 20th century onwards of Hong Kong writing in English, my co-editor and I both came to that conclusion).
This is much less the case in other post-colonial places like Africa, the Caribbean, India or even Singapore, which is the most comparable since that is also a city. There is a much larger corpus of English literature of Singapore than of Hong Kong.
Booksoarus: What do you think regional writers can do to make their writing internationally appealing?
Xu Xi: Write who they are and the world as they know it. In the end, the best writing is specific to the writer and what regional writers in Asia sometimes forget is that they’re not a strictly British or American (or other Anglophone country) writer. While they might well be writing into some of those literary traditions, or may even be part or all British or American, they’re actually creating a new literary tradition.
So rather than worry about trying to be “appealing” to a so-called international market, they first need to make sure they appeal to themselves and write the best book they can.
Booksoarus: There is a school of thought that believes that good writers are born and one cannot ‘teach’ writing. What do you have to say to these people? And, how important is it to ‘learn’ to write – do creative writing courses kill the spontaneity?
Xu Xi: You can’t deny talent. Someone who is born to write will figure out how to do it whether or not she or he ever goes to school for it, just because it’s in the person’s blood. But even a musical prodigy who can perform at the age of four can and will benefit from study of music. It’s not all that different for writers. You can do it on your own, or you can spend a little time listening to what those who have a proven track record have to say.
If you don’t like what you hear and figure you can do it better yourself, then by all means, you should. I think MFA’s and creative writing courses generally offer just another avenue for an aspiring writer to consider, but it’s not the only way to learn to write. In the end, most artists in any art form have to teach themselves, even if they go to school for their art.
Booksoarus: In your experience what are the biggest challenges students face during the creative writing process? Writer’s Block, not able to see the idea through all the way or merely the discipline to write?
Xu Xi: It varies with the individual writer, but probably the biggest challenge is when students simply don’t take themselves seriously enough as writers. While it can be a problem to take yourself too seriously, if you don’t take your writing seriously, then it doesn’t matter how talented or disciplined you are, you’ll never really be a writer.
Booksoarus: As an academician, is it acceptable to you when a student tells you that the only reason he or she applied for creative writing courses like the MFA is to improve his or her chance of being published? Would it bother you?
Xu Xi: No, it doesn’t especially trouble me because that is a reason some students take the MFA, and the MFA is an entry into one part of the literary world and publication. It really depends what kind of writer you want to be, and the desire to publish is natural for writers. But if publishing is all you care about, then you might miss the forest because you’re too busy counting trees.
Booksoarus: What advice would you give writers who are unable to invest in creative writing courses like the MFA and yet want to better their craft?
Xu Xi: Find a way to get your work read and critiqued. Read books about craft. Try to meet writers or form a writer’s group of some kind. Take courses online. Read and figure out what you want to write. A MFA is just ONE way to improve your writing. Be creative if you can’t afford the money or time to do a MFA by approximating as much as possible what a MFA does for a writing student.
Booksoarus: It’s been four years now. Do you feel like the conductor of an orchestra getting the writing ensemble together? Is can’t be easy putting together a programme with part-time faculty from around the world and part-time students. Tell us about the journey.
Xu Xi: Sometimes I feel like a conductor who has that orchestra doing what she wants, at other times I feel like I’m constantly in rehearsal and the orchestra just doesn’t sound quite right!
It’s happened a lot faster than I expected. While we don’t get the hundreds of applicants that long-established, mostly residential programs get, we are already seeing a rise in the quality of applicants. We can’t compete with the wealthy residential programs that give a full fellowship (tuition and living expenses or a paid teaching/research position) to every single student they accept, but we’re already competitive with the best of the low-residency programs, I feel.
Having chaired the program at Vermont and taught there for 12 years, I can say with some confidence that our students are on par with theirs, and Vermont is one of the oldest and more highly respected low-residency programs.
In fact, the faculty have been a big part of getting us off to a good start. Several well-known writers agreed to sign on even before I knew for sure that we’d get any students or what the quality of students would be like. And they’ve contributed so much to creating excellence – it’s made all the difference that our faculty hold our students to high standards and challenge and push them to work at the highest possible level while still offering encouragement.
And the enthusiasm of our students has been the best reward. Several of our students have succeeded in publishing their work, or have won literary awards and this has really been a great thing for the program. But just as important, our students and graduates have generally found the program to be a transformative experience, which is what the MFA should do for a writer.
So it’s been a challenging journey, because there were times I really wondered if things would come together, but it has.
Booksoarus: How has your personal journey been? How is life after becoming the Program Leader of Asia’s first MFA?
Xu Xi: Actually it’s only now that I can even think about that personal journey. When I started the program, I was still chairing the program at Vermont so was juggling work in opposite time zones. Plus I had two books published back to back, in 2010 and 2011, which meant I barely had time to breathe. That was probably good because all that adrenalin kept me going.
Now, I’m breathing again, and it feels rather nice. There’s still a lot to do for the MFA, and more challenges ahead, but the work-life balance is a lot better now.
For one thing, I’ve resigned from Vermont, and for another, with two books recently released and one new novel done (in manuscript) I can just concentrate on my work in progress.
Booksoarus: When do you get the time to write your own novels and the other forms of writing you pursue? Did you ever have to put your own writing on the backburner to be the frontrunner here?
Xu Xi: No. The one thing I’ve never sacrificed in my entire life is my own writing. Once I took my writing seriously as my life’s work, it was always the most important priority in my life before any job, or book marketing, or all the other distractions that life will throw your way, including family and relationships.
Being a writer is not the same as writing. You have to “be” a writer, especially once you’ve published a book or two, because that’s how your books sell and people recognize your work – by going on tours, giving readings or talks, participating in the literary circuit. But all that is meaningless if you don’t continue writing. Starting and directing the creative writing course at MFA is part of my being a writer, but it’s not about my writing.
I’ve never held any full-time job for longer than 4 years, but I’ve never stopped writing. If directing the MFA ever proved to be something that interfered with my own writing, I’d figure out how to walk away from it. But I’m almost 60 and have managed so far to write in between a pretty full life and several international moves, so I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.
Booksoarus: It’s often said that writers are the loneliest people. Is writing life really a lonely life?
Xu Xi: Yes. But if you’re really a writer, you like spending time alone, right? I always have, even when I was a child. I had to be alone to hear myself think, because that’s how you figure out what it is you need to write.
Booksoarus: What happens after the MFA? What sort of lives do your graduates lead?
Xu Xi: I think the majority just go back to whatever life they were leading and move on to whatever the next phase in that life should be. There have been a few babies born, a few moves to either a new country or back to a former home country, a few career advancements or promotions.
The advantage (to me) of the low-residency program is that our students tend to be mature individuals who have professional and personal lives. So whether they’re raising children, running a business, teaching, investing other people’s money, working as a journalist, engineer or chef, they have real lives to live.
This is a contrast to residential MFA’s where graduates often can be young, say, under 25, especially if they’ve gone into a MFA in creative writing right out of their Bachelor’s. They’re just starting their lives, which is why MFA graduates from the traditional programs can more easily stop writing because the drama of real life takes over for quite awhile, a.k.a. making a living.
But our graduates come out of the MFA and know how to fit writing into their lives a little better than when they started with us, which is the most important thing they can do.
A couple have actually used the degree to change careers, into full-time teaching at both the college and secondary levels, but the majority literally just go back to their careers and lives as (I hope) better and more serious writers.