There’s something inherently powerful in cross-cultural relationships and exchanges.
When I think back to my formative first years here in China – before I met my husband Jun — I’m also struck by the fact that many of the people closest to me then still remain a part of my life. They were the ones who helped me go beyond the guidebooks and primers on Chinese culture, the people who made China personal for me. To this day, I still consider these people my Chinese “brothers” and “sisters”.
For Kaitlin Solimine, the relationships she forged during a homestay experience in Beijing (her first foray into China) set the stage for her literary debut, Empire of Glass. In particular, she became close to her homestay “Chinese father” (a man she still calls “Baba” to this day) and soon that closeness allowed her the opportunity to hear his family stories. This surprising intimacy — along with what Kaitin calls “the promise and also the potential cultural miscommunications that could result” — ultimately inspired her to write Empire of Glass.
Empire of Glass – which spans the Cultural Revolution up to modern times – stands apart from many novels about China for a simple reason: it is presented as a translation by an American named “Lao K”. Lao K herself is one of the actors in the story, a young woman who invariably becomes a part of the narrative she is attempting to illuminate for foreign readers, the epic story of Li-Ming and her husband Wang, filled with love, drama and tragedy.
Moreover, Empire of Glass is stunning for its lyrical prose. Every sentence is beautifully crafted with imagery that captures China in ways that will surprise and delight you (“I witnessed hutong alleyways paved over by four-lane highways, a landscape of construction cranes pocking the horizon with hungry, steel arms”). Anyone who loves literary fiction about China will savor each page and paragraph in Empire of Glass.
Here’s Kaitlin’s bio from Goodreads:
Kaitlin Solimine holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA from the University of Southern California, both in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on Chinese language, culture, and history. She studied international relations at Beijing University as a Harvard-Yenching Scholar, wrote and edited the travel series, Let’s Go: China (St. Martin’s Press), and received a Fulbright creative grant to research her forthcoming first novel, Empire of Glass. At the 2010 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she was the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction. She received an MFA in writing from UC-San Diego, where she also taught undergraduate writing. An excerpt from Empire of Glass won the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award, judged by Colson Whitehead. Another excerpt, ‘Thoughts of Sinking,’ is featured in Kartika Review. She is a Huffington Post contributor and columnist at The World of Chinese Magazine. She co-founded HIPPO Reads, a literary startup focused on curating and delivering high quality, previously published content with an academic bent. After recently living in Singapore, she moved to San Francisco where she was a 2016 SF Grotto Writing Fellow. Empire of Glass is her first novel.
You conceived of this novel based on your homestay experience in China as well as your relationship with your Chinese father, who you still call “Baba” to this day. Could you tell us a little more about your inspiration for the novel?
I was living with Baba during the summer of 2005 while conducting research for my master’s thesis (on the socio-cultural impact of American baseball in China). Most of the day, it was just the two of us, sharing a meal, watching wushu dramas on CCTV, going for walks in the park after dinner. I knew, already, that our relationship was not typical—he is 40 years my elder and we aren’t related by blood. Yet, here I was in his home, hanging my underwear to dry, sharing meals, chatting about life, politics, and my research. He began sharing some stories with me, showing me old photographs from his life. While none of the stories in Empire of Glass are true to Baba’s history, there are a few small geographical details I’ve chosen to honor him with (e.g., there is a tree he called a “soap tree” in his hometown, one that dropped astringent seed pods used locally when washing clothes). The largest inspiration for the novel was simply the strange intimacy of our relationship, the promise and also the potential cultural miscommunications that could result.
The stories your Chinese father told you had never been shared with his own daughter. How did that impact your approach to writing the novel?
It’s funny—I think Baba didn’t share the stories with me because he trusted me especially but because he was, like many do in retirement, reflecting about his life, its path, at the very time I was living with him. He was excited that I cared to listen and to travel with him to his hometown (which I did during my Fulbright in 2007). He didn’t share these stories with his daughter likely only due to a logistical inability—she was very busy and also, as most children are with their parents, not particularly interested in his past. As an outsider to the family and China, I also found some of the historical and cultural elements more interesting than his daughter likely would have. That said, I was very aware, in writing the novel, of deeply fictionalizing the stories so as not to have any resemblance to the real “Baba” in my life. He and his daughter both knew of my novel and my Chinese sister even said that I should add some romance and sex to ensure the story was interesting (I didn’t add enough of the latter!).
Could you talk about your decision to present the novel as an American’s translation of a diary written by a Chinese woman named Li-Ming?
While both researching and writing the novel, I knew that my outsider status (both with my family and in China) was a blessing and a curse. Being an outsider meant I may be able to see things native Chinese didn’t see as clearly about their own culture and also provided for a necessary cross-cultural conversation; however, it also meant that, in writing a Chinese story (that of Baba and Li-Ming) as a foreigner, I was enacting a project of cultural appropriation in that I was assuming I could adequately tell the “native Chinese” story. I knew that was impossible, inappropriate, and also, that I didn’t want to do that. What compelled me to write the book was always the relationship of Lao K and her Chinese family. I knew that she would have her own cultural and racial biases, and that she was potentially (and historically, when framed within American cultural imperialism) dangerous (in that she could erase or re-frame important Chinese cultural elements). But at the same time, I believed this relationship, and her desire to “translate” the story, was a compelling frame through which readers could approach a personal history. In truth, any fiction project, the act of inhabiting a character, of bringing that character’s life to the page, comes with a certain responsibility, complexity, and danger. I wanted the frame of Empire of Glass to reflect that wider examination as well.
Why did you title the novel Empire of Glass?
Earlier drafts of the novel were called “The Soap Tree” (a reference to the tree in Baba’s hometown which played a much larger role in those drafts). As the novel moved away from that geography and plot, I was drawn to the glass grinding profession of Baba, his father, and uncles. The title was taken from a line in the novel: “His father: the farmer’s son who learned a trade as best he could, who built from wide country hands a quiet empire of glass, now living alone, impoverished, in his hometown’s granary, sleeping beside well-fed rats and cockroaches.” I liked not only the sound of the phrase but also the way it reflected the fragility of modern China, of how far China has come and yet, like any nation and culture, how easily it is that the façade of a prosperous or promising life could be shattered. Similarly, the reflective quality of glass relates to the translator’s role in the book, so I thought the revised title was a useful reference to that as well.
Your novel references the poetry of the enigmatic 9th Century Chinese poet Han Shan throughout the story. Could you talk about why you include Han Shan in Empire of Glass?
I find novel writing such a bizarrely personal and yet also inexplicable process. Han Shan would never have entered the novel if I hadn’t decided to attend a poetry talk (which was way outside my writing wheelhouse!) while at the Bread Loaf conference in Vermont (a magical few weeks!). Arthur Sze, an incredible poet who led the talk, asked the class if anyone could read, in Mandarin, a poem by Han Shan so we could examine the language therein. I bashfully volunteered and Arthur was kind enough to assist me with a few words I didn’t know. In reading the poem, and in the subsequent analysis, I was very drawn to Han Shan’s clear, natural language choices, as well as the Taoist philosophies he encounters in his writing. I began researching him and knew that he would become a central figure to the characters in the book, particularly Li-Ming who already had a lyrical, naturalist’s heart. I was also interested by the fact that Han Shan played a role in the writing of many of the Beat writers (namely Kerouac and Gary Snyder). I wanted to allow a woman (both Li-Ming as a character and me as author) to encounter Han Shan’s work and digest it’s application to female existence more widely (something the Beats hadn’t done as fully in their examinations).
The press release on your novel notes Empire of Glass “illuminates the possibilities in cross-cultural connection, but also the complications, even violence, inherent in these relationships”. What do you think are some of the complications inherent in cross-cultural connections?
That’s a great, and necessary, question. When I referenced the violence, I was especially speaking of cultural imperialism (the way in which a culture can subsume another—whether in a literal act of violence, such as war, or via stealthier elements like capitalism or pop culture). In the case of the rape of “American Nurse” (spoiler alert!), I was intending to subvert a much more privileged narrative of the Western man having sexual power over the Asian woman. Of course, this was complicated by Baba’s own virginity at the time and the reader’s questioning of what lens through which we are viewing this re-telling.
In terms of the complications within a more intimate relationship, I think one’s cultural perspective can often cause unintended misunderstandings or miscommunications, and it can be incredibly difficult to love empathetically when also balancing differences in world perspectives or even the way in which a thought is framed. For example, because Chinese language itself is so grammatically straightforward (and lacking conjugation), a lot of non-Chinese speakers will find a Chinese person speaking English to be really curt, almost forceful. That could lead to a lot of misunderstandings about Chinese culture or judgments drawn based simply on the way in which the language itself is constructed.
At the same time, in the West, for example, we often think love needs to be expressed physically or verbally. It took me a long time to realize that my Chinese father expressed his love for me by anxiously requiring me to check in with him frequently when I was away from home or by preparing my favorite meal. He may not hug me when we say good-bye, but his love is expressed in a way that feels appropriate for him and his upbringing. Understanding and accepting his form of love was an important step toward overcoming a cultural misunderstanding that otherwise may have driven a wedge between us.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your novel?
As I wrote the novel, I was particularly drawn to Li-Ming’s intended lessons of slowing down and paying attention. I hope readers find moments of reflection and of clarity in not only the text itself but also in their own lives. There is a shared human experience that cuts across culture, one that I hope the novel portrays. And in the end, I hope readers realize that everything—this book, life in general—is all, like Han Shan and his laughing poetry, nonsense!
A huge thanks to Kaitlin for doing this interview! Once again, you can learn more about Kaitlin Solimine and the novel at her website, follow Kaitlin on Twitter, and find Empire of Glass on Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.