Pub’d on China Daily: Inheriting Memories – My Feature on Kaitlin Solimine and “Empire of Glass”

China Daily just published my first feature story for the paper, an interview with Kaitlin Solimine about her debut novel Empire of Glass. It was published in the paper and also on the website. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

At the heart of Kaitlin Solimine’s lyrical debut novel Empire of Glass are relationships she first forged over two decades ago with her Chinese homestay family in Beijing.

“I hadn’t married into this family. Really, there was nothing except the happenstance of having been assigned to them. But we were very, very close,” says Solimine, who spent a high school semester living with them in 1996.

“My family was very American middle class, which meant something very different compared to what was Chinese middle class in the 1990s. Yet I was taken in. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh you’re American, how special you are.’ It was really, ‘Hey, you’re family now.'”

That intimacy deepened after a death in the family.

Just weeks into her first year in college, Solimine received a letter from her host family with a photo of a gravestone bearing the name of its matriarch Liming (her given name).

You can read the full piece here on the website. Or if you’d prefer, you can also read a PDF version of what was published on the paper this morning.

BTW, if you would like to learn more about Empire of Glass, read my interview here last year with Kaitlin Solimine for the blog.

Need a Good Summer Read? Try These 28 Books Featured on the Blog

Today Hangzhou, China will reach a sizzling 36 degrees Celsius (that’s 97 degrees Fahrenheit). When the weather heats up, I love nothing better than curling up with a good book during the summer.

I’ve featured so many great books over the years, and many of them could be the perfect companion to your summer this year.

So whether you’re chilling out on the beach or cooling down indoors, here’s my list of recommended summer reads I’ve featured here on the blog, listed in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name. (P.S.: These titles are linked to Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.)

#1: “There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan” by Yuta Aoki

Yuta Aoki’s book shares the stories of 15 different people spanning 8 nationalities who dated Japanese locals, and explores the cultural dynamics. Learn more through my interview with Yuta.

#2: “Good Chinese Wife” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

When it comes to the success of a cross-cultural relationship, does culture or personality matter more? Susan Blumberg-Kason’s gripping memoir “Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong” offers a very personal answer to that question. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

#3: “Tone Deaf in Bangkok” by Janet Brown

It’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask writer Janet Brown, who went to Thailand at age 45 and fell in love with the people and places. Learn more through my interview with Janet.


Quincy Carroll#4: “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll

This novel explores the clash between two Americans (a deadbeat and an idealist) teaching English in China, and the student who comes between them. Learn more through my interview with Quincy.

#5: “The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” by Susan Chan

“The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” is an easy breezy love story that reads like one of my favorite romantic comedies on the screen. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

#6: “Tiger Tail Soup” by Nicki Chen

In “Tiger Tail Soup”, Nicki Chen transports us to a place you don’t often find in wartime China literature – Fujian Province’s Gulangyu Island. Learn more through my interview with Nicki.

#7: “A Bollywood Affair” by Sonali Dev

“A Bollywood Affair” is such a unique and enchanting book that, even if you’ve sworn off the romance genre, you must read it. Learn more through my interview with Sonali.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes#8: “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes

“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes links two women across centuries to a silk embroidered sleeve in a story of love, courage and humanity. Learn more through my interview with Kelli.

#9: “Love Me Anyway” by Tiffany Hawk

Tiffany Hawk offers an inside look into being a flight attendant — along with some AMWF romance — in her coming-of-age debut novel, “Love Me Anyway.” Learn more through my interview with Tiffany.


#10: “Pearl River Drama: Dating in China” by Ray Hecht

Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life, and ultimately he comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

#11: “South China Morning Blues” by Ray Hecht

Through 12 viewpoints, South China Morning Blues takes readers on a tour of the underside of the expat scene in China. It’s a fresh take on modern China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

The Porcelain Thief#12: “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu

“The Porcelain Thief” deftly combines Huan Hsu’s personal experiences as a Chinese American in China, family stories, and his quest for buried porcelain. Learn more through my interview with Huan.

#13: “A Field Guide to Happiness” by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming’s new book “A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up” reads like a love letter to Bhutan. Learn more through my interview with Linda.

Here Comes the Sun by Leza Lowitz#14: “Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras” by Leza Lowitz

Leza Lowitz shares her emotional journey towards marriage and motherhood in Japan (as well as opening a yoga studio in Tokyo) in “Here Comes the Sun”. Learn more through my interview with Leza.

#15: “My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy” & #16: “My Japanese Husband (Still) Thinks I’m Crazy” by Grace Mineta

If you’re a fan of graphic novels and you’re curious about Japan, you don’t want to miss these charming comics by Grace Mineta. Learn more through my interviews (here and here) with Grace.

#17: “Parsley & Coriander” by Antonella Moretti

“Parsley & Coriander” is a delightful novel that captures the spirit of finding your own path in China, especially as an expat woman. Learn more through my interview with Antonella.

#18: “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a dark, powerful tale of an AMWF family in America facing a tragedy. Learn more through my interview with Celeste.

#19: “The Empress of Bright Moon” by Weina Dai Randel

Weina Randel has crafted a beautifully written, engaging and suspenseful tale of how one of the greatest rulers in China came to rise. You can learn more about this second chapter of the duology by reading Weina’s guest post on sex education during Tang Dynasty China.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel#20: “The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel

“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel, about the rise of China’s young Empress Wu, truly reads like a Tang Dynasty-era Cinderella story. Learn more through my interview with Weina.

#21: “The Secret of the Nightingale Palace” by Dana Sachs

The romance at the heart of this novel — which relates to its intriguing title — just stole my heart away. Plus, the book explores a side of World War II that we all too often forget — the US internment of Japanese Americans. Learn more through my interview with Dana.

The Good Shufu#22: “The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater

“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater is a heartfelt story about love & life abroad that proves sometimes those unexpected detours lead us to incredible joy. Learn more through my interview with Tracy.


#23: “Empire of Glass” by Kaitlin Solimine

“Empire of Glass” is stunning for its lyrical prose and unique in that it’s presented as a “translation” of the story of Li-Ming and her husband Wang. Learn more through my interview with Kaitlin.

Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self#24: “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon’s memoir “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” offers a personal view on Asian masculinity in the West — and is a book you must read. Learn more through my interview with Alex.

Atom Yang Red Envelope#25: “Red Envelope” by Atom Yang

Thanks to Atom Yang’s exceptional writing and sense of humor, Red Envelope is a fun, romantic romp through the most wonderful time of the year for Chinese. Learn more through my interview with Atom.

#26: “Ferry Tale: A Hong Kong Love Story” by Shannon Young

It’s as enchanting as any big-screen rom com – but better, thanks to the Hong Kong setting and charming AMWF couple. Learn more through this post on Ferry Tale.

#27: “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia” edited by Shannon Young

For me, this is the rarest of all anthologies. I actually devoured it from cover to cover in record time, and found something to love in all the essays — regardless of the story. You’ll also find my essay “Huangshan Honeymoon” featured in this collection. Learn more about my essay and 12 other essays you’ll want to read.

Year of Fire Dragons#28: “Year of Fire Dragons” by Shannon Young

“Year of Fire Dragons” details the life-changing year Shannon Young spent in Hong Kong while in a long-distance relationship with her Eurasian boyfriend. Learn more through my interview with Shannon.

“Empire of Glass” by Kaitlin Solimine – an Interview

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.

It is an honor and pleasure to introduce you to Kaitlin Solimine and Empire of Glass through this interview.

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 can learn more about Kaitlin Solimine and the novel at her website, follow Kaitlin on Twitter, and find Empire of Glass on, where your purchases help support this blog.

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, where your purchases help support this blog.