My island home
What does a tiny, sparsely populated plot in the Caribbean have in common with Hong Kong? You might be surprised - as Xu Xi discovered
'FLUX IS CULTURE. Culture is flux.' Kwame Dawes held us enthralled with his refrain. We were on the island of St Martin, contemplating the state and future of Caribbean and global literature. Dawes, a Ghanaian who grew up in Jamaica, has lived in Britain, Canada and now the US. He's an internationally acclaimed poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic, fiction writer and educator.
The occasion was the third annual St Martin book fair and literary festival, to which I'd been invited to speak on 'writing home from foreign'. This tantalisingly poetic topic was set for me by Lasana Sekou, St Martin's irrepressible literary impresario who's a remarkable poet and writer and was recently writer-in-residence at Baptist University.
This year's theme for the three-day event was 'the national book is universal'. Around me were poets, writers and thinkers from all over the English- and French-speaking Caribbean. I was being invited to rethink flux, a condition that epitomises our global existence. Dawes' naming of flux as culture rang true.
What could I, a writer in English from Hong Kong, possibly have to say to these people? The Caribbean gave the world two Nobel laureates, Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, as well as a significant literary tradition in English and other languages - not to mention Bob Marley. Hong Kong's literary status in Chinese or English is hardly as stellar. And I represent a minority-language literature by a minority people of China in the post-colonial tradition. 'National' I'm not.
My best starting point, I decided, would be St Martin itself. This is the smallest island in the world to be divided between two colonisers, the Netherlands and France, and remains a territory of both nations. It covers only about 96sqkm, and the population numbers about 70,000 - although it comprises more than 80 nationalities. You can use euros in the French north and Antillean guilders in the Dutch south. But US dollars, which people seem to prefer, are freely used island-wide. The economy is stable, fuelled by tourism. The 'putonghua' is, surprisingly, English, although everyone appears to speak multiple tongues, including Dutch, French, various Caribbean dialects and other languages. St Martin has a university, several newspapers and radio stations, and a literary press that publishes Caribbean literature and promotes a nascent and growing national literature. All of the above function primarily or partly in English. Its literature is informed by the literary and linguistic traditions of the Caribbean and Africa. This political and cultural anomaly is another Hong Kong, with Caribbean characteristics.
My city, I finally declared - to what proved a gracious, attentive, intellectually curious and receptive audience - was as anomalous and hybrid as St Martin appeared to be. Few of the majority people of African descent were born in Africa, just as much of our Chinese population was born in Hong Kong and not on the mainland. Their cosmopolitan culture bore similarities to ours, and surely informs their literature, as ours does. And their odd, political situation might mean a national identity that could be in flux for a long time, just as ours is.
What struck me most was that the inhabitants think of themselves as belonging to St Martin, as opposed to considering themselves Dutch or French, which is their nationality. Locals here have long qualified Chinese identity as Hong Kong Chinese and continue to do so.
But part of my charge was to talk about what and how I write. I read a brief excerpt from a story, Pineapple Upside Down Bird, in which a character says to her sister, a writer, that one need never leave home to write about it. This is, of course, the complete opposite of my writing life. Hey, St Martin, I said, maybe that's true if you come from a nation, but we former and current colonials are perhaps a little more restless. Adopting foreign tongues as our own - whether English, French, Dutch or Putonghua - must further complicate the matter.
I also introduced our history and Anglophone literature, drawing parallels with St Martin's situation, and added that many novels of Hong Kong portrayed our city as exotic and foreign, which is hardly the way I think of my home. Here's a brief excerpt from what followed of my talk:
'But Hong Kong is real - very, very real. Not just the stuff of exotica, and as much a part of global humanity as is St Martin. Our city of some seven million is almost twice as populous as the entire nation of New Zealand, and is fast catching up to what are often considered the four major global cities of the world: London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. In that, we're following the trend of the major Chinese cities, since the populations of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou each already exceed those of New York and London. St Martin is less populated, of course, but your island represents some 80 nationalities, and in that respect, is a model in miniature for the increasingly 'multi-culti' nature of our globalised world.
'Surely, our experiences and histories, while perhaps not as well known as they might be, are relevant to the universal human condition in the 21st century? Surely, if the world is ever to evolve beyond the economic and cultural imbalances caused by national boundaries, perhaps we, the political anomalies, have something to teach those super powerful nations that expend such energies starting wars and colonising peoples, who see life as black and white, right and wrong. Perhaps we, the political anomalies, who understand quite a lot about the nature of compromise, might have something important to contribute to civilising humanity? Perhaps we, the small spaces of the world, understand that bigness and power aren't the only ways of being?
'If I didn't think so, I wouldn't bother writing 'from foreign about home', because literature is about locating the universal in the individual experience, no matter how seemingly anomalous that experience might be.'
When I finally bade farewell to that beautiful island, and all the writers and people I'd met, I felt a strange consolation for this peripatetic life I lead. St Martin can't say what its future might hold. There's a growing independence movement, but their political circumstance is complicated - much more so than Hong Kong's. We, meanwhile, watch our years as the SAR go by, knowing that uncertainty is our only constant. But writers from St Martin continue to turn out poetry, essays, stories and novels which speak to the way they were, the way they are and the way they could possibly be, regardless. Literature is also a constant. Voices find ways to speak and be heard.
Flux, my fellow citizens of the world, is culture.
Xu Xi is the author of several novels, including Overleaf Hong Kong (Chameleon)