Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I didn’t realize how different you’d look in person. You’re nothing like your author photo.
Yeah, I’ve aged a bit. Also, I had a baby.
That’s cool. Wait, I think I knew you 10 years ago, when you were just starting the research for your first novel. Is this the same book you were working on then?
Sadly, yes. It took me ten years to birth this book and ten hours to birth my daughter. The book was way more painful and I cried a lot more.
Speaking of pain, I’m going to start with the toughest question first: Why’d you write your debut novel, Empire of Glass?
I wish I had a really smart answer for you. The simple, uninteresting, and very selfish answer is: I needed to know why I was so obsessed with Chinese history and culture and what it meant to be an American with such a personal relationship in China. I first lived in Beijing as a teenager in 1996 with a host family while on a study abroad program called School Year Abroad. I’d never before left the U.S. and came from a middle class, suburban, white, American household. I was fascinated by absolutely everything there was about Beijing, Chinese language and literature, my host family and friends. Difference and cultural investigation can do that, I think—be a powerful motivator for love, knowledge, and connection—as much as it can be deeply dangerous.
So did you find out why you were so obsessed?
Actually, I’m still working on it. A lot has changed since I started the research for Empire of Glass 10 years ago. Beijing’s population went from 12 to 19 million. The number of bicycles in Beijing in the 90s (estimated at 9 million) was replaced by cars (numbering over 5 million in 2015). Trump was elected President of the U.S. China became a global economic power. Most of the narrow, winding hutong alleyways I loved to walk through in Beijing were knocked down, allowing for a better standard of living for residents in one way (improved sanitation, air-conditioning, etc.) but deconstructed in others (dislocated community, greater focus on capitalist motivations, loss of historical structures and family homes).
In the meantime, I took a lot of writing classes, studied under incredible mentors, and worked on what writers call “honing the craft.” The earliest draft of this book consisted of the protagonist, Lao Wang (who then was simply called “Baba”), sitting at a dining table talking to his brother about their family’s past. I had no idea how to write fiction. I still don’t think I do but I have a better idea of what comprises a novel, how to approach the structure of a novel, and what it means to “produce” a work of literary fiction.
As for China, as it changed, so did I—I realized I had romanticized the “other” while living in China at the expense of seeing what transformation was happening and why. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty while simultaneously vastly degrading environmental and cultural conditions—was it worth the trade-off? I believe Chinese citizens themselves are still wrestling with this transition, as am I. The privileges I’ve had in being an “expat” in China are not lost on me; I made as large an effort as I could in writing this novel from a place of deep self and structural investigation. In building the novel’s form around the unexpected “inheritance” of a Chinese-centered story, I hope I’ve exposed both the possibilities and the complications in holding “other” narratives within a written form.
Speaking of, am I talking to Kaitlin or “Lao K,” the protagonist in your novel?
You’re always talking to Kaitlin. Lao K is fictional. Yes, we share a Chinese nickname and have both lived in China, but our similarities end there. The reason I decided to employ my Chinese nickname in the novel was it pressed me to feel responsible for the narrative at hand, and the fact that there was a white, American woman who was investigating, and re-writing, the narratives of her “Chinese family.” But the fictional Lao K is way more interesting than I am and definitely understands more Chinese (she’s a translator, not me). My brother recently said, “But you had a red bathing suit in high school! Lao K wears a red bathing suit.” “I think the similarities end there,” I told him. “Yeah, you hate cigarettes,” he confirmed. So that’s that.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room: A lot has been written about cultural appropriation and ownership in literature, both in response to a lack of published marginalized voices and Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writers Festival speech on cultural appropriation in literature. You’re a white American woman writing in the voices of Chinese characters. Do you have a right to do this?
Let me start with this, as I believe it motivates me on a daily basis: no one has a right to art. Everyone who is working as an artist, and especially those making a “living” in the arts, is privileged. I understand that this “privilege” comes in very different degrees and layers and some are inordinately privileged (like myself and many I know) while others are only barely so.
That said, if you are able to devote any of your time to writing, if you have a working brain, a healthy, beating heart, and even the tiniest bit of space-time allowing you to devote to writing, you are privileged. Due to that privilege, writers are also tasked with navigating the space of cultural appropriation, of stories of “other,” with deep deference, respect, and self-examination. Those who have lived marginalized lives (whether due to race, sexuality, disability, religion, nationality, or other factors) likely have done some of this “due diligence” already, having been forced to do so by socio-cultural circumstances. I think the conversation we’re currently having in the U.S. about privilege and identity is incredibly important, but also can be damaging if it isn’t nuanced. We cannot flatten identity. We cannot expect that art flattens it either (and we all know that our favorite literary characters feel as deeply explored as living beings). The layers of identity we all wear, and all struggle with, are critical pieces of the wider puzzle that makes the world, and our art, all the richer.
Shriver’s speech, while deeply insensitive in many regards, does raise an important point about the literature in the world that has been given to us due to the responsible ways in which writers have worn, as she puts it (cringe), “different hats.” We are often told, as writers, to write what we know—but in my case, what I’ve known deeply and with investigation over the past 20 years, is being an American in China and having an intimate relationship with a Chinese family who calls me their daughter and sister. In fact, my next novel takes place in New Hampshire (where I grew up but haven’t lived in two decades) and I will do a lot of research on the area, its cultural and ethnic nuances, as it isn’t one I feel culturally, nor historically, connected to anymore.
Novelist Jess Row, in his New Republic essay on the subject “What Are White Writers For?” gets to the crux of this issue brilliantly, as he writes, “for a fiction writer to deny that fiction is in some way political—in the sense of existing in an inherently politicized world—is not only an act of bad faith but a kind of artistic failure.” As such, there were many times I questioned whether or not I should publish Empire of Glass, whether or not I would be opening myself, and my characters, up to a level of scrutiny that may be difficult for me to stomach. After all, I am white, so I’ve lived in, as Toni Morrison wrote post-election in the New Yorker, the white “comfort of being ‘naturally better than’” and needed to examine how my writing this novel, and its publication, sat within this wider socio-political context of inherited whiteness.
But I’ve found that the resulting conversations my new novel incited during the writing process and after publication have been rich, fruitful, and enlightening across spectrums of culture, nationality, race, and gender. The world and the writing we create should be full of complex, multi-layered individuals with narratives that push the boundaries of our cultural comforts. I believe that in fiction, as in life, we should attempt to sit uncomfortably within the boundaries of individual and shared identities and wrestle with what it means to be human, both together and apart.
KAITLIN SOLIMINE was raised in New England and has considered China a second home for two decades. While majoring in East Asian Studies at Harvard, she was a Harvard-Yenching scholar in Beijing and wrote and edited Let’s Go: China (St. Martin’s Press). In 2006-2007, she was a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Fellow in China where she began work on her debut novel, Empire of Glass. She was the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and graduated from the MFA program in creative writing at UC-San Diego. She is the 2012 recipient of the Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award judged by Colson Whitehead and her writing has been published in National Geographic News, The Wall Street Journal, Guernica Magazine, Kartika Review, The Huffington Post, The World of Chinese Magazine, China Daily, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and numerous anthologies. She is the co-founder of academic media platform Hippo Reads and recently left Singapore for San Francisco where she was a 2016 SF Writers Grotto Fellow. You can find her on Twitter @LetsGoKato and Facebook.