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Book Review: "ACCESS: Thirteen Tales" by Xu Xi

Thanks to the success of her 2010 novel Habit of a Foreign Sky, Hong Kong writer Xu Xi’s new book was highly anticipated worldwide. A collection of 13 short stories written between 2004 and 2010 and published in various international journals, Access: Thirteen Tales does not disappoint. The anthology’s theme is the accessibility of what we need and what we want, played out over five sections: Tall Tales, Circular Tales, Fairy Tales, Old Wives’ Tales and Beastly Tales. Xu Xi has said in interviews that she prefers to think of the stories as “tales” because they are incomplete sagas instead of finished plots. She is also keen to point out that the uniting force of the book is situations, not the ethnicity of her characters. Still, the fact is most of the lead protagonists are Asian. Xu has always written best about Hong Kong-born women, such as Gail Szeto in Habit of a Foreign Sky and the lead character in 1997’s Hong Kong Rose. The stories in Access feature an array of intriguing women, each dealing with their own struggles in their own way. Among stories that span the Chinese diaspora―all the way from Amsterdam via New Zealand and New York―the stand-out piece is Famine, which won an O. Henry prize and appeared in the 2006 competition anthology. The narrator is a middle-aged Hong Kong woman who is finally free from family duties when her aged parents die. To protest against her mother’s stringent attitude toward wasting food during a childhood marred by poverty, the woman undertook several hunger strikes when she was young. Now, on her first trip outside of Hong Kong, she laments the failures of her life while ordering lavish feasts at a hotel in America. Another striking tale is Lady Day, in which a male-to-female transsexual prostitute plans her revenge on the boys who abused her at boarding school in England. Lady Day is the “dream Asian seductress,” turning to prostitution and moving to Amsterdam after her father denies responsibility for her. Regret and reflection seep from the pages: “What if doesn’t make a life. What is, does.” The variety of situations depicted in the collection is impressive, from the corporate American backdrop of The Wang Candidate to the dingy Tsim Sha Tsui massage parlor in To Body to Chicken. Behind the themes of access and desire, racial and cultural issues abound. The elderly Kar-Li in Space laments the attitude of gweilo in Hong Kong: “these ‘white ghosts’ who still boss us around, even after the end of colonial rule.” The narrator of Famine effects a complete cultural shift by learning English: “I changed my language to change my life.” Xu Xi’s style is eminently readable, with a refreshing lack of overly elaborate language. Her no-nonsense prose draws the reader in. Although she has found international renown relatively recently, her career is a long and prolific one. Her first book was published in 1994, and she has won several important literary prizes and accolades. Access proves the longevity of her success and talent. DETAILS
Book title: Access: Thirteen Tales Author: Xu Xi Publisher: Signal 8 Press Where: Available at [Shanghai Literary Festival](LINK) How much: RMB120

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