Reviewed by Anita Nham
Novelist Xu Xi’s This Fish Is Fowl: Essays of Being (University of Nebraska Press, March 2019) is a collection of 30 thought-provoking, personal and political essays about being transnational in a world gripped by nationalism. Though the subject is serious, Xi finds a balance by weaving in references from Angry Birds to Malcolm in the Middle along the way.
The collection is broken up into four parts. The first, “On Being,” focuses on how a passport can be a barrier for nations. For Xi, citizenship and identity are complicated matters. She was born in Hong Kong to Indonesian-national parents of Chinese descent, but she’s not officially recognized as Chinese by the Hong Kong government as she does not have a parent born on Chinese soil. In 1987, she became a U.S. citizen, adding to her list of identities, and lived around the East Coast. She writes about navigating through life with these several identities and her struggle of living a “glocalized” American life.
“Here’s the problem. We all come from somewhere, and that somewhere informs who you become, how you look at the world, and ultimately what you write about.”
The most personal and touching section is “Mum and Me” where Xi chronicles her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s and their emotional relationship. Throughout her consistent travel between Hong Kong to be by her mother’s side and New York where her partner and home is, she reflects on being the daughter as well as the mother in their relationship. The diagnosis put Xi’s entire life on hold. In the end, she realizes the lessons and wisdom she had learned from her mother.
Xi is candid about her diverse professional career and how she became a writer, despite the negative responses and nagging questions, including from her mother. She’s also unapologetic about her failed marriages and her preference to remain childless.
Throughout these broad-ranging and honest essays, Xi wonders about humanity and the future of our world. She explores her cultural and family identity as well as past experiences. Despite some story overlaps, Xi reminds us of the true meanings of identity and belonging, while celebrating all our differences.