US author’s new book on China examines her own relationship with the country

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/6 18:23:39

 Kaitlin Solimine Photo: Courtesy of Kaitlin Solimine

The cover of Empire of Glass Photo: Courtesy of Kaitlin Solimine

When it comes to looking at China, does a foreigner's position as an "outsider" make him or her a more objective observer?

Kaitlin Solimine, a US scholar who has been studying and living in China, off and on, for years, is looking to tell readers a story of China seen through her own eyes. 

Titled Empire of Glass, Solimine's new novel from Ig Publishing in New York follows the story of "Lao K," an American woman who is busy translating the memoirs of her former homestay mother in China. As she reads through the book, Lao K's earlier experiences living in China during the mid-1990s begin to interweave with those of her homestay mother.

Unlike most novels where the main character's story unfolds in chronological order, Empire of Glass tells Lao K's story in the footnotes to her homestay mother's memoirs.

The book has been short-listed for the New York-based Center for Fiction's 2017 First Novel Prize. The author will also be discussing the book as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival in March 2018 at locations across China, including Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu.

Strong yet fragile

Ahead of her China tour, Solimine was happy to share her own story with the Global Times in an e-mail interview.

Like the character in her book, Solimine lived in Beijing via a homestay program in the mid-1990s as a teenager. Developing an even stronger interest in China and a close relationship with a Chinese family, Solimine majored in East Asian Studies for her BA in Harvard University, and continued to stay with her Chinese family in Beijing whenever she returned to the country.

Yet it was not until she began researching her host family's history as part of her US Department of State Fulbright Fellowship that she considered writing a novel based on their lives that would portray "the possibilities, and complications, of cross-cultural relationships."  

Solimine explained that the title, Empire of Glass, reflects some of the themes in the book.

"I was drawn to the idea that empires, such as those throughout Chinese history, are as strong as they are fragile. I also liked the way in which the qualities of glass (reflective, cutting, translucent, etc.) mirrored some of the themes in the novel," Solimine said, adding that in general, she has been astounded and inspired by the rapid changes that have taken place in China over the past two decades. It was for this reason that she "wanted to investigate how these changes have impacted both everyday Chinese and American citizens, what socio-cultural changes have been for the betterment of humanity and which have perhaps left a gaping hole where something meaningful once was."

Solimine pointed out that the concept of "China" has been changing over time. "Not only the nation-state, which has shifted shape throughout millennia, but also what has been representatively 'Chinese' throughout history," she said. "Collective identity can be a powerful force at times but also overly simplify what are uniquely individual experiences."

Self reflection

It is no coincidence that the character in the book has similar experiences as the author. Solimine explained that the character's name is actually Solimine's nickname in China. Believing writers, as well as all humans, "should put ourselves in uncomfortable positions and ask ourselves questions we don't want to be asked," the author hoped to examine her own relationship with China and her Chinese host family by creating a character based on herself.

"For many years, I romanticized 'China' (as many foreigners living in China do) and while I felt like Beijing was a home to me, I also felt personally affronted by the rapid changes and developments in the city," Solimine recalled, adding that the changes made her realize "how fleeting and impermanent our many 'homes' are."

Solimine mentioned that, so far, the most rewarding part of her journey with the new novel has been meeting with readers during her tour.

She told the Global Times that she once met with a book club comprised mostly of retired women, who said they resonated with the Chinese woman's life and personal struggles in Empire of Glass, especially the feeling that "a woman's life never seems to hold up to the dreams she has when she's younger."  


Newspaper headline: Imaginary reality

Posted in: BOOKS

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