Afterness: Literature From the New Transnational Asia (After-Party Press, 2016)

Courtesy of After-Party Press ©2016

Let’s say your home was about to be destroyed. You and your family have one chance to save as much as you can. What would you pick?

In 2010, writer Xu Xi led a group of author/teachers and students from all over the world to establish the Master of Fine Arts program in writing at the City University of Hong Kong. It was the only low-residency MFA program — and one of the few MFA programs at all — in Asia.

Afterness is both CityU MFA’s final act — it was funded by the university — and an effort by the alumni editors to gather in one place one of the things they loved about the program: the writing it produced.

Five years later, though the program had, according to Poets and Writers, “established a rather remarkable international reputation, not least for its focus on diversity and literary daring,” the University’s English department announced plans to end it. University administrators never gave specific reasons, but speculation ranged from economic issues — disputed by the program’s faculty — to political pressure: more than half of the program’s 40 students at the time lived in Hong Kong and many were active in the Occupy protests. An online #SaveCityUMFA campaign drew wide support but was ultimately unsuccessful.

At the time of the announcement Xu Xi said administrators “just don’t understand the pedagogical model because it doesn’t fit what they know.” Or, as Peter Phillips writes in his story “An Interview with My MFA Testamur, Nearly Four Years after It Was Issued,” they were “too mercantile and drunk on capitalism to be bothered with literature.”

Although no new students were admitted after the announcement, those already in the program were allowed to complete their degrees; the last ones finished in 2016.

Afterness is both CityU MFA’s final act — it was funded by the university — and an effort by the alumni editors to gather in one place one of the things they loved about the program: the writing it produced. The authors of the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in the book span the six years of the program as well as 35 cities across the globe: Hong Kong to Manila to Perth to San Francisco to New York to Stockholm and countless smaller places in between. But as far-flung as they were in their outside lives, CityU alums span such a short time that even students who don’t actually know each other have workshop-mates or faculty advisers in common.

The poems, stories, and essays depict characters who are trying to find their way, negotiating boundaries not just of countries, but between rural and urban settings, between life and death, between one another.

Anthologies like this bear a risk of coming off like more of a keepsake than a volume of work in its own right: a more literary version of a high school yearbook. Afterness manages to transcend that status on a couple of fronts, beginning with the fact that each piece was deliberately selected for its connections to transnationalism, “a life rich with discovery and not without the peril of becoming truly lost,” as managing editor Gregg Schroeder, a 2010 graduate, says in the introduction.

The poems, stories, and essays depict characters who are trying to find their way, negotiating boundaries not just of countries, but between rural and urban settings, between life and death, between one another. They transgress: “Female cats just bring you naughty kittens,” writes ML in her poem, “A Girl.” They wonder at the unknown, as when Sonali Raj writes in her poem, “God,” “Tell me, if it’s you who draws the current/What is it you do with your strength.”

Cover image courtesy of After-Party Press © 2016

More than one piece examines the logistics of literal or metaphorical flight: “The sky/never waits but we are/ bound to return we/are bound to the arc/of the earth,” writes Ash Dean in his poem, “Lag.” Technology connects us to one another even as it isolates us: the protagonist in Sophie Kalkreuth’s story “Breathing Underwater” describes looking at her married lover’s photos of his children on his phone: “She watches his life slide under his thumb.”

“We write novels about love, full of the fireworks of romance or the howling agony of grief,” writes Jennifer Lee in the excerpt from her novel To the Mountain, “but mostly we live like this, in small moments of capitulation.”

Since a lot of MFA writing — and creative writing in general — deals with these themes, it’s not inaccurate to say the anthology is a snapshot of any contemporary MFA program to an extent. But because of the specific nature of City University’s MFA program, the idea of the “average” MFA student here, even by low-residency program definitions, comes to mean something a little different.

Jenn Chan Lyman … described the program as a sanctuary for “the hybrid and the hyphenated, the chameleons and the nomads.”

The writers in CityU’s program — the instructors and students alike — chose it because they wanted the experience of different people from different cultures coming together, drawing a wider net than, say, a US-based program might. In her Editor’s Note, Rebekah Chan, a 2013 graduate of the program, quoted 2010 graduate Jenn Chan Lyman, who described the program as a sanctuary for “the hybrid and the hyphenated, the chameleons and the nomads.”

Take, for example, the essay “False Alarm,” by Saffron Marchant, a transplanted Londoner telling the story of working in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Looking at the rest of the book, how many other MFA compilations address the war in Bosnia, the Hong Kong handover, a visit to ancestors’ graves in Korea, and climbing a human pyramid to celebrate Lord Krishna’s birthday in India with firsthand knowledge?

In Sreedhevi Iyer’s story “Green Grass” a Tamil man who has moved to Australia brings his new white wife back to his village in India. “Those that go so far away lose a little bit of what they initially knew,” one character says. “They have to make space for new things, new ideas, new languages, new ways of thinking, and to fit it all in, some of the old things have to be pushed aside.” (Iyer’s piece originally appeared in Drunken Boat, as did others; other pieces originally appeared in Hotel Amerika, Fourth Genre, and other journals.)

Because many of the students are from Asia and all of them spent three weeks a year there as students, the volume is inextricably linked to Asia, beginning with the epigraph from Basho.

Because many of the students are from Asia and all of them spent three weeks a year there as students, the volume is inextricably linked to Asia, beginning with the epigraph from Basho. Norwegian Ingvild Solvang, in her essay “My Un-Asian Manifesto,” writes, “Asia is not mine to write about; without Asia I wouldn’t be.” We get stories about romantic breakups and parents and children and new jobs, but we also get Peter Goff’s “Heavy Lifting,” about a female weightlifter ravaged by China’s government-sponsored training regimen.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the program, and therefore this book, is its negotiation with language, or maybe languages. Or maybe, most precisely, Englishes. CityU’s program was conducted in English, but not all of its students or faculty were native speakers, and the English that they spoke and wrote varied from country to country. Joey Chin’s poem “Onomatopoeia” plays with language itself. In her essay “The Moon in a Dog’s Eye,” Sonia Fl Leung, writes about a construction site “harassing” the dust and states, “my slippers are stardust.” In the essay, Leung tells how her family moved from Fujian to Hong Kong when she was 12. After being demoted from sixth grade to fourth because she couldn’t speak English, Leung’s sense of isolation and shame was dispelled by a coach who offered to help her train for the Hong Kong Junior table tennis team — and then molested her.

In her poem “Surfers & Flounders: The Golden Shovel.” Ame Coombs expands on the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool”: “I firmly believe the world is divided into two kinds of people, we/who are treading water and looking for the ropes and the real/swimmers who navigate the tides of the sea, seeming real cool, mermaids and mermen …”

And of course, looming large over the book is the presence of Hong Kong, the island often caught between cultures and governments and historical eras, yet firmly pointed toward the future. Much of the work centers on the people who live, love, and especially work there.

And of course, looming large over the book is the presence of Hong Kong, the island often caught between cultures and governments and historical eras, yet firmly pointed toward the future. Much of the work centers on the people who live, love, and especially work there. “Like most denizens of Hong Kong,” writes Anneli Matheson in her essay “A Basket of Three,” “you’re not a girl who can live on skylines alone.”

The administrators were right to be worried, if they in fact were: several pieces do deal with the Occupy Hong Kong protests, like Jordan Dotson’s “The Protester”: “It was tangy and fresh and a good year to be angry, he decided.” In addition to Phillips’s story, a few pieces address the closure directly, including Rebekah Chan’s “Things that Have Happened Since Starting the CityU MFA (Polyamorous).”

Overall, Afterness proves to be a compelling glimpse of contemporary writing engaged with Asia — especially Hong Kong — and a broad sampling of emerging writers.

Despite the Poets and Writers endorsement, the volume is light on literary experimentation, and sticks to fairly realist prose — Vivian Tang’s “By Foot or By Feather” and Verena Tay’s “Shades of Resistance: Eight Flash Fiction Stories” being two notable exceptions. And, as can happen with when writers take on cultures outside their own, there are some avoidable misfires.

But overall, Afterness proves to be a compelling glimpse of contemporary writing engaged with Asia — especially Hong Kong — and a broad sampling of emerging writers. It’s much more than just a keepsake for alumni of this distinctive and groundbreaking program.

Jeanie Chung’s fiction, essays and author interviews have appeared in upstreet, Drunken Boat, Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for the University of Chicago, where, among other things, she edits a newsletter on the humanities.