Reviews / March 2017 (Issue 35)

It's Only the Beginning: A Review of Afterness

by Michael Tsang


Rebekah Chan, Gregg Schroeder, Jenn Chan Lyman, Quenntis Ashby, Amanda Webster (editors), Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia, After-Party Press, 2016. 351 pgs.


"What an unbefitting title," was my first response to this book, even before I started reading. Knowing how successful the MFA in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong had been before it was closed in 2015, Afterness suggested a tone of unnecessary resignation and fatalism. Surely, the impact the programme was only just beginning to be felt, as its graduates had long writing careers ahead of them.

My doubts were immediately dispelled by Xu Xi's foreword, which chimed positively with my own thoughts that the programme wouldn't "end until the conversations [between everyone who was involved] cease." I was also heartened to see that she remained optimistic about its lasting impact, as it is largely thanks to her vision in establishing and directing the MFA that its diverse alumni now form a unique transnational writing community—one that cannot easily be replicated elsewhere. In Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia, sixty-five members of this community come together to celebrate the programme and its legacy.

It is clear that the shuttering of the MFA program hit its graduates hard. Rebekah Chan, who is also the editor-in-chief of Afterness, for example, lists it among major international events, such as the Ebola outbreak and the disappearance of flight MH370, in one section of "Things That Have Happened Since Starting the CityU MFA (Polyamorous)." Other contributors reflect directly on what the program meant to them, such as Huang Haisu in "The Eternity of the MFA Cup of Tea" and Peter Phillip in "An Interview with My MFA Testamur, Nearly Four Years after It Was Issued." Most contributors, however, attest to the influence of the programme in the quality of their writing.

The pieces in Afterness present a wide diversity of subject matters, styles and literary voices, and I was joyed to find a number of them exploring the relationship between content, form and genre. As Tata Mapa admits cogently, "form is not just the shape that words fall into on the page. That form begins with the shape our ideas take in our heads, and it is the heights, depths and breadths we allow them to reach that create the composition" ("Final Exercise"). Insights like this provide a clear reflection of the quality of the MFA's teaching staff.

Those interested in experiments in form and genre should also definitely check out Quenntis Ashby's "Bear Weds Rabbit: An Ukiyo-e Fable," in which he reinvents an 18th-century Japanese haiku in the "floating world" (ukiyo-e) genre:

On a day when
The bush warbler's call is faint
A rabbit passing by … (Takao)

On a day when animals talk
As people,
Bear proposes marriage …
Rabbit, say you do,
To wed the bear in you;
I do, I do. I do …
Her bear feet not bare;
In her paws lie two goldfish scale rings,
Hers and his …
Vows change veiled reasons for living;
Seasons flock
To witness their lifting …
A dark moonlit bride
Dressed in clouds of mist;
Bear hugs her first dance at last …

While Tadao's original haiku has nothing of the "floating world" about it, Ashby effectively brings the work into the new genre, by expanding it into a haiku sequence and reimagining it as an ethereal fable.

Elsewhere, explorations in form and content blur the line between facts and imagination. This is clearly seen in many of the volume's creative non-fiction pieces, such as in Gershom Tse's "Requiem," which sandwiches a fictional radio interview with a Hong Kong composer in between a factual newspaper headline about a bullied student's suicide and an imagined obituary for the composer's own self-inflicted death. Saffron Marchant's "False Alarm" also plays with the relationship between reality and imagination, by juxtaposing the experience of walking down thirty-one floors in a Manhattan building in response to an alarm, with a reflection on the nature of humanity in a paranoid post-911 environment. The piece poignantly compresses the most treasured moments of a life and the narrator's very real sense of fear: "There's no humanity on these stairs. 'It's the end of the world as we know it!' Fuck-off-fuck-off-fuck-off –"

The subtitle of the book is "Literature from the New Transnational Asia." While the definition of "Transnational Asia" is perhaps somewhat blurry, for me this concept should not be characterised by the Orientalist cosmopolitanism of Eat, Pray, Love or by simple crossings of superficial national and cultural boundaries with empty claims of a globalised humanity. The ideal of transnationalism is not to be a jack of all cultures and master of none, but to always strive to know as much as possible about all cultures. The best pieces in the collection succeed in this goal, by developing intricate and detailed insights into ways of living in Asia. Take Colum Murphy's "We Are All Good Friends!" for instance, which recalls his experience volunteering in a rundown recovery village for Chinese lepers. While the first half of his essay reads like another narrative in which a Western-educated, jet-setting professional heals himself by doing meaningful work in the "East," halfway through Murphy's observational skills start to reveal his profound critique of the hypocrisy of charity work, which he feels is designed to reward the volunteer's desire for self-satisfaction rather than to care for the needy. The piece also provides self-reflections on the banality of international journalism, while wisely avoiding the temptation to turn into a bitter rant.

Cultural contact, tolerance and acculturation take centre-stage in Sreedhevi Iyer's short story excerpt "Green Grass." It tells the story of a white Australian woman and her Tamil husband on their honeymoon as they return for the first time to his Indian village. Colonial and postcolonial power relations come into play, as the woman strives too hard to assimilate into the local culture, and when a forgotten childhood connection begins to loosen the husband's aloof superiority. The excerpt stops at an intriguing place, suggesting that there is more to the Australian wife than has so far been revealed. Nonetheless, the story is a textbook example of what "transnational Asia" should be, as the cultural exchanges of the characters are always underpinned by nuanced and believable negotiations of differing codes and customs.

In the short story "Vigil," Jenn Chan Lyman comments powerfully on the chasms in Hong Kong society that were borne out of the Umbrella Movement of 2014. But instead of adopting the perspective of a student protester, the story focuses on a mother who is torn between her protest-participating son and her anti-protest elder brother, and who also has to care for her dying mother. The story reveals how states of emergency, such as a mass protest movement, can inspire conflicting opinions across generations but can also reveal surprising personal experiences that subvert our assumptions about the people we love. Ultimately, it is the willingness to communicate (to return to Xu Xi's words), and more importantly, to learn from each other, that can give life new possibilities.

Taken as a whole, the pieces in Afterness reveal the transformational power that a creative journey can have on individuals and a community. As Kevin Brown writes in his postscript to the collection, "The MFA is a Theseus-like community of writers, which I envision floating indefinitely through time, and which I envision constantly turning over in terms of composition, of membership—temporary and yet permanent at the same time" ("The Death of a Program or the Beautiful Irregularity of Amateur Flight"). The CityU MFA, though short-lived, has managed to leave a permanent mark of beauty, and this book is proof.

 Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more.
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