Talking with Stephanie Han about Hong Kong, bars, and writing from inside the Asian diaspora

I first met Stephanie Han in Los Angeles in 1998 when we were chosen as fellows in a new literary mentorship program, PEN’s Emerging Voices. Looking back, we were both arrogant in the way of young untested writers, but at least Stephanie could back up her attitude. She was well-read and discerning about literature. During one workshop, she explained the Shakespearean allusions in the manuscript up for review; allusions that everyone else had missed.

We kept in touch when the program ended. During these years we learned the long game of a writer’s life. We trudged through periods of literary success and rejection while balancing responsibilities like caring for elder parents, working uninteresting jobs, having partners and raising kids. Stephanie lived abroad and in several U.S. cities during this time, and her first published story collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, examines the struggles of characters who are expatriates and immigrants. According to Han, the difference between the two categories hinges on one’s identity and national definitions. “The US doesn’t have expatriates in our social understanding of culture--we have immigrants,” she says. “You are expected to come here and assimilate and not hold your other national or cultural identity, but rather, add to the American identity.”

After finishing her collection, I found myself thinking more critically about identity, dislocation and movement. More specifically, her stories prompted me to consider the particular ways that Asian women are both visible and invisible.

These stories take place in Hong Kong and in cities across the U.S. Where did you grow up?

I am a 4th generation Korean American. Asia has been a part of my life geographically and personally, it is where my family is from. I know parts of it quite well, and as an adult, lived in both Korea and Hong Kong. Asia gave me a sense of belonging and purpose that I could not find in many places in the United States. But I was not raised in Asia.

I’m a product of the United States, and very specifically, claim a cultural heritage rooted in the Asian colonial settlers of Hawaii. The way that I think, what I believe, my perspective (in probably both positive and negative ways) is rooted in American culture, particularly through the lens of Hawaii, given my family’s history here.

But I was born in St. Louis Missouri. We moved every year until I was eight, at which point we moved from the Presidio base in San Francisco to a place on the outskirts of Iowa City. You know, the only Asian story. Apparently when I first went back to Hawaii as a three-year-old I started screaming and pointing at people and telling my mom “Look at all the Orientals!” I was excited. Kids notice difference. I used to ask my mom, where do I say I am from? And she would tell me to name the places I lived and people could choose one. And I’d tell my mom, I didn’t have any friends. And she would say, read a book. If you read books, you’ll always have friends. Writers are rather asocial beasts who have fits of being social. I would have fantasies when I was younger about fitting in, and at times, I did more than others, but in order to write, you do need to occupy a position as an outsider. That’s normal for any artist or thinker. When you’re younger, it can be hard. I kept journals.

My family moved down to Memphis, and I’ve also lived in Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, and California—the latter is where I really found myself as a writer. Hawaii was always where we returned to, back and forth for various family events and holidays. These days I feel like it took me a lifetime to get back home to Hawaii. Except for the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen or lived in nearly every major region in the United States. I lived in Korea as a child on the US military base, and later as an expatriate, and in Hong Kong for quite a few years.

Movement and displacement define me, and while it used to be a source of anxiety or discomfort, I realize now that this is what I am familiar with and I’m finally comfortable with this position of being a permanent geographic outsider, home everywhere and nowhere.

What’s been your path as a writer?

I was one of those decent writers as a kid, but my confidence got a little knocked out of me when I went to boarding school. There were students who were way ahead of me in terms of analytical thinking and writing skills. As a teacher I know that the adolescent brain is peculiar and develops at a different pace dependent on the individual. At the time, I didn’t know it. I felt intimidated. I thought I was fairly good at English, but I wasn’t any sort of English class star. But my academic performance never killed my desire to read and write.

I also had parents who could afford a variety of bourgeois creative activity and instruction. I took music lessons, studied all manner of things, and in high school took tons of art classes with results being very mediocre at best. Still, I loved all kinds of art. I was tested and told I had perfect pitch, but I hated to practice music—I had studied piano, cello, guitar and violin. In fact, the only thing that I was free to do on my own, without any expectation of practicing and performing was to read. I could read as much as I want, whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have any recitals or expectations surrounding it. In other words, exposure to all sorts of arts helped me, but left to my own devices all I wanted to do was read and write, so in the end, that is probably why I became what I did.

After high school, I went to Barnard College/Columbia University for a few years, moved to Los Angeles trying to pursue screenwriting, and ended up finishing my degree at UC Santa Barbara, right after I got a grant to write my poetry chapbook. I then headed to Korea for a year before returning to California. That’s when we met at the PEN fellowship, this was the best due to its diversity and the fact that it drew in all kinds of people and writers. My partner and I went to San Francisco State for our Masters. I married someone who was a longtime UK expatriate and this determined a lot of my geographic journey as he was based in Asia. I did VONA with Junot Diaz who encouraged me to get the MFA, but I delayed a year, joining Stephen in Hong Kong. After a few years in Arizona, it was back to LA, and then after our child was born, we went back to HK.

I was thinking of quitting writing. I was really discouraged; hundreds of rejections do that. But I began to teach again, and students have a way of inspiring you. And I realized it wasn’t something I just could quit as it was tied to who I was and how I navigated and how I expressed myself. It defines my relationship to the world. There are a lot of different reasons for rejection, but partially it was that writers write of the present, but this is often a future that the vast majority of people cannot see or understand. This happens even if writers are writing of the past. The reason is how a writer sees, the lens through which they examine a subject or person or emotion, if slightly unfamiliar, is often easily rejected.

I’m not saying all published work is derivative, but there is a bit of a time element, and it’s easier if there is a set precedent. The story Swimming in Hong Kong, I couldn’t get published for the life of me. Asian Americans rejected it and quite rightfully, it wouldn’t have been published at an African American journal given my background. The end result was that everyone rejected it. It’s a story about an old Chinese man and a highly educated professional African American (specifically Jamaican American) woman’s friendship set in Hong Kong, features no sex, and was written by a Korean American. You can imagine how editors looked at this. What? It was finally published in a Hong Kong literary anthology a decade after it was written. In that locale people could understand it. But in the US, most could not imagine this type of scenario. Globalization has shifted how we see things, as has the Internet, so my stories are now of the present, despite most of them being written well over a decade ago.

In HK I got an offer to do the PhD, a full ride. This kind of opportunity would have never happened to me in the US, so I encourage people to look overseas when thinking of where they might head as writers. Being mobile gave me opportunities. I became the first student there, and they hired one professor and I was paid to read and write—not a lot, but something. This period of life helped to consolidate and theorize my ideas about writing and literature. I’m very grateful for this experience.

I don’t believe degrees are necessary to become a writer, but it was my path. Showing up to write, going into that hole by yourself can be a hard thing to do. Why am I writing this at 3AM? Does anyone really care? Believe me, if I could think of something else to do, I probably would have done it by now. I sometimes fantasize about finding some other sort of métier or passion, but I keep circling back to writing, so there you have it.

In several stories, bars serve as settings that are masculine and hostile. There’s that great scene in “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” where Lydia, who’s Asian American, is insulted by white male patrons and the bar bouncer, a black man, defends her. What’s striking is the way you subtly dramatize the racial and gender dynamics of that alcohol-fueled moment. The bouncer is a big man who “lumber[s] over” to the harassers, but he talks to them almost deferentially “in quiet syllables.” Can you talk more about bars as a fictional setting?

Wow. That is funny. I never thought about how many stories are placed in bars! Hmmm. Clearly bars have had more of a presence in my writing life than I thought! With Bill, the bar bouncer in Nantucket Laundry, I was trying to convey more of a physical presence than any sense of deference, but obviously Bill is aware of his surroundings in the all-white bar, and in my mind he was darker skinned, and bald, which would also play into perception of his physicality. Some men who are of large physical stature have rather low or soft voices—they don’t have to say much because of their size. Conversely when people are rather short, they can often be loud, something I tried to convey with Lydia’s confrontation when she swears at the men. Bars have a lot of potential for drama due to alcohol. There are more layers of obfuscation and people can hide behind alcohol, or are more emboldened to behave in ways that they would not in their regular lives.

I also would say that drinking culture and bars, particularly overseas or in places where people do not have to drive can really set the stage for some bizarre encounters. I think that in the US, outside of a very few urban areas, you are mostly driving from place to place, and while that doesn’t necessarily stop consumption of alcohol, it serves to stop a certain level of consumption. (I’m talking about outside of university campuses, mind you.) “Invisible” and “Hong Kong Rebound” are set in HK—which has a formidable nightlife and drinking culture. Also in some rather reticent or reserved kinds of cultures, bars are where people do loosen up. Americans idealize the extrovert, and many strive to be this type of personality. But it’s not the case with all people and cultures, and so bars offer an opportunity for alcohol inspired encounters that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes boring, but mostly just not the same as those without alcohol.

I sound like I’m advocating for bars or alcohol or something, but really, it’s just an observation. As for them being a masculine terrain, I think that this is often true. There are some, but a woman running a bar would create a very different environment.

The shortest stories in the collection, the short-shorts, are poetic. I’m thinking of what you’re able to coax from the scene in “Hong Kong Rebound” where a bar waitress tapes black paper over the windows. Can you talk about the connection between poetry and prose for you? Which genre do you prefer?

I turn to poetry when I have no words. This sounds strange, but it is what I go to in order to exercise a different part of my brain. It becomes a release. I’m drawn to narrative—it informs all of my work, poetry and prose, but I turn to poetry when I’m trying to sort through feelings. Prose is what I write when I want to solve, think about, or wrestle with a problem—it’s a bit further on down the line than poetry for me, at least. I feel a particular narrative in a more obvious way, and so this propels a prose piece. I read more prose than poetry. Poetry doesn’t require narrative, but most of the poetry I prefer has some sort of arc, a narrative feel, if only an emotional loyalty to story. I think poetry does also inform my prose, but this is when I get down to the sentence level. So I like both and use both. I think it’s good to move between different genres as one can inform the other.

Tell me about the earlier drafts of “The Ki Difference.” Was it always driven by dialog? What made you go in that direction?

I enjoy writing dialog. It’s fun. I started out years ago trying to write screenplays and I studied acting, so I enjoy dialog. Because of the character Dan and the idea of Los Angeles/Hollywood, dialog worked on a few different levels. I was thinking about the characters and their history and naturally the form of dialog followed this, as if this idea of the qualities of a particular type of genre, the screenplay, followed the characters and yielded this dialog heavy story. It’s interesting how form can be determined by characters.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

Help! This is a terrible question for me, as I read inconsistently and this list changes. I’ll pull out a book in the library and turn around to tie my shoe and then see another one and pull that one out. I should be more methodical about my reading, but am not terribly organized in this way. Anyway, I like Timothy Mo, a Chinese British writer. He is not read much in the US, but he should be. I’ll tell you what I am reading now: Finished up the Amitav Ghosh Ibis trilogy Flood of Fire, an amazing feat of historical research and plotting, Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees, Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish, and Poetry magazine…There’s Jannette Winterson and Anis Shivani sitting there on my desk. Haven’t cracked the books open, but intend to. I’m reading about natural world stuff for my next project. I just picked up How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley. I had a terrible science background, so this is not easy reading for me, but for my next thing I want to think about myth, environmental crisis, and place.

Have you read the short story, “The Point,” by Charles D’Ambrosio? I’d like to teach your story, “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” and “The Point” together. I’m intrigued by how suicide hovers above the main narrative in both. Also, both stories are set in coastal towns and deal, in different ways, with the burdens of whiteness and WASP culture.

Oh no! I haven’t, but will!

Your characters express that they feel invisible in a variety of social contexts. Lydia feels invisible in overwhelmingly white Nantucket and an unnamed Korean American protagonist feels invisible sitting among Chinese inside a Hong Kong bar. Another character, Hana, says of the U.S., “I’ll always be a stranger here.” How do you view the loneliness that so many of these characters feel? Is it all attributable to race or is some of it an existential angst particular to our times?

I think loneliness or existential angst have to do with the nature of current global and domestic society due to modern life. Asian Americans are always perceived as outsiders to the American narrative. This is down to immigration history, language, and the disparate narratives of Asian Americans. In order for a group to coalesce within the US, there is a larger narrative that all acknowledge on some rock bottom level. With Native Americans there is the issue of land, of course, and genocide; with African Americans, the legacy of slavery; Latinos/as, Spanish language, and often Christian faith. Asian Americans have no singular binding narrative, religion, political belief or immigration history. We become Asian American here, meaning, we reach out across the tribal lines here in the US in a way that would have been impossible in Asia due to war and colonialism (ie Japan/Korea). There is a deep level of mistrust that comes from the US involvement in Asia in terms of war: WWII, Korea, Japan, the Mideast--the US spent a great part of the 20th century, and 21st century so far, battling in these areas of the world against and with people of Asian origin, and often with debatable outcomes.

I also think that some of this is down to Americans and how the Dream furthers both the idea of the individual and isolation. The American Dream is both wonderful and rather intense in how it stresses individual agency, personal will and ideology. This will to dream, to reinvention, to be whatever or whoever the person wants to be, this is really powerful. The flip side to this is that to cling to an individual dream can be terribly lonely. Everyone needs a sense of belonging. But belonging in the US is fraught with difficulties because how we belong varies so dramatically, how we construct ourselves becomes so personalized and determinedly unique, and the US presents the possibility of remaking the terms of the contract of belonging to such an extent that it can often paralyze people. We’re supposed to go out there on our own, be, and dream and fling ourselves forward to self-actualize in a way that yields material gain to prove our success. It can be a hard thing to do.

I’m not advocating conformity or being less adventurous or cautious in life, I’m just saying that doing your own thing, so to speak, can also be a lonely and hard journey. Not everyone feels brave all the time. It’s often nice if we have someone else, or a group, we can be lonely with together, we need a friend to be brave with, if that makes any sense. At the very least, it is comforting to read about people who feel the same way—deeply concerned, worried, distressed, or at odds with the demands of modern life.

You teach Asian diasporic literature. Have you thought about how your own writing fits within this literature?

Technically speaking, I’m a member of the Asian diasporic literature category (as would all Asian writers be who write in English), but I ultimately claim an American identity and consider myself to be an American writer. My work is rooted in a very American idea of narration/authorship and has an American sensibility and outlook—down to the fact that some of the stories are set in HK, yet I am not Chinese, but a 4th generation Korean American. I see that I was attempting to reckon with a perspective here as one who was inside and outside of the broad American narrative. Asian diasporic literature is another way of rearranging and re-categorizing literature. If you do this, you re-center the narrative of how a group writes and it becomes interesting to reconsider. But this is literary theory categorization is more of interest to those who are critics, as opposed to the writers themselves. I suppose as a trained writer or reader, this is of interest to me, too.

The category of Asian diasporic literature in English is a way of mitigating the hegemony of literature in English or American literature and moving the origins to Asia. The US is a new but powerful country and to center myself as part of the Asian diaspora then, gives more power or credence to Asia as my influence, as important to who and what I am.

But I am not concerned anymore about being perceived as American or Asian in writing and so leave this aspect of my own writing to others. I don’t have serious allegiance to any particular Asian national project, while I respect and see the merits and problems of all in various ways. I have no Asian language competency that matches my level of English, and don’t feel caught between the worlds, so to speak of Asia and the US. I embrace a pan-Asian American identity, one without the baggage that comes from ancestral animosities in Asia, but a shared sense of community based on our struggles in the United States, our negotiation with all kinds of people and cultures, and yes, our community’s negotiation with our historic and personal ties to Asia. The conflict of this situation is often more clearly marked in the writing and perspectives of 1st and 2nd generation Americans. It comes up in my writing too, but not always.

If someone wants to claim me as Korean, great! I claim both sides of my parents as Korean, 100%! I’m Korean! Yes, I am part of the Asian diasporic literature group and the American literature group. Probably due to being an expatriate for so long, I’m not as hung up one way or another. My mom vows in every situation that she’s an American. She’s still in that mid-20th century mindset of the promise of statehood for Hawaii. Now that’s under fire. But anyway, if I’m in a country and the person cannot understand my immigration history I’ll say I’m Korean to get to my destination. But not my mom. She’d never say it. I can go with whatever works. I consider my identity quite flexible. Such stuff is all down to personal experience, I meandered here…but I think these are the joys and complication of diaspora and diasporic literature.