Stephanie Han is an award-winning American-Korean writer, poet and educator whose work has a strong focus on the complexity of transnational cultural identities and female experience. Her completed projects include the poetry manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom and a critical theory book The Art of Asian America. Jamie Wang is a Chinese-Australian writer and PhD candidate in environmental humanities at UNSW, where she attempts to reread sustainability through storytelling.
This conversation centres on Stephanie’s new book Swimming in Hong Kong and evolves into a discussion ranging from women’s bodies and cosmetic surgery to the environment and Trump’s US-Mexico border wall.
Jamie Wang: You split your time between Hawaii and Hong Kong. Where is home now?
Or in this world filled with moving parts, the notion of home perhaps is no longer a fixed attachment to any physical space?
Stephanie Han: I would say Hawaii is more of my ancestral home. This is more of my home yet right now we are a split household where my husband and son’s father is residing more in Hong Kong. In a way I was always a witness and an outsider to Hong Kong, a part of its fringe element. But also I am an outsider to Hawaii because I didn’t grow up here, although this is where we came frequently throughout my childhood and where my family has called home since 1904. I think that part of it is in a world of global modernity, many of us willingly or unwillingly have multiple homes, or multiple ideas of home. It took me being an Asian expatriate for many years to realise I am finally comfortable with no geographic space as home. To some degree, our situation is by choice, in a sense that we are more middle class. But some people are refugees, split by war or climate. They have to invent and remake home either in a new country or a new place, or simply an interior idea [of] what home can be. Home for me is both elusive and familiar.
JW: The opening story ‘Invisible’ of your book [Swimming in Hong Kong] gives the reader glimpses of a cosmopolitan and displaced place, depicting a liminal living that is seductive and equally confusing. To me it is also very much a narrative of power struggles between male and female, expats and local residents and more. How did you come to frame this story? And what does invisible mean to you?
SH: I thought of this because in a sense my experience to Hong Kong is not really homecoming, like many people having Chinese ancestry, though I am Asian and can easily [be] mistaken for being Chinese. A lot of my stories of Hong Kong are from a perspective of being seen and not seen. And invisibility is a very familiar thing to women especially. We are invisible often in the narrative of nation, in laws, in every facet of life. The way we participate in the existing power structure is often in an invisible manner. We can say that we have made progress. And we have made dramatic progress. But look at court of law, government representation. Look at who runs business. We are not represented proportionally. We are in many ways invisible players in this grand scheme of our global life. That is part of it. To add to that, Asian women in particular, when you are talking about, let’s say the West, are often perceived as being invisible, as being submissive, as being not noticed, as being quiet. There’s a lot of misreading on who and what we are, and why we are. So invisibility is largely an interest to many writers and scholars who focus on Asian American women and feminism. My interest in that sense is probably quite typical. But I also think this is the idea of invisibility [that] holds true for all women, not only Asian and Asian-American women.
JW: Are you very much drawn to woman protagonists? In Swimming in Hong Kong, the narrators are mostly Asian women of diverse background, except the last story which is a dual telling from a black woman and an old Hong Kong man.
SH: Yes, I think I am. I prefer to write them simply because they are invisible. I want women’s stories to be told, to be heard. It is not that I can’t tell a story from a male point of view. But my interest is primarily in the narratives of the feminine experience. What are the roles we are obliged to play or do play and how do we negotiate?
JW: To me, your work also demonstrates a strong sensitivity to woman’s body, exploring how it is mobilised in a web of contested forces.
SH: Having the female body be present is extremely important to me. Also ideas of what we own as women, what we have a right to in terms of our sexuality, in terms of what our body needs or wants. I am interested in exploring what we are punished for because of our body? How does the body gain power, or how does the body subordinate? Right now in the United States, they are arguing about […] women’s right to reproductive freedom. This is a discussion that happens all over the world as if we should not be in charge of own bodies. It is utterly insane. Women are still denied access to basic health care. Look at the way that women’s bodies are contorted, striving to be beautiful. It’s not a criticism of any single woman. It’s more that these are the means by which women know that they can gain power. We don’t, as women, necessarily have a choice. You can choose not to participate only on a very minimal level as otherwise you risk being totally estranged from the society.
JW: Following the thread on women striving to be beautiful, in the story ‘Languages’, you interrogate the pressure imposed on women to be ‘beautiful’ in South Korea, a precondition for building confidence and ultimately a hope for a good marriage. What do you make of this surge of cosmetic surgery in South Korea?
SH: I think that a lot of this is economically driven. It’s how economics is tied to beauty. If there were more employment opportunities for young women, would there be this stress on beauty? I mean let’s just get real. If you are told this is your best way to succeed financially or secure your future, you are gonna do it. Of course there is the aspect of conformity. I lived in Korea for a year and half, many years ago. For the vast majority of time I was there, I was encouraged to get plastic surgery. There was this overwhelming sigh from my relatives, ‘Well, Stephanie, the relative from America who isn’t married at 30 and has this mole beneath her lips and didn’t have plastic surgery.’ That drives me crazy. And finally I resorted to saying, ‘If everyone who was Korean didn’t get plastic surgery, there is a strong possibility they would look like me, which is to say, they would have eyes that were smaller, a flatter face, a small mouth with thinner lips. They would probably have a flat butt. Like it or not, we are talking about tonnes of women who would resemble me more.’ That is part of the reason I wrote the story ‘Languages’. A lot of women who were teaching me language [at] that time in the language institution were very educated young women in their thirties who were not married, who travelled and spoke multiple languages, who were shaming their families because of their status. And a lot of them did not have plastic surgery. I thought it was quite interesting because whether they wanted to be or not, they were the radicals of their societies in [those] days. They were educated women who weren’t conforming.
JW: To me, the tension between artificial and natural beauty is not [the] only constraint in the scope of humanity. In my research, I am interested in the social, political implication of manicured, green cities and artificially-controlled environments. [And] in the face of Brexit, the election of Trump, [are] these the manifestations of some nations’ intention to cultivate their ideal version of citizens and environments? Or does this suggest a fear-inspired de-globalisation, localisation?
SH: It is predicated on fear. I mean the bottom line is you can only localise to some degree. We have the internet. The genie is out of the bottle. These ideas are like ostriches putting their head in the sand, totally unrealistic. We are facing an environmental crisis that requires cooperation across borders and nations. In terms of these idealised cities, it’s trying to go back to a utopia that never existed. Our world was always messy. It is just that we have potentially more access to seeing the different parts of the world. [And] how violent can they be in a developed country? What is the fallout of this?
At the same time, there is a positive aspect. A lot of people are recognising we are coming together in a different way. But there is a huge conflict that is moving towards a large crisis. We all cannot keep consuming as we do. We have to come to an agreement about what we all consume and what we all exchange. But a lot of people are not willing to give this up. And leaders of a lot of nations do not necessarily set an example as to how one would do this. Our tribal leaders are failing us. They are cavorting with the corrupt.
JW: When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I was (still am) shaken by the living condition of the local elder people and domestic helpers. Your story ‘The ladies of Sheung Wan’ deeply resonates with me. It tells [of] the devastated situations of some minorities in a deliberate quiet and matter-of -fact tone, really powerful! In this era when more and more people are being pushed to the edges of their living due to gentrification or forced migration, how do you think storytelling may give them a voice and help us to reimagine some alternate possibilities?
SH: I think part of this is that we pathologise poverty. We blame people for their poverty. Hawaii has one of the highest homeless rates in the nation. What’s funny is, here is my son who grew up in a rural village in Hong Kong – people assume that there would be more hopeless people in Hong Kong, but that is not always so in every area or district. There were no homeless people in our small village. Oh there were two for a while. But we knew who they were. People are poor but they are not homeless in the same way. This was new for him, seeing [so many] homeless people. But this is also modern urban life where housing is unaffordable. It is ignoring economic reality. There needs to be more mixed housing. […] It really comes down [to the fact] that the property developer is given too much reign, at least here in Hawaii, and on top of that, the school systems across the US are underfunded which prompts people to move, and then creates traffic and other issues.
We are not thinking long term about the health of a culture or a place to people. This is not in one place. I also wanted to show in this story that there is a myth, an Asian myth that we take care of our old people and all those terrible people in the West are mean to their elderly. Cruelty to elderly is not one culture’s problem. And elderly women are particularly vulnerable. And you see them, they are still doing hard labour. Sheung Wan is now the lower Soho in Hong Kong, it got gentrified. The problem is that there are too many people accustomed to seeing this as normal. You have to have the imagination to see that we can live in another way.
JW: Do you think there is a danger that we may eventually normalise Trump? How can writers and artists resist the materialisation of the wall, Trump’s wall?
SH: I think for a lot of writers and artists, this is the time to resist. The very nature of art is rebellion. The very nature of art is to speaking what should not be spoken. There is no particular one way that we will solve the problem. It is to listen to the different ideas. If we talk about the election of Trump, this to me was very interesting in terms of how the women divided their vote. Ninety-four per cent of black women voted against him. For my money, if we all got behind black women as leaders we would at least be ahead. But I am hoping that with more intersectional feminism, we can listen more to women. If you listen to the women, black women, in particular, or women of colour, and yes white women, we can move forward. But the white women tipped the vote to Trump. They have some work to do. Not all. But many of them are attempting to preserve their status quo, their existence, not realising the white men are catapulting us all to a disaster.
JW: What are you reading at the moment? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
SH: I just finished reading The Hidden Life of Trees. I am still interested in tribal, ethnic [issues] but now I have a greater interest in [the] natural world and how this is linked to our behaviour. I am thinking of the Micronesian families. They are sort of like refugees here in Hawaii, everybody looks down on them because they are impoverished. The US Army bombed their area. The soil is all contaminated, so is the sand. Sometimes they came here for healthcare. Their stories need to be told. That’s the environmental refugees’ story.
Image: ‘Hong Kong Sunset’ / Mike Behnken