Friday, 1 March 2019

This Fish Is Fowl by Xu Xi

This Fish Is Fowl by Xu Xi
Published in the USA by University of Nebraska Press today, the 1st March 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In This Fish Is Fowl Xu Xi offers the transnational and feminist perspective of a contemporary “glocalized” American life. Xu’s quirky, darkly comic, and obsessively personal essays emerge from her diverse professional career as a writer, business executive, entrepreneur, and educator. From her origins in Hong Kong as an Indonesian of Chinese descent to her U.S. citizenship and multiple countries of residence, she writes her way around the globe.

Caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s in Hong Kong becomes the rhythmic accompaniment to an enforced, long-term, long-distance relationship with her partner and home in New York. In between Xu reflects on all her selves, which are defined by those myriad monikers of existence. As an author who began life as a novelist and fiction writer, she also considers the nature of genre, which snakes its way through these essays. In her linguistic trip across the comic tragedy that is globalism, she wonders about the mystery of humanity and the future of our world at this complicated and precarious moment in human existence.

This Fish Is Fowl is a twenty-first-century blend of the essayist traditions of both West and East. Xu’s acerbic, deft prose shows her to be a descendant of both Michel de Montaigne and Lu Xun, with influences from stepparent Jonathan Swift. 

I was attracted to this essay collection by its elegantly clever cover design. The duality of the fish and the duck image perfectly illustrates one of the recurring themes of Xu Xi's essays as she describes navigating a life split across several national identities. As someone who can feel 'at home' pretty much wherever on the globe she lays her hat, Xu Xi is very much a global citizen which, in this era of regressive nationalism and threats of stronger borders, is a refreshing outlook. Through the twenty-eight essays in this collection she explores questions of cultural and familial identity, especially as seen from her Hong Kong home - a crowded island city which understands cultural confusion only too well.

I loved Xu Xi's writing style and was entertained by her sense of humour throughout the book. I did find that overlapping information became irritatingly repetitive in the second half though. Perhaps this book is meant to be dipped into over a long period of time, rather than consumed within a week, in which case reiterating information might be useful to the reader. I found it meant I was sometimes skipping bits I had already been told and, consequently, losing the thread of particular essays.

Xu Xi doesn't shy away from intensely personal subjects such as her mother's Alzheimer's and her brother's death from cancer. She is also unapologetic about her multiple marriages and her decision to remain childless. This is absolutely not a stereotypically submissive Asian woman, yet I could understand and empathise with her questioning of whether she had actually chosen the 'right path'. I think this is the double-edged sword of women's slowly increasing independence and equality. In a world where we, theoretically at least, can now become anything, what should we each choose. Xu Xi discusses following her head to make this decision herself and then following her heart. With her personal and cultural background she approaches these big questions from a different angle to my own so I appreciated seeing and understanding the ways in which we differ in our outlooks, and also the ways in which we wholeheartedly agree.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Xu Xi / Biography and memoir / Books from Hong Kong


  1. Oh wow, I absolutely love that cover as well! It's very cool. And it sounds like her writing style means that reading these essays weren't a chore at all, and that she has some very honest and clear cut things to say. No beating around the bush here!

    1. This book has encouraged me to try and read more essay collections. It's a genre I haven't really explored before, but I enjoyed This Fish Is Fowl