Stephanie Han splits her time between the feral spaces of Mui Wo and the bright lights of Honolulu. Her witty and timely debut short story collection strikes a chord with Elizabeth Kerr.
Some of us are waking up. At a time when Hollywood studios are figuring out, however slowly, that diversity is not only important (actor Ed Skrein had to point that out by giving up a role as a Japanese character Hellboy in August), but simply right – and that it makes money – author Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong is as timely as it is rare.
Stephanie’s 2017 Paterson Short Fiction prize-winning story collection, exploring culture, identity and exchange, was 20 years – and 150 rejections – in the making. “I’m used to rejection. I’m so familiar with it, I’m hardly bothered by it anymore,” she says, on the phone from Waikiki. That’s where the rare part comes in. It’s not often an English-language book from the SAR hits shelves.
Swimming in Hong Kong
Born in St Louis, Missouri and raised in at least six states, Stephanie currently divides her time between Mui Wo and Honolulu, with her financial journalist husband, Stephen Aldred, and primary school-aged son. For most of us the idea of coming from Honolulu and making a home in Lantau wouldn’t seem too much of a leap, but Stephanie points out that the family’s life in Hawaii is very urban, and in Hong Kong it’s very rural.
“Mui Wo is wide open spaces, and we thought it would be a good place for our son to breathe fresh air,” she says. “He had a very feral early childhood, running wild in the village square. There’s a nice community; people know each other. It’s very old-fashioned that way.”
While she’s intensely aware her biracial son will one day claim a unique identity, Stephanie’s own familial roots are in Hawaii. As a fourth generation Korean-American, she’s familiar with the snarl that can arise at the intersection of identity, nationality, culture and ethnicity.
An old saying suggests writers should write what they know, but Stephanie disagrees: “You can write what you know but it may be more useful to write what you question. In order to keep writing you need to want to explore something.” And Swimming in Hong Kong is full of exploration.
It’s easy to see why. Stephanie is a thinker, someone who ponders the greater meaning in our collective actions, behaviours and words. She resists being drawn into political discussions but an awareness of the world is visible – audible – beneath the surface. It’s easy to imagine her gesticulating as she speaks, but there’s also a grounded, connective bent to her words that balance searing intellectualism with everyday experience. She’s easy to talk to.
Roots and wings
Stephanie and husband Stephen met in 1997 when she was teaching in Korea, before she started teaching English literature at the University of Hong Kong in 2002, and before she became City University of Hong Kong’s first PhD of English Literature in 2010. Her road to published author started as a kid in a family that moved around a lot.
“I became a writer because I was a reader… I was awkward – a Korean in places where there weren’t many, and so I often had difficulty making friends,” she explains. “And my mother was a bookworm. She taught me that if I learnt to read I’d always have a friend in a book.”
Like most people who develop a taste for reading, Stephanie began with what she thought of as the greatest hits: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Dickens. Those ‘hits’ changed as she got older and discovered African-American writers like Richard Wright and Alice Walker in an effort to find the voices that were close to her own. “I wasn’t a picky reader,” she says. “I kind of read everything, but when I was a freshman at college I read Maxine Hong Kingston. That shaped me because she was the first Asian-American writer I read.”
Stephanie has spent more time in Hong Kong than in Korea, but doesn’t feel particularly connected to Chinese culture. She comes from a typical American home. “No one goes to Asia in my family; it’s either wine country or Vegas,” she notes. All those elements went into Swimming in Hong Kong, whose stories unfold in the US and Korea as well.
Cross-culturalism and identity
Stephanie claims she explored the idea of polyculturalism – the nature of how we exchange and cooperate – almost by accident. The conversation, however, couldn’t come at a more relevant time, and Stephanie’s 10 connective stories are by turns awkward, funny and razor-sharp in their ability to distil feelings of otherness (in the title story Swimming in Hong Kong), and searching (The Body Politic). Anyone who’s been there will understand the stories immediately, and those privileged enough to have never questioned where they fit in –something that’s explored in Invisible – should come away with a new appreciation for why representation matters.
“Some people don’t feel the need to question their national identity but that’s tough to do in Hong Kong, and in the US it’s broad and ever changing, same as in the UK,” Stephanie says. “What is an American, what is a Korean, and how can we consider ourselves? You can see smaller constructions of self in polyculturalism, where people align tribally more than nationally. There are values in those identities that people often think are irrelevant. We need to respect how people want to construct themselves and be thought of.”
Next up for Stephanie is a boarding school novel, co-authored with Deer Hunting in Paris’ Paula Young Lee, a high-school chum with whom she reconnected, decades later, via Facebook. The process opened her up to a whole new writing experience in telling a story very much about place that benefits from multiple viewpoints and artistic tacks.
“Collaboration is fun,” Stephanie enthuses. “Editing has found us examining how we each come to narrative and our differences in this make for an interesting collaboration. In our case, we are actually opposites: Paula looks at the entire picture and therefore the rules of structure that hold the picture, outside in, and I operate inside out, so to speak. I need an image or idea which leads to the character that in turn gives me the world.
Swimming in Hong Kong, Stephanie Han’s debut short story collection, is available at Pause in Mui Wo, at Bookazine, www.willowspringsbooks.org and on Amazon.Tags: Hong Kong, swimming in hong kong, stephanie han, book, mui wo