Penman No. 7: Creative Writing in Hong Kong

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2012

I WAS honored a couple of weeks ago to be invited to visit the City University of Hong Kong to conduct a workshop for their graduate writing students and to give a reading before a gathering of some of Hong Kong’s brightest writing talents, students and teachers alike.

I’d been to CityU before—two years ago, I attended a literary conference there, then stayed on for the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Established only in 1984, CityU (I kept calling it CUHK, until I realized that these initials were already in use by the Chinese University of Hong Kong) has distinguished itself as one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and modern campuses, oriented toward the world and the future. Aside from the more traditional disciplines, for example, it has a School of Creative Media which teaches everything from Animation to Computational Art and a newly opened School of Energy and Environment where students can specialize in Climate Science and Energy Technology, among others.

The focus on business and technology is hardly surprising in a place like Hong Kong. What struck me was its apparent bid to become a cultural leader in the region as well—and not just in things Chinese, but in areas dominated and nearly monopolized by Western centers of learning.

A case in point was the CityU program that brought me over—Asia’s first and, so far, only low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) program. Only in its third year, the program has already attracted many first-rate students and teachers from around Asia and much farther beyond.

At the program’s helm is Xu Xi, a gifted fictionist and essayist who’s the living example of hybridity—she’s Indonesian Chinese, was raised in Hong Kong, and took her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She teaches at Vermont College, but has taken time out to direct the writing program at CityU. Though she’s now an American citizen, Hong Kong is in Xu Xi’s blood and imagination, permeating her fiction. She’s become one of the prime movers of creative writing in the region; we were fellow finalists for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and she came over as a panelist at the Dumaguete Writers Workshop two years ago.

In setting up their program, Xu Xi and CityU were deftly capitalizing on Hong Kong’s strategic position as an entrepot attracting people from all over the world, with its large expat community and a new generation of Chinese students writing in English. CityU’s English department was built up and strengthened by the likes of language and literature expert Kingsley Bolton (who gave a wonderful lecture on how the Chinese learned and used English, when I was there) who, a few years ago, co-edited a book with Ma. Lourdes Bautista on Philippine English.

The MFA, of course, remains the global standard for advanced studies in creative writing. (In a radio interview, my fellow Distinguished Visiting Writer, the English novelist Jill Dawson, and I were asked the perennial question: “If Charles Dickens didn’t need an MFA to write his novels, why should anyone?” We answered just as predictably: “You don’t need the MFA to write a novel, but it helps you to focus on writing your novel in an age full of distractions, which Dickens didn’t have to deal with. Besides, if painting and music can be taught and learned, so can writing.”)

There are hundreds of MFA and MA Creative Writing programs around the world today—the MFA tends to be longer and more intensive, and is considered a terminal degree—causing us teachers of writing to ask in wonder and consternation: “Why do so many people want to be writers?” The MFA’s low-residency version has been a recent innovation, with Xu Xi’s Vermont College among the pioneers; there are now around 50 such programs in the US, but only CityU offers one with a distinctly Asian orientation.

Under such programs, students sign up for one-on-one distance mentoring with the program’s international teaching staff, recruited from among the world’s best writers (including our very own New York-based poet Luis Francia). Once a year, for about ten days during the Hong Kong summer, everyone gets together on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong for a series of intensive day-long workshops with the majority of the faculty in attendance. Students are required to produce a creative thesis, a substantial body of work, and the program should be doable in two years. (Two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—are in the program; I also met students from the US, the UK, Australia, and, of course, Hong Kong and China.)

There are pluses and minuses to this kind of arrangement, but it’s clearly a boon to those who may otherwise be too busy or just don’t have the option of attending classes and workshops physically in a university, especially a foreign one. It’s less expensive than a traditional campus-based MFA—certainly less than a US or a UK degree—given that one needs to fly in to Hong Kong only occasionally. But Hong Kong being what it is, it’s by no means cheap, especially for Filipinos used to paying UP tuition fees. The costs aside, the international character of the program in terms of both its students and faculty is its strongest aspect, privileging, for once, an Asian sensibility over the usual Anglo-American bias in creative writing in English.

This was something we could’ve done at the University of the Philippines—we’ve had a 30-year lead over everyone else in the region, after all, in offering degrees in Creative Writing—but sadly we just don’t have the funds and the flexibility to attract the kind of international teaching staff you need for a program of this scale and orientation.

But thinking in terms of the region, CityU’s MFA program is a boost for Asian writing and teaching as a whole, the beginning of the reversal of a century-old paradigm where we learned to write in English only in and from the West.

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