By Carmen Tomfohrde and Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a Hong Kong-born writer. She is a founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an editor of the academic journal Victorian Network. Tammy holds a BA (First Class Honours) and an MPhil from HKU, and a PhD from King’s College London. Her poems have been published widely and have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and also for the Forward Prize. She has also published articles on Victorian and contemporary literature. She is currently an Assistant Professor of literature at Hong Kong Baptist University. To learn more about Tammy, please visit her website.
What is your opinion of the literary scene in Hong Kong?
In some ways, the English-language literary scene in Hong Kong is vibrant, diverse, and always evolving. It also provides a constructive environment for writers. Universities offer creative writing courses and MFA programmes (the School of English at HKU, for example, has a long history of nurturing creative writers); there are a number of writers’ groups and regular poetry reading events; we have a yearly international literary festival, which has become a much-awaited event for many people; and several English-language publishers (e.g. Chameleon Press, Blacksmith Books, Signal 8 Press) and literary journals (e.g. Yuan Yang, Asia Literary Review, Cha) are based here.
In terms of the scene, you must remember that Hong Kong is an international city: people come and go—it is that kind of city—and every passing writer who participates in local writing events gives a little bit of himself or herself to the scene (and hopefully takes a bit of Hong Kong with them); but there are also those who are born here or who are originally from abroad but have chosen the city as their physical, psychological and ideological home. The Hong Kong literary scene that we see is the unique result of the interaction, collaboration and gentle contestation between these two roughly defined groups of writers.
Yet, as I have said elsewhere, when it comes down to it, the literary circle in Hong Kong is relatively modest. I have also said that Hong Kong is by and large not a very literary city and that is, sadly, still the case. But it is quality that counts ultimately, not size. And despite the fact that a certain level of literature-apathy pervades the city (Hong Kong is more commercially driven than culturally driven), one should not feel disheartened; one should still try to get people interested in writing and art. That is why my editorial team at Cha and I are still working on the journal: we want to continue to promote Asian literature and introduce Hong Kong, and Asian, literature to the wider literary community.
(On a related note: if people are interested in Hong Kong literature, I recommend that they check out the Hong Kong English Literature Database, created and run by Professor Elaine Yee Lin Ho and her team of contributors from the School of English at The University of Hong Kong. The database provides a rich corpus of English writing about Hong Kong, and short summaries and critical comments on more than 100 titles are available on the website.)
In this age of technological saturation, has it become cliché to speak of a literary scene tied to a fixed geographic location, say, Asia?
Has it become clichéd to speak of a literary scene tied to a fixed geographical location? I don’t think so. We define ourselves all the time, either consciously or unconsciously, by many characteristics: age, gender, race, sexual orientation, the food we eat, the language(s) we speak, artistic affiliations, literary tastes, ideology, occupation, etc. Geographical location is just one more of these characteristics. Some writers may find it helpful and comforting to describe themselves by making reference to their particular locale, city or region; others may not. That having been said, as an editor of an online literary journal, which transcends cartographical boundaries, I am aware of the general trend towards reconsidering and redefining physical geography. That is why at Cha we strive to have a very inclusive and broad notion of the Asian writing community. I feel that when we talk about the Asian writing community, we cannot only narrowly think about writers (locals and expats) who are found on the continent. Instead in a globalised world, the idea of Asia and Asian writing is more fluid and should encompass the perspectives of writers from the diasporas, travellers to the region and even people with an interest in the continent. Asia on the map is finite but Asia can be everywhere conceptually.
Do you feel it is necessary for local writers to write in English, or to arrange for a translation of their work into English, to gain exposure?
To begin with, I don’t think I am necessarily in the position to speak for other local writers. But if I had to speculate based on my own experience, I would say that for most Hong Kong writers writing in English is less a matter of necessity than of choice. In other countries, the situation may be different and writers may be forced to use English to find an audience, as their language has a limited number of readers, or perhaps for political reasons. But this is not necessarily the case in Hong Kong, as Chinese (in this case written) is an influential language and its importance in the global linguistic map can be felt more and more acutely every day; it is surely not marginalized or oppressed in any obvious way. It is therefore not necessary for its users to write in another language. Instead, it is a choice, a choice that many people who are forced to forego and forget their first languages in other locations may have been denied.
Speaking from my own experience, English is a more comfortable language for me because of its estranged familiarity. I find it more challenging and therefore perhaps more interesting and provoking to write in English than Chinese.
I suppose your question is really about international exposure. It perhaps assumes that English is a more effective language to use, compared to Chinese, if one wishes to reach a larger, perhaps global, readership. Now, obviously if we are talking about readers in Hong Kong or China, Chinese is going to be a more effective way of reaching readers. And probably if we are speaking about a broad international audience, English would be better. But I don’t actually think that writers should, or do, concern themselves with which language to use when writing—they use what feels natural for their own writing. I believe that good writing will find an audience, whether in its original language or in translation. If it is good and solid, it will receive its due exposure.
Speaking particularly of English and Chinese, translation between the two languages is very common now. I have myself done translations for publications such as Pathlight and Chinese Literature Today. It goes both ways: Chinese writers want their work to be translated into English to gain a wider audience and English writers, at the same time, wish their pieces translated into Chinese to gain a Chinese readership.
Has your academic writing on Victorian fiction influenced your creative work as a poet? Is there a relationship between your analytic and creative writing?
I don’t think my creative writing has been influenced much by my Victorian studies apart from some Victorian-themed poems such as “Victorian Working Class Women”, “The Newlyweds” and “Soliloquy of a Street Kid”. Also, although I find great pleasure analysing and understanding the formal structure of Victorian poetry, this knowledge has not, unfortunately, translated into my own writing: my poems are often not written in the forms and rhythms of 19th century poetry. That said, I don’t think analytic writing and creative writing are essentially different: good critical writing has creative elements and vice versa.
From your extensive resume, it appears you must be an expert at time management. How do you keep the creative spirit alive while balancing editorial responsibilities and university teaching?
If you really, really, really want to do something, you will be able to make time to do it. I often bear Geoff Dyer’s motto in mind: ‘If you’re not overprepared you’re underprepared.’ This does not mean that I always manage to do everything I want, however. I prioritise: teaching comes first, then research, then the journals that I edit, and lastly, my own creative endeavours. Sometimes, if I don’t have time to write poetry, I still make up possible titles for new works, such as “China Does Not Have Conventional Time Zones”, “First Public Fighting, After Dark”, “Most Women Moan in the Key of E” and “Elephantocetomachia”. (I am hoping that now that I have told others about these titles, pride alone will force me to write the poems.)
I am happy to be teaching at Baptist University because I feel that here my creative work is appreciated and recognised. Also, the university promotes the pursuit of creative development in students in a number of ways and I can contribute my expertise in some of them. For example, last year, I was a judge of both the university’s poetry and short story contests. Because I teach poetry (“Western Poetry and Poetics”), drama (“Modern Drama”) and fiction (“Art of Storytelling”), creative writing is always in sight. I also like going to the theatre and attending literary events with my students. This semester, some of us went to see Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and we also went to the launch of OutLoud Too, the second poetry anthology by the HK Poetry OutLoud collective.
At the launch of OutLoud Too with students from Hong Kong Baptist University
In what ways did HKU equip you for the life that you are now leading?
I don’t think it is hyperbolic to say that without my experiences at HKU, first as an undergraduate student, then as an MPhil candidate and later as a demonstrator, that there is no Tammy Ho, at least as she is today. The university and its staff, especially those from the School of English, helped me develop my intellectual rigor, my creative writing and my editorial skills—three of the most important things that define me today. Professor Douglas Kerr, for example, not only taught me literature (from Beowulf to Hopkins, he opened my eyes to the world of writing beyond the confines of a few literature courses), he was also one of the first people/mentors to encourage me to write poetry, although he may not remember this now. Likewise, Professor Christopher Hutton, when I approached him to ask if it was possible for him to give me more work to do (I was working as a demonstrator then), introduced me to Professor Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who invited me to edit Hong Kong U Writing: An Anthology. This experience gave me the confidence to go on to edit other creative works and start Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. And even when I was studying in London and was no longer officially associated with HKU, the professors in the School of English continued to inspire me. It was a high point in my young writing life, for example, to learn that Professor Elaine Ho had written about my poetry in some journal articles. Finally, apart from the people, the university library also played an important role in equipping me for an academic life. I spent much time there, devouring many books, and I suggest other aspiring scholars do the same (even in this digital world).
Did you find it easy to readjust to Hong Kong after your PhD in London?
It was difficult at first. The Hong Kong I left for London in September 2008 was different from the Hong Kong I returned to in September 2012. I only came back once during my absence, in 2010, and even at that time I already had the impression that the city was changing. During that trip, I remember I was in a taxi from the airport to Tin Shui Wai (where my parents live) and looking out of the window, it seemed to me that the colours of the buildings were fading, and looked old. Hong Kong felt like someone else’s inaccurate memory of the city and not my city.
Then when I returned to Hong Kong for good in late 2012, I felt that there was a gap between the Hong Kong of my memory and the Hong Kong in front of me: the air smelt different, the streets were more crowded, there was more (or at least new) Cantonese slang that I didn’t understand. I cannot say I have now fully adjusted to Hong Kong, one year on. But perhaps this is a good thing. This sense of subtle alienation keeps me alert to my surroundings: I feel like I am both living in the city as a citizen and observing it with the eye of a foreigner.
What advice do you have for young writers seeking to connect their voice to the right audience?
One should always consider oneself as the only audience that really matters. One should also trust one’s voice and not compromise: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.’ First learn to spell correctly, punctuate well, and use words appropriately. Then, and only then, learn to ignore the rules. Lastly, don’t think it’s always easy to write. As Clarice Lispector wrote, ‘No, it’s not easy to write. It’s as hard as breaking rocks. But sparks and splinters fly like flashing steel.’