Thursday, July 27
10 Langley Rd
Newton, MA 02459
Author Kaitlin Solimine will host a reading at Newtonville Books.
“I stood on an overpass in Shanghai with my Chinese father, who I call ‘Baba’ (father), as he pointed to the urban landscape surrounding us,” recounts Kaitlin Solimine. “‘That’s the theatre where my mother took me before she died,’ he said. ‘They’re knocking it down. That hotel there? My father built that, brick by brick. The city was flat then. Pudong? Ha! That was just marshland.’”
At the time (mid-2000s), Kaitlin was on a Fulbright scholarship, with the intention of transcribing her host family’s history and embedding it within the socio-cultural landscape of China’s changes over the last century. However, as she spoke with Baba, she realized there was a greater story here. “Baba told me, an American woman, these personal narratives. His daughter said he’d never told her any of these stories. ‘If you write any of this,’ she said, ‘you’ll need to add some romance and violence. Make it a more dramatic story.’” Building upon the existing framework of that simple story—an American woman lives with a Chinese family who shares with her their story—Kaitlin crafted her amazing debut, Empire of Glass, a grand, experimental epic that chronicles the seismic changes in China over the last half century through the lens of one family’s experiences.
Empire of Glass is a book that illuminates the possibilities in cross-cultural connection, but also the complications, even violence, inherent in these relationships. “I thought a lot about ‘ownership’ of stories,” says Kaitlin. “When I was collecting some of the stories that formed the original basis for the novel, Baba would tell me stories others had told him. In doing this, it was clear to me he could retell these stories however he deemed appropriate, colored by his own perspective. This made me think about how family stories are passed down, but also how we translate a story by way of its writing and re-telling, and how we in turn insert our own expectations and desires in this act.”
Living in China was a life-changing experience for Kaitlin. “We didn’t have internet then, or mobile phones, and from Beijing’s horizon poked just one skyscraper. We traveled to parts of China where no one had ever seen foreigners. China felt on the verge of a major transformation and I wanted to be able to witness that, as well as study the socio-cultural and historical basis for the changes I was seeing first-hand.”
One of her goals in writing Empire of Glass was to present these changes by painting an accurate portrait of the “real China.” “I think a lot of Western media coverage presents China as this power-hungry, materially-focused culture full of cutthroat individuals looking to get rich quick,” says Kaitlin. “I, however, made incredibly deep and lasting relationships with individuals who were nothing like this, empathetic, kind individuals who are fighting against the very real political threats to free speech, environmental protection, and individual rights. These people are eager to make connections outside China, and for their voices and opinions to be heard.”
An issue that that was always on Kaitlin’s mind when writing the book was that of being a non-Chinese writer writing about China. “This is a question with which I have struggled since beginning this project,” she shares. “I recognized my limitations as a non-Chinese writer and attempted to fill gaps in my knowledge with deep research as well as a year’s worth of formal interviews with friends and family in China. That said, my book’s frame (as a translation of a given text) specifically points out this disjuncture—by being a translation, I hoped to display not only my personal discomfort with sitting on this boundary but also the fact that there is a violence and an act of not only cultural appropriation, but also a legacy of imperialism, which has influenced this writing process.”
Ultimately, Kaitlin did not write this book because China is a “hot subject,” or because she felt she had any specific “right” to the characters and narratives. “Personally, I wrote Empire of Glass because I had become so deeply embroiled in one family’s history and I wanted to understand the possibilities, as well as the complications, in this unlikely relationship.”
EMPIRE OF GLASS
JUNE 20, 2017
Kaitlin Solimine has been a Fulbright Fellow in China, and has received several scholarships, awards, and residencies for her writing, including the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award for an earlier draft of Empire of Glass, judged by Colson Whitehead. Her fiction has been published in Guernica, the Kartika Review, and numerous anthologies. Kaitlin is co-founder of HIPPO Reads, a network connecting academic insights and scholars to the wider public. She resides in San Francisco with her husband and daughter, where she is a SF Grotto Writing Fellow and is an associate producer of the childbirth documentary, Of Woman Born.
Advance Praise for Empire of Glass
“Empire of Glass is a bold and luminous book, a novel that captures the great upheavals of history and the smallest fissures in family life with equal attention, intimacy, and insight. Kaitlin Solimine has found an affecting, unexpected angle from which to understand China’s tumultuous recent past: the relationship between the American homestay student and her Chinese parents is at once tender, complicated, and moving, and her attempts at telling their story a reminder that translation can be both a baffling responsibility and a profound act of love.”
—National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner finalist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
“Intriguing and touching, Empire of Glass is a boldly imagined work that succeeds with its stylistic risks as a great novel and also a compelling read!”
—Heidi W. Durrow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
“Despite the novel’s acrobatically intricate narrative structure, it’s a pleasure to read Empire of Glass. Nearly each sentence is breathtakingly beautiful, and I have the impression that Kaitlin Solimine must have written the novel calligraphically, caressing each letter and image.”
—Man Booker Finalist Josip Novakovich