Kit Fan: award-winning poet speaks on language, migration and writing

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To Kit Fan, the acts of reading and writing are connected by an umbilical cord. ‘The two things kind of feed each other—it’s hard to know which is the mother and which is the baby,’ the poet told me over a cup of coffee on the 15th of October, in between his events for the Durham Book Festival 2023.

Fan is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of the novel Diamond Hill (2021), as well as three critically acclaimed poetry collections. His most recent collection, The Ink Cloud Reader (2023), has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection.

The Durham Book Festival 2023 was a Durham County Council event, organised by New Writing North in collaboration with Durham University and Arts Council England. Earlier that day, Fan had hosted a workshop titled ‘The First Ten Pages’ at Clayport Library as part of the Festival, where, with a sold out audience, he explored the importance of a novel’s beginning. 

‘I tried not to answer that question [of how to open a novel],’ confessed Fan. Rather than feeding the workshop attendees a single ‘magic potion’, he stressed the importance of finding an opening suited to one’s specific story. When readers open a book, they take it for granted that they are entering a world created by the novelist, he explained. His openings aim to improve this experience by vividly evoking the five senses.

‘The two things kind of feed each other—it’s hard to know which is the mother and which is the baby,’

Kit Fan

The sometimes-interchanging, always-codependent relation between reader and writer has been present in Fan’s literary life from the start. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Fan claims Cantonese rather than English as his mother tongue; stowed away regularly in a public library while his mother went to work, he was first exposed to fiction ‘definitely in Chinese’. Yet stories about China were not all he consumed—he would leaf through the pages of translated fairy tales from the brothers Grimm, before turning to a cartoon copy of the Ming dynasty classic Journey to the West.   

Fan attributed this mix of cultures to Hong Kong being ‘like a melting pot’. Recalling a similar plurality within his studies and the wider society, he described his resulting feelings of dissociation: a British colony at the time, Hong Kong had adopted English as the only medium of instruction for most school subjects; yet Cantonese remained the default social language between classmates. Colonialism’s dominant imposition of English—and by extension Western culture—created a strong opposition with the local language and traditions, catching those like Fan in between. 

According to Fan, to write and create in English was not a conscious decision. Ultimately, however, absorbing knowledge of geography, economics, and history in the medium of English throughout his youth meant that the foreign language became ‘the lens [he] use[s] to see the world’. Fan went on to study a rigorous, traditional English literature curriculum rooted in the Bible and Homer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; after graduation, he came to the UK for his master’s and doctoral degrees, and has been a permanent British citizen since. He referred to the moment he started dreaming in English during his PhD as a ‘watershed’: suddenly, the foreign tongue was replacing his native consciousness. 

“Colonialism’s dominant imposition of English—and by extension Western culture—created a strong opposition with the local language and traditions, catching those like Fan in between”

When asked whether he thought there was anything lost in adopting English as his main medium of communication and creativity, Fan quoted Robert Frost’s famous line: ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation’. ‘You can argue that how we communicate with each other through language, regardless of what language is used, involves loss in translation,’ he said. ‘Like the way I’m speaking to you and you’re trying to jot things down—a lot of things are being miscommunicated, and at the same time, communicated correctly […] I think poetry is that: what exactly is being communicated on the page, and what is hidden.’ 

Although Fan values the ‘hidden’ in poetry and its role in maintaining a guessing game between reader and writer, he was willing to shed some light on the central emotions and sources of inspiration behind The Ink Cloud Reader, from which he would be reading at a showcase hosted by the Poetry Book Society that same day. 

‘This book was written in a very turbulent time, from around 2019 up to 2022,’ Fan shared. Multiple drastic changes had collided in his life: the pandemic and accompanying lockdown; the specific illness of his partner against this greater backdrop; the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. ‘I felt like it was a very dark time in human history, but at the same time particularly for me, as a person, because my partner was ill; particularly for me, as someone who was brought up in Hong Kong. I was thousands of miles away, feeling my city was undergoing seismic transformation, and I couldn’t return because of the pandemic.’

The penetration of turmoil on multiple levels is reflected in his collection. Divided into three sections, the book first features intimate poems exploring the relationships between people (‘Once Upon a Cloud’), then moves on to Fan’s home city in ‘Hong Kong, China’. The final section, ‘Broken Nosed Jizō’, turns its gaze to the wider world and dwells upon crises such as earthquakes in Japan and the war in Yemen.   

“Like the way I’m speaking to you and you’re trying to jot things down—a lot of things are being miscommunicated, and at the same time, communicated correctly […] I think poetry is that: what exactly is being communicated on the page, and what is hidden.”

Linking these diverse topics together is the central image of the ‘Ink Cloud’, which also arises from Fan’s experiences in the pandemic. Like everyone else, he spent most of his days locked up indoors, working in front of a screen; it was here that the clouds, floating outside his window, caught his attention. Their potency and unpredictability, especially in the context of the current climate emergency, spoke to his own uncertainty about ‘the purpose of many things’. To Fan, clouds embody the turbulence, but also comfort, of change, reminding him that the world we experience now will not be the world people experience 20 years later.

  This prompted him to draw a connection with his own medium of writing—ink. In his mind, the ink and the cloud are intertwined: both liquid, both shape-shifting, both intimately linked with the forming and reforming of our thoughts on the page. Through their depiction of violent upheavals in his life or the wider society, his poems capture this intersection of ominous fluidity.

One such change recorded in his poetry is migration and diasporic exile. Hong Kong’s population has been dropping constantly for the past three years, with a net outflow of 600,000 in 2022. Situated within this context, ‘The Shape of the Wind’ opens with the lines ‘You asked if I remembered my passport / my air ticket, the thirst / for elsewhere packed in my rucksack, / but we mustn’t speak about the shape of the wind’. Fan recognises the exodus of Hong Kongers from the city as a guaranteed, existing reality. The rest of the poem outlines the ambivalence of this experience: rooted in the sadness of leaving one’s home behind it may be, but also full of potential. At the same time, Fan pointed out that Hong Kong itself is already largely composed of historical immigrants and their families. His parents were immigrants themselves; the city has always been diasporic in nature. ‘But just because it’s not a new story doesn’t mean it’s not a painful story,’ he emphasised. 

“Their potency and unpredictability, especially in the context of the current climate emergency, spoke to his own uncertainty about ‘the purpose of many things’”

‘The Shape of the Wind’ was inspired by Cantopop singer-songwriter Yoyo Sham’s song of the same name. For Fan, her lyrics captured the uncertain liminality between staying and leaving currently faced by many young people back home. But the dialogue between the Hong Kong-based singer and Fan’s poem, written in the UK, also illuminates something greater: the presence of an implicit community of creators, connected through their shared topics of creation. According to Fan, writing about Hong Kong has given him opportunities to connect with writers back home, here in the UK, and in America, creating a network spanning continents—and he foresees that the network will continue to expand as ‘there are more stories to be told’.

The sense of unpredictable metamorphosis is not only embodied in the content of his poems, but also in their presentation on the page. Poems in The Ink Cloud Reader take on a wide range of forms: ‘Glück’ follows the format of a play, while ‘A Story of a Labyrinth’ and ‘Moon Salutation’ mimic the shape of their titular items. Describing himself as a visual writer, Fan emphasised that form often arises from our sensory responses to the world: for instance, when he wanted to pose questions about death to the oracle of Delphi, the memory of the temple’s ruined pillars from his personal visit there came to mind. This led to his structuring of the poem ‘Delphi’ into six columns, mirroring the site’s visuals. ‘I had a very good conversation with Alice Oswald, and we were both talking about what form is,’ he relayed. ‘She told me how she would just start sketching; putting lines, shapes—not words—on a piece of paper […] It’s inescapable as writers that we are influenced by what we see, what we touch, what we taste and what we smell—even in form.’

“Fan hopes to spark conversations between generations and collate different perspectives about the past.”

These conversations on paper and in person, with Hong Kong singers and British poets alike cement the importance of intellectual exchange across national and cultural borders. While Fan mostly engages with established adult creators, he also stressed the importance of forging further connections unrestricted by generational boundaries. Noting that Chinese and diasporic literature tend to focus on specific family units and the intimate relationships within, Fan argued that intergenerational dialogue should be conceptualised more broadly on a societal level instead. ‘Family is such a strong construct in Chinese culture,’ he said. ‘But it also restricts us—the family is a grand narrative that mandates a lot of responsibility. I don’t want intergenerational connection to be just about the family.’ 

He raised the example of A Simple Life, an award-winning 2011 film starring famous Hong Kong actors Andy Lau and Deanie Ip. While it is based on the highly personal relationship between an upper-middle-class family and their long-time retainer, the movie also deals with wider questions about how societies should deal with ageing—for instance, whether old people should be placed in care homes and why. Fan tries to engage in such conversations in his own work: his novel Diamond Hill includes, amongst its cast of characters, an old man who runs an orchid nursery. By writing about the elderly, Fan hopes to spark conversations between generations and collate different perspectives about the past.

For the next generation of writers, meanwhile, Fan has one main piece of advice: read more. ‘Read for pleasure,’ he stressed. ‘I remember some of the books that influenced me the most weren’t on the curriculum […] I know nowadays students are very driven by learning outcomes—what they’re getting from this module, what they’re “supposed to” learn. But ultimately, that’s not how we experience literature.’

Aside from conducting administrative work at Hull York Medical School, Fan is currently working on his second novel.

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