The Stella Interviews: Louisa Lim
Congratulations on being longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
To see Indelible City recognized in this way is particularly meaningful to me since this book was quite painful to write. It is a love letter to the city that I call home, but a place which has been transformed irrevocably by the National Security legislation of 2020. Even while I was writing it, I knew its publication would make it hard for me to return to Hong Kong. This became even more obvious after the National security legislation was imposed which made political books like Indelible City more risky. But I was determined to write without constraint, and the only way that I could do that was if I already accepted that I would not return. So the book was also a farewell elegy that exacted a personal cost, and that makes its recognition even more special.
Your longlisted book, Indelible City, has been described by Kevin Carrico (The Conversation) as a “testimonial to the intertwined vitality, tragedy and hope of Hong Kong”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of your work?
One of the book’s central themes is a reflection on the idea of history, and who gets to write history. In the case of Hong Kong— which was a British colony until 1997 when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty — its history was written for it twice over by colonial rulers. Each time Hong Kongers did not have any say in how their history was told. So my ambition was to write a Hong Kong history book that restores and centres Hong Kong voices.
I also wanted to set straight some misconceptions about Hong Kong, for example the fiction that Hong Kongers are non-political and only interested in making money. In fact, from the very beginning, Hong Kongers have been extremely political, even waging an armed conflict – the Six-Day War – against the lease of the New Territories in 1898. So when millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets in 2019 to protest, this was just the latest in a long series of political protests.
In the book, I also trace the life of an extraordinary icon who people called the King of Kowloon. His name was Tsang Tsou-choi, and he was a filthy, mentally incompetent trash sorter who believed that the peninsula of Kowloon had been stolen from his family when it was ceded to the British. For half a century, he made his claim over his dominion in very shaky, crooked calligraphy. In 1997 a curator organized an art exhibition for him, and he subsequently became Hong Kong’s most valuable artist. I was fascinated in his story, but also in the way that he became a local icon, appearing in movies, songs and poetry, with his wonky calligraphy plastered over underwear and t-shirts and doona covers. I was fascinated by the way in which he spoke to Hong Kongers before they even knew what they wanted to say.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How long did Indelible City take to write from start to finish?
Indelible City took me eight years from start to finish, so it was a very long project. Along the way, the book changed radically as Hong Kong was rocked by massive protest movements, first with the 2014 Umbrella Movement and then with the gigantic anti-Extradition Law protests in 2019. At first, I couldn’t find an agent to represent me or a publisher who was interested in the book. I kept being told there was no market for Hong Kong books. I was disheartened, but I continued to plod away as I felt there was a story that was not being told. Later on, after the 2019 protests broke out, some of those agents and publishers who had rejected me came flocking back to court me, so it was a useful lesson for me in the fickle tastes of the publishing industry. I was lucky to find publishers, Text in Australia and Riverhead in the US, who were committed to the book that I wanted to write. My writing process was very slow and iterative, basically ploughing over and over the same sentences until I got to the conclusion when it was the opposite; I drank enormous amounts of whisky, and just sat at my desk, wailing, and writing through my tears.
Are there any particular books or authors that have inspired and informed your writing?
It’s a bit like the Russian Doll of inspiration. My book was inspired by Atlas; The Archaeology of an Imaginary City which was written in 1997 by an amazing Hong Kong author called Dung Kai-cheung. It’s an odd book, as it’s a fictional imagined history of Hong Kong that is in some ways truer than its actual history, and it opened my eyes to the ways in which authors can reimagine history. That book was inspired in turn by Hal Empson’s Mapping Hong Kong; A Historical Atlas, which is both the most expensive book I’ve ever bought and the largest. It’s an extraordinary, huge slab of a book, published in 1992, which gathers together all the historical maps of Hong Kong. Both of these books were foundational to Indelible City.
What’s on your reading pile at the moment?
I spent the beginning of this year in a Scottish castle with no internet, where I luxuriated in having the time to read widely and deeply. The book that really stood out was Tove Ditlevsen’s Youth, Childhood, Dependency which I found to be absolutely compulsive. The writing is deceptively simple, and it took me to an utterly unfamiliar world. I also re-read Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, which absolutely stood the test of time. Those scenes that transfixed me decades ago when I first read it still held me in their thrall. I’m now reading Tania Branigan’s Red Memory which is a lyrical and profound meditation about China’s Cultural Revolution and the forces that drove such destructive chaos. Next on my pile is Agota Kristof’s The Notebook Trilogy, which I’m excited about reading.
Find out more about Louisa Lim’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong.