By D. Dona Le
This summer, award-winning writer Kaitlin Solimine AB '02 is releasing her debut novel, Empire of Glass! In addition to co-founding Hippo Reads, a/k/a the "TED Talks for readers," Kaitlin was a Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow, a Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction (Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 2010), and received the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award. She concentrated in East Asian Studies at Harvard University and graduated from the UC San Diego MFA program in writing.
Q. What sparked your interest in China and your decision to concentrate in East Asian studies at Harvard?
A. When I was a freshman at Phillips Exeter, I requested to study Japanese but the class was full (this was in 1994 when Japan was in focus!) so the language director suggested I study Mandarin instead (ironically, less crowded). Immediately, I loved the language. My teacher, Ming Fontaine, told me about a home stay program, School Year Abroad (SYA), that had just launched in Beijing (the first high school home stay program in China!), and I jumped at the opportunity. Despite never having left the country, in 1996, I traveled with SYA to China and lived in Beijing as a teenager in my host family’s local apartment. I knew from that point onwards, I wanted to do a scholarly deep dive into Chinese history, culture, language, and more.
When I applied to college, Harvard’s East Asian Studies program stuck out—not only because one of the most famed China scholars, John K. Fairbank, had established a great program, but also because it was different from more traditional/classically-focused programs (like that at Princeton) and would allow me to take courses in a variety of disciplines, as well as to focus on modern China as a field of study.
Q. When did you know that you wanted to become a writer, and did that factor in to your decision to attend Harvard? How did your undergraduate experience impact your future work?
A. I think most writers say they were always drawn to narrative from a young age. That certainly was the case for me but I was always a terrible writer who was either too literal (I wrote a chronology of my week as a “book” in 3rd grade) or too embellished (one of my favorite Exeter instructors, Peter Greer, told me to tone down my poetry). Nevertheless, living in China exposed me to such a richness of narratives, history, and cultural perspectives that I persisted. At Harvard, I was a researcher-writer for Let’s Go: China (only the book’s second edition) and spent a summer traveling in the country’s “rust belt” of Dongbei where foreigners were few and far between. I later was an associate editor for two editions of Let’s Go: China—I’ve never had such an inspiring job as working for that guide.
The challenge of an East Asian Studies program like Harvard’s is that while it is creative in its approach of combining disciplinary access, students then have to decide, post-graduation, which aspect of their studies were most compelling. For me, I was attracted to the academic process itself—the act of asking a question, posing a thesis, and then researching the basis of that inquiry. I’ve come to find that the academic process is applicable across all industries. In writing, you are always drawn to a particular question or quandary that you aim for the narrative to address (if not fully answer), and then, for example, in entrepreneurial pursuits (as I experienced when co-founding my start-up, Hippo Reads), the same concept applies. I think the world discounts academic inquiry as a process that should remain within the ivory tower, but in actuality it is an exercise with widespread uses.
Q. How did you meet Anna Redmond, and what inspired the two of you to create Hippo Reads?
A. We met via Harvardwood! Although we were both at Harvard at the same time, we hadn’t met—then, when I lived in L.A., I started a Harvardwood novel writing group in order to workshop writing with fellow Harvard alum writers. Anna joined and workshopped her incredible fantasy novel, The Golden Arrow. We founded Hippo Reads in 2013 when we recognized a gap in the market for academic crossover writing. By 2014, we expanded the company to provide academically-researched thought leadership content for a range of clients.
Q. Has your team's vision for Hippo Reads been impacted by the current political climate and "fake news" increasingly becoming a topic of scrutiny?
A. Given our mission at Hippo Reads, we have always been a source of well-researched news coming straight from the mouths of our esteemed academic network. This has also allowed us to assist industry thought leaders in cutting through the landslide of “fake news” and “clickbait” content by way of providing their narratives a strongly-researched foundation.
Q. The narrative structure of your upcoming novel, EMPIRE OF GLASS, is quite unique, with the narrator-translator's story unfolding in footnotes; what made you decide to tell your story in this way?
A. For years, I struggled with the fact that I was an American, white woman writing a narrative that takes place in China and whether or not I should continue writing the novel. While I have lived in China off and on for 20 years and am extremely close to my Chinese homestay program (my “Baba” and “Meimei” walked with me in my wedding!), I still felt it was critical to recognize and investigate the socio-historical legacy of cultural imperialism and the fact that, no matter how much I studied or how many interviews I conducted, my novel was a participant in this legacy. Then, while editing an early draft during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, a poet friend pointed me to the work of Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, which uses an annotated commentary to create a dialogue between a South Korean dissident and a historian. While Hong’s work is much more nuanced and written from a space and identity I could never claim to occupy, seeing this bifurcated format work so successfully inspired my initial experimentation and the reframing of my work into the present form. While a lot of readers find footnotes distracting, I thought the idea that this “sidebar” narrative attempts to disrupt the main characters’ stories was also compelling and speaks to the way in which foreigners have continually inserted (often by violent means) their own narratives and cultural perspectives throughout China’s history. I wholly recognize the irony that my novel continues to do this and I hope inspires dialogue and investigation into where it succeeds in building a useful dialogue on the subject and where it fails.
Q. Can you tell us more about how you conceived of the kernel of an idea that blossomed into EMPIRE OF GLASS?
A. In 2005, nine years after my first visit to China, I spent the summer living in Beijing with my homestay family. I was researching the cultural implications of American baseball in Beijing (for my master’s thesis) and during that time, spent lots of lazy summer afternoons drinking tea and watching CCTV Qing dynasty dramas with my Chinese father. Baba shared with me stories of his family’s past that he hadn’t even shared with his daughter. I was compelled to record these stories in perpetuity and so applied for a Fulbright grant to do so—in the process of my research and listening, I realized that my narrative voice in translating these stories, and the narrative itself, required fictionalization to be not only compelling but also to allow me to pursue plots, and styles, that didn’t fit within a strict non-fictional format (I’ve since learned that non-fiction can be a lot more creative than this and am now experimenting with the lyric essay). A few years later, at a workshop at Breadloaf with poet Arthur Sze, I learned of the poetry of Tang dynasty poet-monk, Han Shan (or “Cold Mountain”). I immediately knew his work and philosophy would be critical to my novel’s protagonist and so began work, in subsequent drafts, of incorporating his character into the story. The novel writing process is certainly fascinating to me and I’m always astonished by how many happy accidents (conversations, books found on shelves, etc.) impact the work’s final form.
Q. What is your favorite aspect about the process of writing a novel? The most challenging aspect?
A. Those happy accidents are definitely my favorite aspect of novel writing. When I’m working on a project, I try my best not to be too fixed to a particular path or storyline as I’ve initially conceived it and let the work speak to me, or the world at large try to teach me something as I write. I recently attended a pottery class and while it feels a bit cheesy to make the metaphorical connection, writing definitely feels like the shaping and reshaping of a clay pot. It can even feel as tactile as that at times—we cannot forget the body’s role in artistic creation and how it implicates the formation of a text. Our own physical and emotional constraints have a direct bearing on the formation of a text. At the same time, these obviously create challenges as well—sometimes we cannot say exactly what we want the way we wish.
I mourn the loss of chapters, characters, and plotlines that didn’t make the final cut (a year before the work was published, I chopped an entire storyline—90k words!), but know it is a necessary part of the process. Letting go of the work in publication is the ultimate final challenge. Knowing that readers will either connect with it or not, that they will project their own experiences and POVs onto the work and thus continue to reshape the pot (to belabor the metaphor!), is both frightening and exciting. I look forward to engaging with readers after the book’s release and learning more about the novel through their eyes.
Q. How did you become involved with the upcoming documentary OF WOMAN BORN?
A. That’s a long story, but the shortest version: I gave birth to my first child, Calliope May, at home in December 2015. The absolute empowerment I felt after giving birth astonished me—I hadn’t expected how deeply I would be moved to join the childbirth activist movement after what had been a seemingly simple decision (I didn’t like the local hospital and thought home would be more comfortable and safe based on evidence-based research). A friend told me that Scott Kirschenbaum, Of Woman Born’s filmmaker, was starting work on the documentary and that I may want to talk to him. After an epic morning coffee meet-up full of tears, laughter, and deep conversations about modern feminism, motherhood, and American politics, I was hooked—witnessing the film’s evolution and learning about documentary filmmaking in the U.S. has been very educational. We already have lots of support from the childbirth community—from ObGyns and midwives to academic researchers and concerned parents—and I believe the film has great potential to transform the conversation and cultural expectations of childbirth. The current norm is that childbirth is a pathological process, e.g., a woman’s body is not meant to give birth (think: “we need to induce you,” “your hips are too small,” “the pain will be unbearable”), while this film, and the childbirth activist movement as a whole, aims to rewrite that narrative so that women stand at the center of the conversation, are empowered and supported throughout their motherhood. I could speak for hours about how important this is to contemporary American society as a whole, but will let the film do my speaking for now.
Q. Any sneakpeeks at upcoming projects that you can share with us?
A. Ha, yes—in fact, I have been so deeply impacted by the childbirth movement that my next novel, tentatively titled “The Blue Lobster,” will take the experience of childbirth and early motherhood as a core narrative, told within the context of a global ecology that has gone haywire (perhaps not so fictional!), and an ocean that has exploded with, per the title, (once-rare, then common) bright blue lobsters. How these “indicator species” implicate the wider narrative, specifically that of women’s rights and environmental protection, is yet to be seen…. I’m still conducting research (lots of overdue reading including Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass) but enjoying this nascent stage of narrative formation.
Thanks for the chance to chat and reconnect with the vibrant Harvardwood community!