K. X. Song on her poignant debut YA novel, An Echo in the City
"This bravery in the face of the unknown distinctly inspired the way I wrote An Echo in the City."
This post was written by K.X. Song, author of An Echo in the City.
Alienation and Belonging in the 2019 Hong Kong Protests by K. X. Song
Sometimes, story comes to me in character. Sometimes it comes to me in a question. In the case of An Echo in the City, it came to me through place. Hong Kong in the summer of 2019 was an electric, scalding place. Through story, I wanted to somehow capture that dynamic energy, and the vibrant, beating pulse of the city. People often say change is hard, or even impossible, but that summer, it felt like change was not only possible, but already in motion all around us. It felt like we could do anything, everything. Of course, much has changed since then, and history as we all know, favors its victors. But for those who were there, I wanted us to remember, and for those who were not there, I wanted to write us a bridge, a way for readers to experience what it was like, and to be there too, at least within the pages of the story.
An Echo in the City is a dual point of view novel, following two characters who are both involved in the protests, but coming from very different backgrounds and worldviews. Kai is an artist and police officer in training from mainland China, and Phoenix is a student protester and photographer who grew up between Hong Kong and America. In this way, both Phoenix and Kai are unlikely protagonists because they’re the ones you’d typically find on the margins of the story. An Echo in the City is set entirely in Hong Kong, and yet at the start of the novel, neither Phoenix nor Kai feel confident calling themselves Hong Kongers. As diaspora kids, they’re people who don’t know how to confidently and succinctly answer the dreaded question: “Where are you from?”
Growing up, I thought this problem unique to me. These emotions of alienation and loneliness, of being othered, of feeling trapped in liminal spaces–I struggled to find others who could relate. Little did I know that all of us experience these feelings, in one way or another. How strange it is: that we each perceive our separateness as our own. That, in fact, what bridges us together at times is not our similarities but our differences.
This is how Kai and Phoenix find each other. They are nothing alike, but in their opposition, they attract one another. Phoenix is impulsive and loud; Kai is reserved, indecisive. Phoenix comes from a big family; Kai is an only child. Phoenix is a dreamer, an optimist; Kai is a creature of melancholy. While these outward markers work to keep them apart, through the catalyst of the Hong Kong protests, the two ultimately come to know each other. As they grow closer, they begin to perceive their inherent sameness in each other; and it is this togetherness that unites the city of Hong Kong at a pivotal moment in history.
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Readers often ask me if Kai and Phoenix are based off real people. No one single person inspired Kai, who is an amalgam of me, individuals I interviewed, and a period of rampant change that brought about a lot of self-doubt and ennui in the world around us. Meanwhile Phoenix is inspired by a single person. This person’s optimism in the face of extreme despair taught me the stubborn resilience of humankind–and our innate ability to keep going despite the odds. As for the voices of the community, what astonished and inspired me was the fact that although some individuals faced great risk in choosing to be interviewed, they still agreed and, in some cases, enthusiastically offered to participate. They wanted their stories told, and moreover, they wanted their stories heard by people outside their city. This bravery in the face of the unknown distinctly inspired the way I wrote An Echo in the City.
Today, the Hong Kong protests remain applicable because they teach us the power of community, and from a young adult perspective, the agency of youth. I hoped to explore those ideas through story–how do we have agency in choosing our own identities? In choosing where we call home? How do we make those choices conscious and intentional?
These questions are deeply personal to me. As a first-generation immigrant and someone who grew up traveling between cultures and countries, I often felt a keen sense of guilt in claiming a certain place as “home”. When I was in the west, I felt awkward calling myself American. When I was in the east, I felt guilty calling myself Chinese. Always, I felt something both nebulous and distinct separating me from my peers. Ultimately, what helped bridge that loneliness were stories. Stories that embraced this intangible otherness, framing it not as a barrier but as a gift.
Since then, I’ve met many other diaspora kids who often experience a comparable sense of alienation growing up. It is my hope today that readers who feel similarly stuck in liminal spaces can read Phoenix and Kai’s story and resonate with their struggles, whether it be through the question of where one belongs, or who one belongs with, or even of belonging itself—and how one can endeavour to make sense of their place and purpose in an ever-changing world.
Get your copy An Echo in the City by K.X Song here.