Author K. X. Song has officially made her publishing debut with the release of An Echo in the City. Set during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong following the extradition bill, the novel centers on Phoenix and Kai, two star-crossed teens who soon fall in love. Phoenix struggles with her parents’ lofty expectations of her, though all she really wants is home. It’s not until she becomes involved with the protest movement that she begins to understand what “home” means to her. Meanwhile, Kai, faced with no other options and a father who barely knows he exists, begins training as a police officer. After an accidental phone swap, Kai learns of Phoenix’s involvement in the protests, planning to infiltrate her group to gain his father’s approval. However, it’s not as easy as he first thought when he and Phoenix quickly bond – and she has no idea what he’s planning.
In conjunction with An Echo in the City’s release, we had the opportunity to talk with Song about the novel. She spoke about crafting Phoenix and Kai, the story she wanted to tell, and what she hopes readers takeaway from the book.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Nerds & Beyond: To kick things off today, I want to say congratulations on An Echo in the City and making your publishing debut. It was such a good book. I’m so excited that this is what you get to start with. What prompted you to tell this story?
K. X. Song: Thank you for saying that. That means a lot. I’m really glad that you were able to have a good reading experience. In terms of what inspired this book, I was in Hong Kong in 2019. I was with my sister, who was involved in organizing at the time with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and they were meeting a lot of people involved in organizing and coordinating the demonstrations around the extradition bill protests. So, me being the younger sister, I tagged along [laughs] and met a lot of the people on the ground, attended a lot of protests, and just learned a lot about the scale and the importance of this movement. That really opened my eyes to what was going on in Hong Kong at the time.
But actually, it wasn’t until I left Hong Kong and flew to Shanghai where the seed of the novel really began to germinate, because that’s where I began to see the difference in how the Chinese mainland media depicted the protests and framed the protests. Then when I left Shanghai and flew to the U.S., seeing that juxtaposition with how the international English media portrayed the protests was really jarring, just such a huge difference between the two. I wanted to write something that added just a bit more nuance and depth to the ongoing international conversation. So, that was basically the reason why I was first inspired to write the novel An Echo in the City.
Nerds & Beyond: Something I thought was really interesting about this book is how starkly different Phoenix and Kai are from one another, save for the fact that they are both part of the diaspora. Why was it important for you to highlight that they have all of these differences but give them one profound similarity?
K. X. Song: That’s such a great question, and you really hit the nail on the head in terms of one of the major themes I wanted to explore through this novel. I really wrote Kai and Phoenix to be foils for each other. They’re opposites in many ways. Kai is reserved, Phoenix is outspoken. Kai is indecisive, Phoenix is extremely impulsive. Kai is prone to melancholy, Phoenix is prone to being optimistic – and maybe even overly optimistic. Those differences really helped me to explore the different perspectives surrounding the protest movement. Of course, I couldn’t touch on every single perspective that’s out there, but I wanted to choose two perspectives [where] one of them is someone coming from mainland China, someone who grew up with less opportunities available to him. Then another person is someone who’s from a much more privileged background but really has grown up in Hong Kong, identifies with the culture, and really wants to see a future where she can continue to thrive in this place that she calls home. So, that’s a big part of why I wanted to show these two perspectives in terms of what ties them together – this exploration of diaspora identity.
A lot of the books that I read growing up oftentimes centered people who were from there, which makes sense. It’s very difficult to write a novel about Hong Kong featuring characters who don’t feel comfortable saying that they’re from Hong Kong at the start of the novel, to say the least. So, oftentimes diaspora identities, they’re more messy. They’re more nuanced, and they require greater time to explain and to explore. That’s really where I feel like the form of the novel shines, in allowing readers to get into the nitty gritty of what each character’s identity means to them. And in this way, I wanted to ask questions about, how do we have agency in choosing where we call home, in choosing where we find that sense of belonging, and also in choosing how we find a sense of purpose and place in this world. That’s a big part of why I wanted to explore diaspora as a major theme of the novel.
[Noted later] One other question that I wanted to explore was that I really wanted to ask the question of, can two people from fully different worldviews, backgrounds, and cultures ever come to fully know and understand each other? That’s also why I made Kai and Phoenix such foils of each other.
Nerds & Beyond: That actually leads perfectly into one of my next questions. For Phoenix specifically, she moves from the states back to Hong Kong with a plan to go back to the states. And I thought that was a perfect illustration of how she was struggling to discover what “home” does means to her, and to become her own person separate from her parents. Why do you think it took her being in the trenches, so to speak, of the protests to even really solidify an image of herself in her mind?
K. X. Song: That’s another great question. I would say that in terms of why it took the protest for her to really get a stronger sense of why she calls this place home, oftentimes we humans, we don’t miss something until it’s taken from us, or we don’t truly treasure something until we realize what is at stake for being lost. So, I think for Phoenix, she often took for granted all of Hong Kong, the city that she had started to call home. And also because she’s a middle child. She’s someone who oftentimes doesn’t have that strong sense of identity that her siblings have. She has on one hand Robin, who’s the child genius, and the other hand with Osprei, who’s a bit of a flirt, a bit of a playboy but really knows himself well. In relation to them, she’s kind of been driftless and not as secure in her own sense of self.
I think that for a lot of youth, especially in 2019, the protest movement was really defining in terms of helping us figure out who we want to be in this world and what’s our part to play, because I think a lot of times what we’re told, like from adults, is that we don’t really have any agency when we’re a kid and that we just have to follow orders and do what adults tell us to do, and when we grow up maybe we can make some change in the world. But I think that youth are tired of hearing that argument, especially in today’s day and age. We’re in this like … in the states we have some policies that are questionable and things that feel hopeless at times. It makes us feel powerless. So, I think the Hong Kong protests, they’re applicable both for people in Hong Kong at the time, but also people in the states, too, who are battling with these questions of, can I make any change? Are my actions able to do anything against the machine that often feels like it’s just too powerful in this world? It’s a bit of a rambling answer and I apologize for that, but that’s a big part of why Phoenix really found the protests to be so pivotal to her own self-growth and self-discovery.
Nerds & Beyond: Piggybacking off that a little bit, you did mention how some young people, they want to fight for a better world – like Phoenix, for example – but sometimes it’s hard to see like what’s the point, which I saw a lot through Kai. He really struggles to see that silver lining. How did you approach tapping into both sides and finding a balance how young people today view these sorts of issues while making sure you kept clear sight of them as you were writing?
K. X. Song: I love that question. I think that it was important for me to show both sides because those are both sides within myself. I oftentimes feel like Kai or feel like Phoenix, and it’s depending on the news, my mood, what’s happening in the world today. Those sides are things I think that all of us battle with, and it’s not like we’re always one way or the other. So, I thought it was important to show that sort of representation. I think that for teens today, too, a lot of people… it’s funny, because a lot of my friends who have already read advanced reader copies, they’ll have really conflicting thoughts about who their favorite character was, Phoenix or Kai. That makes me happy as an author because it shows that there’s not one clear favorite or one clear winner in that regard. I think it’s because both characters have different sorts of people that can relate to them.
Nerds & Beyond: A little more specifically, I was really struck by your use of the word “resentment” and how it relates to Kai. He harbors a lot of that towards pretty much everything in life, for various reasons. Every time it came up, I felt like I had to highlight it because it stood out a lot for me. Why did you opt to emphasize that it’s specifically resentment that he feels as opposed to him being angry or filled with rage or something like that?
K. X. Song: Wow, that’s so fascinating. I’ve actually never thought about that before you pointed it out just now. I think that resentment is such a – it’s an ugly emotion. We don’t want to feel it, but it’s a very present emotion. It’s almost ubiquitous in a sense, where I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life who has never felt it on a semi-consistent basis. I think the thing about resentment is that it simmers and that it’s easy to ignore and kind of press down. Versus anger, especially like very red-hot anger, is something that would bubble up and then it would come and go quickly. Versus resentment, which is something that you can live with for a long time, and it’s toxic, and it’s poisonous in a different way because it’s so insidious and long lasting. For Kai, this resentment has been going up all his life, where he feels like his father has left him. He feels like his father betrayed his mother. He feels like he’s responsible partly for his mother’s death, and he resents himself in that sense, but he also resents his mother, too, for giving him this impossible choice. So, there’s just a lot of that like slow simmering resentment and anger towards himself, towards the people he loves, and towards the world around him. That really feeds into why he does some of the actions that he does.
I think that it’s important in story and in real life to not completely villainize anyone, because no one thinks of themselves as the villain of the story, right? In everyone’s minds, we’re the hero of our own story. So, I wanted to explain and also rationalize some of the actions that Kai takes as a police officer in training toward these protests and demonstrate one perspective. Especially since I think that – and this is treading into tricky territory here – but in American media, because America as a country is very politically opposed to China, because of that, a lot of the media named the police officers in Hong Kong as truly pure evil. Like how could these people just be tear gassing kids, completely heartless, betraying their nation. And while I definitely wasn’t someone – and am not someone – who is a fan of the police just as a system of power, I think that meeting police officers and interviewing police officers as research for this book, it helps to humanize and explain why they believe that their actions are right, because for them, they believe that they were doing what’s right.
Nerds & Beyond: While the Hong Kong protests and the extradition bill are very much an integral part of the story, I noticed it’s a lot more about the characters – how they’re being affected and their reactions to it. Why was it important to you to humanize these characters in general within the context of the protests and the bill rather than focus on the more technical details?
K. X. Song: I think foremost I’m a novelist, not a historian. I know there are many other books out there who will document the facts of the protests and that time period with a lot more historical accuracy and depth into what was happening, legislative wise, politically, economically, all of that. My focus was on the characters, and when I’m writing a novel, any novel, I’m always taking a character first approach. What I mean by that is that I will have a general plot outline or idea of where the story will go, but it’s very much based upon the characters’ personalities and what decisions they would make that would lead to certain external events, AKA plot actions. So, let’s say that my character – if someone like Kai, who’s very reserved and someone who takes more time before acting – if I had an original plot point where Kai goes up on stage and sings karaoke in front of 1000 people, then I probably have to cut that given that it doesn’t fit with his character and his personality.
When I was writing the book, there were times where I wanted to add in more context and more information about what was happening in Hong Kong, but I had to hold myself back because I wanted this novel to be foremost an enjoyable reading experience, and to be a novel where what you remember at the end of the day is not some fact or some specific detail about what legislation was passed on this day in June 2019, but rather the characters and what questions they were exploring and to help the reader also explore through them. That’s a big part of why the focus was on character as opposed to the setting. I think that I wanted to do a bit of everything, so hopefully I managed to accomplish that. But my focus is mainly on characters as a novelist.
Nerds & Beyond: It’s been about four years since the protests began, but, of course, it’s always important to keep them and the extradition bill in mind. What’s one thing you hope people remember about what happened with the bill and the protests?
K. X. Song: I think that what I want people to take away and remember is that millions of people came out on the street to stand up for what they believe in and that – even in today’s day and age where we often feel like protests are meaningless and that nothing we can do can stand in the way of the machine – we were united in that period of time. As a community we came together. We didn’t care about each other’s backgrounds, age, socioeconomic status, like all that was swept another rug, and instead what we focused on was the fact that we were coming together as Hong Kongers. That’s something that’s really beautiful, and that’s something really rare, too. And because it happened before, it can happen again. So, I think for the people who were there, I would just want us to remember. Then for the people who weren’t there, I would just want them to be able to read the book and to experience a little bit of what that was like.
Nerds & Beyond: My final question for you today, what are you most proud of with An Echo in the City?
K. X. Song: Another great question. I think that [because] An Echo in the City is my debut published novel, it’s always going to be the book of my heart. I guess the thing that I’m most proud of now is having written a story where, after having spent thousands of hours writing, researching, thinking through the story, and what I’ve heard from early readers is that I’ve been able to do these people and this story justice in terms of sharing their perspective with nuance and with consideration, as opposed to feeling like I’m exploiting them. So, that’s something that I’m proud of from early feedback. I know there’s going to be a mixed – there’s obviously always mixed reactions to any piece of art, so I just have to be okay and let that go and know that now the story belongs to the reader and no longer belongs to me.