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Seemingly divergent Gabriel Houck and Xu Xi find common ground in nonfiction

BY BRIAN DAU | FEBRUARY 19, 2009 7:51 AM

Gabriel Houck and Xu Xi don’t have much in common. Born in different hemispheres (Houck in the United States and Xu in Hong Kong) and interested in different aspects of humanity, it’s difficult to imagine what could bring the two together. As it turns out, their shared interest in writing nonfiction allows them to share the same stage.

Houck and Xu will give a free reading at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, kicking off a series of Word Painter readings put on by the UI Museum of Art.

Unsurprisingly, the two will read from vastly different works. Xu, the Bedell Visiting Writer in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, will read from her latest collection of nonfiction essays, titled Evanescent Isles, published in 2008 by Hong Kong University Press. The book is only the latest for her in a career made from writing about Hong Kong and what she calls its “unique historical and political reality” as an entity that has existed under both English rule (as a colony) and Chinese rule.

It’s a topic she said she finds herself continually drawn to write about.

“I can’t leave,” she joked. “I keep trying, but they won’t let me. We just have this very peculiar state, going from very poor to very wealthy in a short period of time. [Hong Kong] felt 21st century before the 21st century even hit.”

Houck, a member of the Nonfiction Writing Program, will read from his nonfiction essay thesis, which taps into the evolution/creationism debate raging across America. His work centers on a $27 million creationism museum in Kentucky and the overwhelming amount of imagination required to complete the project elicited from a group of people rarely associated with Tolkien-esque fantasy.

“I wanted to make it clear that I disapproved,” he said, “But I was impressed by [the museum’s] imaginative substructure and how a group so fundamentalist could be so creative.”

Among the people he interviewed for his thesis was the museum’s designer, whose previous accomplishments include the “Jaws” ride at Universal Studios. He was most interested, he said, in the way creationists hybridized such texts as Lord of the Rings into their belief system in a way that he believes they use to market to children, as if they were “selling a religious version of Dungeons and Dragons.”

“The museum isn’t a museum in the traditional sense,” Houck said. “You’re forced through exhibits in a linear path. It’s a rhetorical argument more than a museum.”

Despite the two writers’ multitude of differences, Xu, who sometimes refers to herself as a “Hong Kong astronaut,” has an appropriate analogy for both her and Houck. She splits her time between living in Hong Kong and the United States, and Houck found himself a stranger in a strange land as he experienced an ideology alien to his own.

“I don’t live in any one place,” Xu said. “We split lives. It’s part of the strange astronaut lives we all live.”


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