Interview: Alec Ash

Co-editor of new anthology 'While We're Here' talks to Time Out

Beijing ‘writers’ colony’ website the Anthill has released an
anthology, While We’re Here. Co-editor Alec Ash talks to
Time Out Beijing about sexpats and writerly spats.

What is the Anthill?

The Anthill is a ‘writers’ colony’, as we like to call it, founded on a very simple principle that everyone who comes to China has a story to tell. If you walk out onto the street and aren’t immediately hit by ten interesting things to write about, either you have your eyes closed or you’ve had one too many Tsingdaos the night before. I set up this site in 2012 hoping that people would come to it in order to tell those stories. Now, three years later, we have 100 writers in the colony.

What it is about China that attracts so many foreign writers? Or does it breed them?
It’s cheap. I think you can indulge your… some might call it a fantasy, some might call it an ambition, in China because you can always get by. Some people like to call Beijing in the 20-teens Paris in the 1920s. I think that’s overly optimistic, but I’ll happily take it. I think there is a lot of writerly talent here... and it’s similarly boozy.

What are some of your favourite stories in While We’re Here?
One story I’d particularly like to mention is by Sascha Matuszak. It’s called ‘Flower Town’ and it’s a longform story about the time he spent living in a village on the outskirts of Chengdu in 2008, including during the 2008 earthquake. I think it’s a story that hits a lot of the themes of the book: exploring how a foreigner can integrate, or not, inside a Chinese community. He initially struggles to be accepted, but then when the earthquake strikes, everyone in the community pulls together as they realise they’re in it together, whether Chinese or foreign. It’s a lovely, sensitively told story.

What makes bad China writing?
Thinking that you know China is a surefire way to set yourself up for a pratfall. On the whole I think that so long as you’re writing honestly about the way that you engage with the country, so long as you can write well, you can make any story engaging here. A big genre of bad China writing is ‘sexpat writing’, including a recent memoir called, I kid you not, Shanghai Cocktales.

Indeed! You wrote a wonderfully vicious review of Tom Olden’s Shanghai Cocktales. He responded with a bizarre video rant. What was your reaction?
I think credit where credit’s due – it’s a pretty hilarious response. I also think he made, I’ll begrudgingly admit, some legitimate points. His argument is that if you’re a foreigner writing about China, for some foreigners their experience is the same sort of thing that he was writing about in his memoir.

Write about what you know.
I am no prude to suggest that that couldn’t be interesting, I just think that you have to do it well. There’s a reason why the Bad Sex in Fiction Award exists, because it’s bloody hard to write well. Unless you’re shagging Xi Jinping’s daughter it’s not going to be interesting.


What’s your advice to people who want to start writing?
Write the first word, put a word after that and keep going. Writing is a muscle you have to exercise. You’re always going to be dissatisfied with what you do put out, but it’s important to finish what you start.

Do you hope While We’re Here will be popular outside China?
I think it’s primarily for people who are in China or passing through. I think it’s a luxury to be able to write to an audience that has knowledge of China; it’s more of a challenge to write engagingly if you have to explain every reference. And I think that thematically you are more likely to identify with the stories if you know something about China.

So why release a book?
Honestly, I think we just wanted to have a book that we could hold in our hands, smell, give to friends and spill coffee on. Often, when you publish something online the feeling is that it’s gone when it’s halfway down the homepage, like yesterday’s newspaper. Whereas this book is something that will survive on people’s bookshelves – until they re-gift it to their friends, at least. So my co-editor Tom Pellma and I, right from the beginning, talked about how when we had enough contributions we’d pull them together between two covers.


And quite a terrifying cover!
Yeah, it’s quite creepy. It’s basically ‘While We’re Here to Murder You in Your Sleep’. For the cover, I went to a Chinese friend of mine,Yang Zhazha, who’s a very hip photographer, and we [produced] this great image of a clown standing in a hutong. I thought that might be appropriate, because nothing says ‘foreign writer’ like a clown in a hutong.

While We’re Here is available at The Bookworm, priced 140RMB. Alec Ash’s book Wish Lanterns is forthcoming from Picador in 2016.

By Lee Williamson

Read more

  • 4 out of 5 stars