K.X. Song’s An Echo in the City tells the story of two young adults who are searching for something in the protests in Hong Kong. One is a protester looking to bring freedom to the place she calls home (but is not sure she belongs to) and one is a cop who is dealing with the massive weight of grief on his shoulders (and also doesn’t know where he belongs). They fall in love but can two people on opposite sides of a conflict really work together in a relationship?
I loved An Echo in the City. The writing, Phoenix and Kai, and the struggles and emotions are so strong throughout. It’s impossible not to connect to these characters even when you don’t necessarily agree with one of them (looking at you, Kai). And the protest scenes are so incredibly detailed that you feel like you are there every step of the way.
An Echo in the City is a must-read. And luckily, I was able to interview K.X. Song about the book, her characters, and their struggles, and what’s coming next for her.
K.X. Song discusses An Echo in the City, why she chose YA for this book, and more
Culturess: What sparked the idea for this book? What made it something you had to write?
K.X. Song: Being in Hong Kong in 2019, it would be impossible to not notice the change taking place in the city. The energy was electric, and everyone was talking about the protests, constantly. My sister was meeting with different organizers involved in the protests, and I tagged along. These conversations were pivotal in showing me what was happening behind the scenes, behind what we saw on TV. But it wasn’t until I left Hong Kong and flew to Shanghai, then the States, that I felt the urge to write an entire book about it. The stark contrast between the way different media portrayed Hong Kong, and the way I personally experienced the city, made me want to write something in the form of a novel, which I felt allowed for greater nuance and depth than a pithy soundbite or clickbait headline. I wanted to write a story that would capture not only the energy and atmosphere of the city, but also the real lives, hopes and dreams of the people on the ground.
Culturess: How did the decision for the two points of view come about? And why did you think these two specific POVs were important?
K.X. Song: Phoenix and Kai are both 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, Phoenix grows up between Hong Kong and America, while Kai grows up between Hong Kong and mainland China. Simply put, they’re people who don’t know how to confidently and succinctly answer the dreaded question: “Where are you from?” As a diaspora kid myself, I wanted to tackle these themes of loneliness and alienation, of feeling powerless when it comes to where you can call home.
Phoenix and Kai are also foils of each other in many ways. Phoenix is from a big family; Kai is an only child. Phoenix is outspoken; Kai is reserved. Beyond these ostensible differences, they also have deeply conflicting values, beliefs, and perspectives regarding the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Through their story, I wanted to interrogate questions of empathy and understanding. I’ve always wondered: Can two people from entirely different worldviews and backgrounds ever fully know each other? And if they choose to try, how can they begin to understand one another?
Culturess: Osprei is a surprising hero in the book (especially considering how Phoenix describes him in the beginning). Why do you think his character was so important to include? What do you think he adds to the story?
K.X. Song: Osprei is another point of view that greatly contrasts with both Phoenix’s and Kai’s. He’s someone who initially joins the protests for social reasons–to spend time with his politically-minded girlfriend. Having seen how quickly his previous girlfriends come and go, Phoenix has mostly reduced him to a playboy with the attention span of a squirrel. But as the story progresses, Phoenix starts to see a new side of her older brother emerge, one that allows the two siblings to grow closer together. Also, Osprei provides much-needed comedic relief in a story with rather heavy themes.
Culturess: Both Phoenix and Kai have issues with their parents and seeking their approval. But at a certain point that changes. Can you discuss those changing dynamics and how/why they are different for these two characters?
K.X. Song: Especially in Asian families, filial piety is considered one of the most important, if not the most important, values to uphold. In the Confucian Analects, Confucius famously said, “Being filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness?” So it’s been deeply ingrained in both Phoenix and Kai’s lives that they need to obey their parents and respect their wishes, even place their parents’ wishes above their own. Particularly in collectivist cultures (over individualist cultures), going against your elders’ expectations and thus impeding group harmony isn’t considered independent and free-thinking, but rather, selfish and negligent.
This is the baggage that Phoenix and Kai enter the novel with. Especially as their perspectives on the protests begin to deviate from the opinions of their parents’ generation, they need to reconcile their shifting beliefs with their deeply ingrained desire to earn their parents’ approval. Of course, Phoenix and Kai go about this in very different ways, given their different upbringings and personalities. For Phoenix, though her parents’ approval is on the table, their love and support for her is largely unquestioned; Phoenix knows that at the end of the day she will always have a bed to come home to. For Kai, this is more uncertain. Kai is largely estranged from his father, having grown up with his mother in Shanghai for most of his life. His relationship with his father is built on silence and thin tolerance, which is the breeding ground for a lot of miscommunication.
Culturess: Some of the characters are in college in the book but you specifically chose Phoenix and Kai as the characters we follow in the book. Was it important to you for this book to be YA and to have a YA audience? Why?
K.X Song: Great question! While university students led the charge, inducing much of the momentum around the protest movement, teenagers were also pivotal in their involvement and support in the protests. What was so incredible about the 2019 protests was that if you looked out at the streets around you, you would see people of any age, gender, background. Everyone from lawyers in suits to kids with backpacks were out there.
I wanted to center two young adults because I often feel that, in today’s day and age, young adults can feel powerless in their actions. We’re living in a very fraught time, where it sometimes feels like protesting or raising your voice is like screaming into the void–nothing happens as a result. This is a big part of why Kai doesn’t want Phoenix to participate in the protests; he thinks they’re useless and accomplish nothing, only serving to hurt the protesters. In this way, I wanted An Echo in the City to address some of these questions, and to show the agency and power young adults truly have, even when adults don’t want to let them have it.
Culturess: Your protest scenes put the reader right there with both Phoenix and Kai. The level of detail made me feel like I was in those crowds, surrounded by tear gas. What do you hope readers take from those scenes specifically?
K.X. Song: I wanted readers to feel like they were there, and to understand that there were no easy choices. This book wasn’t written to judge any party or group of people involved in the protests. That’s why in the narrative, experiencing the protests from Phoenix’s perspective is painful, but experiencing them from Kai’s perspective is also painful. Above all, I wanted to add nuance and depth to a situation most westerners only know about through clickbait headlines. The ongoing international conversation is complex and mired with bias; what I hoped to do was showcase a few more points of view representing the people I met on the ground.
Culturess: In your author’s note, you mention how much you struggled with publishing this book. How do you feel now that it’s published and being read?
K.X. Song: I feel a combination of hope, excitement, and nerves. Putting your creative work out there is never easy, but now I understand the story belongs not to me, but to its readers. I hope I’ve done justice to this story and these characters, and to the many people I interviewed to try to get this story right. That’s all I can hope for!
Culturess: What’s next for you? Are there more stories in the works?
K.X Song: Yes! My next project is a big departure from An Echo in the City. Coming out next summer, it’s an adult fantasy set in a thrilling world of magic and danger, strange beasts and otherworldly realms. I’m currently in the middle of revisions and can’t wait to share more once the news is officially out! 😊
An Echo in the City by K.X. Song is available now in ebook, hardcover, and audiobook formats.