Xu Xi’s “Famine”: An Analysis

Freshman (College 1st year) ・English ・MLA ・3 Sources

Xu Xi’s “Famine”: An Analysis

            In Xu Xi’s “Famine” the persona, an English teacher who just entered her fifties seeks to escape Hong Kong (which she has never left all her life) upon the death of her parents. From the onset, she -addressing the audience in the first person- seeks to address the issue of famine in her country but then this address turns into a sort of complaint touching the various aspects of her life. Essentially, famine becomes more of an excuse that she uses to delve into other issues and concerns. This analysis focuses on the use of famine, though a genuine concern for the persona, as a scapegoat for addressing other issues and thematic areas through the almost too common digressions.

Themes Addressed in the Story

 It is evident that the author through the persona seeks to address two major thematic areas, one of dependence and the other of inequality in society. Each of these is expressed in different ways in the story.

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Inequality in Society

 When the persona starts off by noting that the world is a hungry place in which there can never be enough food for everyone, but later complains that she was spoilt for choice in the aero plane where there was so much food (Xi 117), the inequality in society is clearly painted. In furtherance of the inequality narrative, the persona mentions of friends and former students who often flew on Cathay complaining of crammed spaces and cardboard food in the plane; she, in contrast, talks of the business class seat that was an island of a bed surrounded by air and a good variety of food. Upon arrival in New York, she mentions that more important people than her (though she admitted to having a lot of money) have booked the hotels she would have preferred and she has to stay at the Plaza Suite; another clear depiction of the inequality present in human societies today.

 Having grown up in a house where there was not much space, the persona in describing the fact that there was too much space for her things at the Plaza Suite advances the inequality narrative. This is further driven by her mention of the fact that at the university, her friend Veronica had money to spend (given to her by her parents) but that she (the persona) had to relinquish all of her salary, earned from the teaching job she had, to her parents. Still on Veronica, the persona notes that she (Veronica) had to eat rice porridge because she was overweight in a country of hungry people, an irony that goes to enhance the inequality narrative. Having grown up poor, she mentions the fact that the nightly bill at her Plaza Suite hotel would have taken her parents decades to earn.

The Theme of Dependence

 To a lesser extent, the persona also uses the story, supposedly on famine, to address the theme of dependence. In this regard, she mentions having had to stay with her parents, as an unmarried lady because the customs of her society so demanded. She mentions her parents not being able (Xi 120) to bear the thought of her eating out (without them); a testament to the theme of dependence. Advancing the theme, the author narrates, through the persona, the story of the lazy man who starved to death because he could not feed himself, instead depending on his mother, and later his wife.

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Criticism of the Story

 All through this story, the author makes mention of famine several times but fails to conclusively address the issue, instead allowing the author to digress into other concerns including the inequality in society and the rags to riches story of the persona. As Ehrenwirth (132) points out, the story in general makes use of famine in an ironical way, painting the persona as having experienced a hard life (though did not starve) in a country where many people struggled to avoid starvation. The irony with which the persona portrays starvation and famine is only seen in the constant digressions that she has as she narrates her extravagant sojourn in New York; flying business class, eating the best of meals and imbibing top shelf drinks while spending, in a night, money that would have taken her parents decades to make.

 Carolan (67) in analyzing the story, holds the view that famine, while forming the mainstay of Xu Xi’s story is not adequately addressed, as is the opulence of the persona. In so observing, Carolan (68) falls short of discrediting the title of the story, based on the content therein (which is only tangentially related to the title). It is clear, drawing from this perspective, that while the author intended to relay the famine along with other concerns in the story, the overall story does little to prove the existence of the famine; had it not been for the feeble reminders of the issue of famine through the persona’s digressions, the reader would most likely have forgotten of the famine that the story was supposedly intended to address.


 It is clear for the audience that the author has failed to adequately examine the issue of famine as promised by the title of the story. Through the persona, other thematic concerns and issues are raised and portrayed, with the issue of famine (as promised by the story’s title) taking but a backseat and only reemerging from point to point in the persona’s digressions.

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Works Cited

Carolan, Trevor (Ed.). Another Kind of Paradise: Short Stories from the New Asia-Pacific. Hong Kong, PRC: Cheng & Tsui (2009): 67-73.

Ehrenwirth, Rebecca. "Floating Borders within a Text–Hong Kong Literature in English." JOMEC Journal 6 (2014): 131-135.

Xi, Xu. "Global English in Asian Fiction: Some Thoughts on Writing Contemporary Fiction from and of Asia in English." Imagining Globalization. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2009. 25-43.

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