Come and Go, released this month, follows Lee Harlem Robinson through a promiscuous couple of months after heartbreak in Hong Kong, presenting an image of an alcohol-dependent and incestuous gay scene there.
Gay Star News interviews the author Hannelore Arbyn, who says the book is definitely not autobiographical and explains why she is glad she was already married before moving to Hong Kong.
How did the book come about? You were working on a blog before?
When I first arrived in Hong Kong I started writing a blog because basically I had nothing else to do. And it just went on. But I've always wanted to write a book so I decided to keep the character from the blog, which I'd been writing about for so long, but to put her in Hong Kong. The blog wasn’t about Hong Kong, it was about how she ends up in Hong Kong.
So is the blog fictional?
Yes the blog is completely fictional, as is the book. The places are real, but the characters are fictional.
Where did you get the name Lee Harlem Robinson from?
I wanted to have a name in three parts, just because I thought it sounded good. And I heard the name Lee Robinson on television somewhere and thought I have to add something extra, with two syllables in the middle. I came up with Harlem but I don’t really know where it came from. I just thought it sounded pretty good so I kept it. It doesn’t have any special meaning.
Why did you decide to use a pen name rather than your actual name?
This is a bit strange because Lee Harlem Robinson is the name on the cover as well as the main character in the book. The reason why I kept the name for the book was because I’d been writing the blog as Lee Harlem Robinson for so long and I thought it would make more sense to use that name than starting to use my own name, because my own name is completely incomprehensible to anyone who lives in Hong Kong, except if you speak German or Dutch.
Do people assume the book is autobiographical because the author and main character have the same name?
I’ve had that questioned but I’m always very clear about it because she’s this character I’ve created and of course there are some things that we have in common, but we are very very different. She’s rather promiscuous.
Is the Hong Kong lesbian scene as racy in real life as it is in the book?
I don’t think so. Not that I know of anyway. That is very very fictional. The gay scene is but the lesbian scene is definitely not, well not that I know of anyway.
So it’s more of a fantasy?
When you were writing the sex scenes did you make a conscious decision about how far you wanted to go with them? They're not prudish but not exactly Jilly Cooper either, you don't describe it all…
That was definitely a very conscious decision because that’s not the kind of book I wanted to write. I’ve had the comment, especially from some lesbians who’ve read it, saying ‘oh why didn’t you write more about the sex’. But there’s other books for that. I didn’t want it to go that way, especially not in my first book. Also on my blog I used to draw a line at a certain point and never go further than foreplay.
There are a lot of public displays of affection in the book between lesbians, do you ever get negative reactions to that in HK?
I think in the book there’s much more than you actually see in real life in Hong Kong. I’ve never had any negative reaction but then again I don’t display it that much either. The people in Hong Kong in general don’t really tend to care about that kind of stuff because they care more about money and work, so they don’t notice or they chose not to notice.
What's the hardest aspect of life for lesbians in Hong Kong?
It’s very hard to find other lesbians. It’s easy if you’re a gay man – there’s lots of clubs and bars. Especially if you’re a single lesbian. I came here with my wife and I say to her, ‘I’m so glad that we came here already married’ because if I were single I don’t know what I would do.
We only have one lesbian party in Hong Kong which is on a Tuesday, not the best night for a party. If it’s the weekend and you want to meet some lesbians the best thing you can do is go to a gay bar and hope that there are some lesbians there, but that rarely happens. It’s not easy being a single lesbian in Hong Kong, if they’re looking for other lesbians.
The Nikki character in the book is a local girl and I wondered if you know anything about what's life like for local lesbians in Hong Kong?
Most local lesbians and gay people don’t come out to their parents. Their parents may know, but they don’t talk about it. They don’t come out. They don’t discuss it. And of course when they stay single for a long time of course the parents must suspect, but it’s hardly ever talked about. I know very few local people here who are actually out to their parents. It’s completely not talked about.
Are you going to write after this? Are you going to continue with the character of Lee Harlem Robinson?
At the moment I’m writing a short story about Lee Harlem Robinson. It’s set before this book begins when she has been in Hong Kong for about two to three months, when she first start getting to know some of the other characters in the book, like the gay friends. And she starts to see how the going out scene is in Hong Kong and how decadent it all is. How everyone gets drunk all the time and how she reacts to that.
I do plan to write another book but I’m not sure yet if it will be about Lee Harlem Robinson and the same characters. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will definitely write another that will be set in Hong Kong and about lesbians and gays in Hong Kong.
Are you planning to stay in Hong Kong?
Well it depends on my wife who’s working here, it depends on her job. I think we’ll stay here for as long as we can because we really like it here. It’s a good city to live in, even though it’s not very lesbian friendly. To us it doesn’t really matter that much.
Who are your writer's influences?
I really like Emma Donaghue and her famous lesbian novel Landing, which is probably my favourite. My other favourite lesbian novel is Silvia Brownrigg’s Pages For You, which is mentioned in the book. One of my favourite writers is actually Charles Bukowski. I wouldn’t say he’s an influence, I just really enjoy reading his books.
Describe your book in a sentence.
Lesbian romance set in Hong Kong.
Find out more about Lee Harlem Robinson and Come and Go here.