Cover Naoise Dolan exploded onto the literary scene with her shrewd debut, Exciting Times

The Irish author, who will appear at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2021, says her multi-award winning novel is set in “a different time and place” to the current Hong Kong.

Any author who chooses to set their story in Hong Kong must decide how to grapple with the city’s unique cultural make-up, and how much shifting tensions in society should be addressed. Exciting Times examines the phenomenon of young Westerners who come to Hong Kong to teach with few credentials other than their native fluency in English, though the mood of the period in which Naoise Dolan wrote and set the book—pre-pandemic and before 2019’s sweeping political demonstrations—contrasts with how the city feels today. 

Exciting Times is the debut novel from 29-year-old Dolan, from Dublin, Ireland. Her own story, which she started writing in Hong Kong in 2017, mirrors that of the book’s lead character Ava in that she moved to Asia (first Singapore, then Hong Kong) to teach English and has first-hand experience of being a foreigner who must carve out a life for themselves in an environment in which they do not speak the native language. Ava, who moves to Hong Kong fresh out of university, falls into a casual relationship with a white, male banker, who offers her a lavish lifestyle in exchange for her company. When he is out of town, she develops feelings for a female Chinese lawyer. 

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Dolan has been praised for her naturalistic dialogue and incisive social commentary, and her character’s sardonic self-analysis that not only cuts to the heart of modern relationships but examines the notion of privilege and the distinct strata that exist within Hong Kong and among its foreign-born population. Her characters, like the wealthy, Eton- and Oxford-educated Julian and the high-flying Edith, and the dynamic between Julian’s coterie of rich, snobby and equally high-status friends, who look down on Ava as a learning centre teacher, will feel familiar to foreigners who live, work and spend most of their lives living in what is termed the “expat bubble”.

As a young Irish female author, comparisons to Sally Rooney, writer behind the smash-hit Normal People, were inevitable, and Rooney herself has endorsed Exciting Times. But Dolan’s dry writing style feels distinctive, and she conveys the introspection, existentialism and dating power-play that will feel familiar to many millennials. Ava’s relationships carry the story, but Dolan’s writing acknowledges her character’s anxiety surrounding her place in the world, not least as someone participating in a system that still benefits from Hong Kong’s complicated and exploitative colonial past.

However, at a time of great scrutiny towards Hong Kong, critics have said that Dolan, who lived in Hong Kong for less than two years, presents a surface-level and naive view of the city and its people, that most of the Asian characters in the story are treated as a source of stereotypical whimsy to Ava or background noise, and that racial and political tensions are trivialised in the narrative. Dolan previously admitted that Exciting Times is a “time capsule of a very different time and place”, and now adds: “I really can’t imagine the story unfolding the same way in present-day Hong Kong.”

In a Q&A ahead of her appearance at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this Friday, Dolan discusses Exciting Times’ upcoming TV series adaptation by Amazon Studios and why she chose to set her story in Hong Kong.

Congratulations on the upcoming series adaptation! What do you think Phoebe Dynevor will bring to the role?
I’m really delighted that we’ve attached Phoebe to the project. Bringing a character to life is a collaborative process so I’m not coming to it with many preconceptions. When I met Phoebe she spoke beautifully and perceptively about the novel and the character, so I’m excited to see how her grasp of the material informs her performance rather than having a fixed image of how it will go.

Will the series be filmed in Hong Kong?
I can’t talk too much about the adaptation yet, but I can’t wait to be able to share more in time.

How did your life in Hong Kong compare to your life in Singapore? And why did you eventually leave?
I loved both cities but I spent longer in Hong Kong so I was able to make more local friends. I also hiked a fair bit, which is harder to manage in Singapore. I eventually left because I’d impulsively applied for a master’s degree at Oxford and was very surprised to be offered a place—it felt daunting to leave because I was really enjoying the life I’d begun to build for myself in Hong Kong, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. 

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How did the book’s plot take root? Was there a moment that sparked the story?
No, there wasn’t a particular moment that sparked it all. I’m quite calm and methodical in my writing—I don’t plot very far ahead, but I usually just sit down, make up a few characters and decide what sort of interactions they would be likely to have. Then I write those interactions up and check in again about what I think the characters would do next, until eventually there’s a book or a story or whatever I’m writing.

Do you think the location was intrinsic to the plot? Why could this particular story only have been told in Hong Kong?
I think the TEFL [teaching English as a foreign language] element in the novel is probably the most centred on Hong Kong as a location—of course there are TEFL industries elsewhere but the particular layered dynamics of Hong Kong’s, where the industry reflects the hangover of British colonialism and US neoimperialism and that’s all happening alongside questions of Mandarin being imposed over Cantonese, create a complexity that I’ve not encountered in any other place’s English language instruction. In terms of placing the protagonist in that environment, I wanted to put her in a position where she unfairly benefits from many forms of privilege while bearing an uneasy relation to it because of her country’s own history with British colonialism. I’m interested in why people participate in systems that they know are oppressive, so I guess that’s why I sent the main character to Hong Kong and put her in a position where she would spend the whole book doing just that.

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You have described the story as a “time capsule of a very different time and place”, which acknowledges that the sociopolitical landscape of Hong Kong is changing. How did you feel about publishing a book set in Hong Kong at such a sensitive time for the city? Were you worried at about how it’d be received?
I don’t think there’s a writer in the world who isn’t worried about how their work will be received! But it’s the right of individuals and the broader culture to respond, and I don’t think writers’ feelings should be cosseted in that respect. I wanted to be as specific as possible that the book is set around 2016 to ’17—it says it right on the front page and there are references throughout to that time period, because I really can’t imagine the story unfolding the same way in present-day Hong Kong. I guess most novels are inevitably set at least a couple of years in the past because publishing is so slow—it’s not at all unusual for a novel to be published five or ten years after the writer started working on it. But then Hong Kong in particular is changing rapidly, so it was especially important to me to nail down that time period.

Certain parts of the story highlight the divisions within Hong Kong society and the so-called “expat bubble”. The book acknowledges the privileges enjoyed by its central characters, and Ava’s introspection may feel familiar to any Westerner who has taken a similar path. When you lived in Hong Kong, how aware were you of this bubble? How did it make you feel to be part of it? Why was it something you wanted to get across in the narrative? And was there anything you wanted to avoid when portraying the city and its social dynamics?
I mostly wanted to avoid punching down, because my writing style is quite cynical and satirical and I think it’s best to use that lens on powerful people. So I guess that explains the focus on the “expat bubble”—I think it would be exceptionally bad manners to come to someone else’s country and write a book satirising them, so I kept that element aimed mostly at Western implants that I felt I had more authority to critique. In reality, Hong Kong’s expat bubble as I experienced it had a wider range of people and most of them were less extreme in how they came across than the characters I portrayed, but that’s the nature of fiction—you take the elements that stand out the most.

Can you tell us anything about your next novel? Will it share any themes with Exciting Times?
It’s all top secret for now but I’ll share more as soon as I can!

Naoise Dolan will appear virtually alongside author Kit Fan as part of a talk on New Hong Kong Fiction at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 13 at 7pm. For more information and tickets, see here.


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