Her Heart’s in the Far East

Alumna Kaitlin Solimine has dedicated her academic career to studying China. Now she is making academic research appealing to a general audience through an online magazine she co-founded.
ByMichelle Boston

A simple twist of fate launched the trajectory of Kaitlin Solimine’s academic pursuits. As a high school student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Solimine, who earned her master’s in East Asian area studies from USC Dornsife in 2006, intended to study Japanese. Unfortunately, the Japanese class was full, so the school’s language director suggested she study Mandarin.

Solimine did just that and ended up participating in the academy’s School Year Abroad Program in China. In 1996, at age 16, she moved to Beijing with a host family for a year, immersing herself in the study of Chinese language and culture.

“I traveled around northeastern China, and then took a train with 30 other American high school students from Beijing to Hanoi,” Solimine recalled. “It was quite an experience.”

During her time abroad, she also forged a deep connection with her Chinese host family, a relationship that continues to this day, Solimine said. “That relationship played a big part in my interest in Chinese studies.”

The experience ingrained in her an enduring interest in China. After high school she traveled throughout the country for three months as a writer for the guidebook series Let’s Go: China, which was not easy on her family back in the states.

“Let’s just say my mother racked up a very high calling-card bill trying to connect with me on my journey,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Solimine studied Mandarin and Chinese history and society at Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor’s in East Asian studies. Solimine returned to China during her time at Harvard to study international relations at Beijing University as a Harvard-Yenching scholar.

She made the shift from the East Coast to the West Coast and took on a job working in media relations at USC before she decided to delve deeper into the study of China, pursuing her master’s in East Asian area studies at USC Dornsife.

“I loved how the program fostered an immediate connection with the faculty,” Solimine said. “From the beginning I felt supported by USC’s East Asian area studies community.

“I also enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the degree — the way I could take classes in disciplines ranging from international relations and public policy to anthropology and history.”

Solimine once again traveled to China to research her master’s thesis on China’s fledgling baseball league. She counts Eugene Cooper, professor of anthropology, and Stanley Rosen, professor of political science, who both served on her thesis committee, among her mentors from her time at USC Dornsife.

To this day, she continues to immerse herself in Chinese culture as she completes her first novel Empire of Glass. Based on the history of the host family she lived with in Beijing during her high school years, the novel traces the life of a Chinese woman’s family over the course of a century. Solimine researched the story with a Fulbright grant she received before earning a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of California, San Diego in 2011.

“It’s a lot about the changes in modern China and some of the personal frustrations that I’ve had in terms of what China has become in the last two decades as far as its challenges with environmental issues, political corruption and lack of artistic freedoms,” Solimine said.

But the bulk of her time now is spent working on an online magazine called Hippo Reads that she co-founded with her business partner Anna Redmond in 2013. The publication is committed to bringing academic pursuits to a mainstream audience. Its name was inspired by St. Augustine of Hippo who was prompted to Christian conversion by a childlike voice instructing him to “take up and read.”

Solimine, who currently lives in Singapore with her husband, has dedicated much of her life to academe and she felt the desire to bring cutting edge, timely research to larger audiences.

“What I felt was lacking for me in academia was a space to connect beyond academic circles,” she said.

After spending a considerable amount of time creating academic discourse — such as writing essays or research papers — Solimine noted that her work would only ever reach a small group of people, such as her professor or her classmates. “I was definitely hungry for a space where the work that I was doing could have a broader impact and resonance.”

Hippo Reads publishes work by academics, focusing particularly on younger faculty and graduate-level researchers who don’t always have a platform to share their work. They are encouraged to write articles about their research or on timely topics in their area of expertise.

“Many senior faculty have access to outlets where they can publish about their work, but there are so many graduate students, post docs and junior professors that are doing equally interesting, cutting-edge work who just don’t have an audience,” Redmond explained. “We saw this as an area ripe for disruption.”

To date, some of USC Dornsife’s faculty and doctoral students have contributed to Hippo Reads. Recently, Simon Radford, a Ph.D. student in international relations, published articles on the political situation in Ukraine and the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay is currently participating in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on the site where anyone can ask him about the biology of circadian rhythms, his area of expertise.

Solimine and Redmond report that the site is steadily building a following. In 2014, BBC Future named an article by psychoanalyst Phillip Freeman “Best of the Web.”

As she works to build up Hippo Reads, Solimine continues to fine tune her novel. She also contributes to a number of publications including National Geographic News, China Daily and Huffington Post as well as outlets for fiction such as Guernica Magazine and Kartika Review.

And, as always, she continues to be inspired by China.

“Living and studying in China has deeply influenced my writing — I’m often drawn to narratives that feature protagonists who experience some kind of personal change due to being outside of their comfort zone,” Solimine said. “I suspect my writing will always revolve in some way around China as it has been such a formative place in my own life.”