We tourists tend to forget that the warmth, the gilded sunsets and salt air, the beauty we are drawn to in some exotic locales (both real and fictional) is mere surface imagery. Behind the brochures, there lurks another story–the true story of people living, working and studying, often in poverty, facing religious persecution, oppression and exploitation.
But how do we, as authors, manage to obtain a rare glimpse behind those laminated brochures?
How do we lift the ‘silk veil’, wander the dusty streets of our literary settings and really get to know our characters?
This was the challenge I faced in writing both The First Excellence ~ Fa-ling’s Map and Gold And Fishes.
In Gold And Fishes, I needed to do justice to the hundreds of thousands of people killed and displaced by the Boxing Day tsunami disaster of 2004. It wouldn’t have been acceptable to me to slap together a fictional story that failed to account for the very real suffering we were witnessing.
The daily reports of loss, the initial confusion, the sheer devastation as the death-count soared–I was moved to tell this story in the only way I could, through the art of the novel.
Gold And Fishes was my first headlong-dive into the world of research. For almost six months, before I even began the writing process, I combed every on-line newspaper I could for relevent stories regarding the event. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to The Jakarta Post, BBC On-Line and China View, not to mention our own Globe And Mail, to name but a few.
The First Excellence presented a challenge of a more personal nature. Not only did I wish to explore both the ancient traditions as well as modern life within Mainland China, but I was also driven to imagine this golden country through the eyes of one of its own “lost daughters”.
My character, Li Fa-ling, was abandoned at the age of four, along with her infant sister Fa-dao. After suffering several years of sexual abuse in a Guilin orphanage, she and Fa-dao were adopted by a Canadian couple and raised in Toronto, Canada.
As a young adult, Fa-ling returns to the land of her birth, seeking the self-awareness that can come only from knowledge of one’s roots.
But what does she discover?
Therein lies the story–the true nature of a rising nation, which even today carries the burden of dark tradition. Tremendous pride, glittering heritage, and yet human exploitation on a level most of us would rather not imagine.
One of the many stories my research revealed concerned a teenager who had been imprisoned in a Chinese jail without legal counsel, without trial, without access to any members of her family, for over three years.
She posted on-line in a public chat forum that she believed her relative had died of SARS. Her doctor denied it, but she believed her relative, previously healthy, had shown all the symptoms of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome during the rapid decline that led to her death.
China’s infamous Great Firewall picked up the girl’s post. She was subsequently arrested and held for three years in one of that country’s notoriously hellish jails, until growing International pressure led to her eventual release.
From abandoned daughters to brick-factories manned by ‘stolen children’, from organ theft to Internet censorship–these are all daily factors the New China Rising must address as it fights for its rightful place on the world stage.
And yet, even with all of its warts and bruises, there is something undeniably beautiful–a truly wonderous, breath-taking and powerful splendor–woven into the very fabric of that great nation.
One day I hope to see China again. In my dreams, my husband and I travel there with our adult children, once more to witness its majesty, this time through the eyes of our own beloved daughter.
Donna enjoys sharing her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the independent and self-publishing industry. Visit Carrick Publishing to learn more about Donna’s books and e-publishing experiences.