“Everything written in this book is true.” I say that, from time to time. “Everything that happens to my characters is fiction.” I say that, too. Sometimes, I say both things on the same occasions, for instance at a public event, or in an interview. Both of these comments are true.
I’ve written a novel, The Headmaster’s Wager. The protagonist, Percival Chen, has a few things in common with my late grandfather.
Both Percival and my late grandfather were headmasters of English schools in Vietnam, which became highly profitable during the era of American influence in that country. Both my grandfather and Percival were compulsive mah jong gamblers. Both made little effort resisting women who appealed to them, and both were able to spend money more quickly than they earned it. Both might have earned mixed reviews from their children with regards to parenting.
All of these similarities are specific, identifiable, and this being the case, it comes as no surprise to me when I am asked “How much of Percival is actually your grandfather?”
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I’ve worked out an answer. It goes like this: “Percival and his story are inspired by my grandfather.” Then I continue. I say, “I am careful to say that Percival is inspired by my grandfather. I do not say he is based upon my grandfather”. Beware of answers that come pre-packaged with caveats. They will require further caveats, or explanation.
The book I’ve written takes place in a time and place of my family’s history. Like my novel, my family’s story played out in a place called Cholon, which was once a Chinese sister city to Saigon. The main part of my novel occurs in this corner of Vietnam during the war with America.
There, my family’s story unfolded, some might say unraveled, strung itself out into long diverse strands, until over the course of several years and various upheavals it was woven into something totally different. I grew up in Canada, where ‘what happened’ in Vietnam was told to me as my family legend. It was as foreign to me in some ways as a creation myth, and equally intimate.
When it came time to write a novel anchored in this past, I tried at first to write the things I had heard as a child. It went a bit like this in early drafts, “He said, she said, he did, she did.” The writing of these accounts seemed rich with my own emotions, but often fell flat on the page.
I knew what certain gestures meant and certain omissions implied, but once dutifully transcribed, this deep layer of meaning became indecipherable to the reader. I knew the psychic truths of all these events. I discovered that I could not convey them with emotional fidelity by using the actual facts of what had happened. In order to be true to how certain things felt, it was far preferable to use inventions.
From time to time, Percival encounters some temptations that my grandfather must have encountered. Meanwhile, other plot twists spring from occurences attributed to other members of my family, from my extrapolations of history, or from my own imagination. Percival sometimes does things that are more or less what I think my grandfather would have done.
At other times, he is his own man. I wasn’t there, and can’t be sure what my grandfather would have done on a particular night on the town. However, it doesn’t matter, because I know what Percival does. Hence, I calim that Percival is inspired by, not based upon my grandfather.
There are a few scenes in my novel that bear no factual resemblance to anything that happened in my family. Yet I also know that the emotional resonance of certain fictions will likely remind people in my family of things that actually happened. The facts are floating above the page. Or, they are underpinning the fiction, as you like.
What can I say of the way these narratives interact? There is the real and the imagined, blending one into the another. There is that which shaped the course of my actual life, and that which is in the realm of ‘what could have been?’. (But don’t we always wonder – as part of our real lives – what could have been?)
I could say that fiction and fact are like two shadowboxers jousting in my novel, or like dreams that transform one into another. And back again! I could say that the only way I could express the way I truly feel about my family’s journey through the Vietnam War, was to make up stories.
Or, I could say that everything that happens to my characters is fiction. Also, that everything written in this book is true, and then go from there.
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