I’ve interviewed Kath and the book, and will be posting responses over the next few weeks. Check out the novel on Facebook!
1. The novel is set in a very specific time and place, China in the late 1980s. Can you say a bit about your own experiences as a traveler during that time that underpin the book? Share an anecdote or two?
Yes, the novel is set in 1989, some months after the events in Tiananmen Square. I was not in China in 1989 – my first trip to China was in 1987. I wanted to go to India but it was cheaper to fly to Hong Kong than to Delhi, and I thought I could travel to India overland: Hong Kong, China, Tibet, Nepal, India. It didn’t quite work out that way (there were riots in Lhasa and China closed Tibet to individual travelers so I went to India via Pakistan), but in any case, China was a surprise to me: unfamiliar and uncomfortable and unlike anyplace I’d ever been. I’m something of a fan of discomfort – it’s like salt in food, it makes a dish more itself. In the China of the late 80s it was not easy to be comfortable as an individual traveler and the varied discomforts made my experiences more intense, more particular.
On that first trip, one of the (many) buses I took broke down in the mountains of Sichuan Province. The driver took off for help (this ‘taking off’ involved a slight altercation with some of the passengers, but that’s another story) and we waited, at first patiently, but as hour after hour passed, as the day came to a close, some of the passengers grew restive. It seemed they thought there was a chance the driver had abandoned us and they were whipping up a froth of resentment. I didn’t know enough to be resentful and passed the day reading, writing and walking up and down the road. There were no other vehicles, the dirt road was surrounded by a dense wall of greenery, the only sounds were of insects, it was humid. The afternoon was long and time passed slowly; an extravagance of waiting. Eventually, at dusk, a second bus arrived, with our driver as the sole passenger. The two drivers hitched the injured bus to the healthy bus and we hurtled off through the unlit, black night (no headlights) towards the nearest town. It was wonderful to be passing through villages in the dark, seeing small clusters of people sitting under a bare bulb, listening to a radio and knitting, or watching a small black and white television set up outdoors. The town we arrived in was, I found out later, Li Bai’s home town. There was some sort of communist party convention going on there, some provincial affair and every guesthouse bed was taken. I walked from one guesthouse to another with a few of the other passengers. We were all tired and nobody had eaten much, so our search for lodging felt like hard work. After much wrangling, we each found beds in one of the guesthouses; I was to sleep in the night clerk’s bed while she was on duty. I protested, to no avail, that I could be given a bench because I had a sleeping bag. At last, near midnight, I crawled beneath the mosquito netting, into the sheets of a stranger’s bed – a young Chinese woman who lived in this town that, I would discover the next day, had not seen a foreigner in many many years, whose life I could not sufficiently imagine. I fell asleep in that stuffy airless room the size of a closet. At dawn, I was awakened by the clerk shaking me and, theoretically as enticement to get up, presenting a bowl of rice soup, featuring, in its watery whiteness, a large brown dollop of pickles.