learning to see through different eyes

learning to see through different eyes

What experiences did the most to set the course of my life?

There are three, all of which occurred during my childhood. From when I was strong enough to do so, my father used to take me for walks in the harbour at weekends. Everything was HUGE. The wheels on the cranes reached to above my head. I was riveted by the strange writing on the ships and by the strange-looking people speaking strange languages. I was awestruck by all the things being loaded and unloaded and by the size of the men doing it. They were at least twice as big as my dad (although I later realised he wasn’t all that big. In fact, he was quite short). I wondered about where all that stuff came from, where they went to and what people did with them. I knew then that there had to be big, other places that were not the place where I was. Those walks in the harbour had brought the world into my world, where it remains to this day.

The next experience occurred when I was eight. At that time I slept on the living room floor of our house. Early one morning, after my parents had failed to pay our electricity bill, there was a knock at the door. My mother answered it. A big, white man was there to collect the money. He invited himself in. My mother, now back in the bedroom, called for me to get up and see if I could borrow some money from a neighbour. I wanted to do this, but the man wouldn't go outside so I could get out of bed. I didn't dare ask him even to at least turn his back. He simply stood there, expressionless, as my mother kept calling me. I couldn't tell her why I couldn't get out of bed. In the end, I had to get up. He wouldn't even turn his face. In that moment I understood what it meant to not be a human being in another's eyes.

The third occurred when I was ten. The head librarian at our local library had started a Library Club and had invited me to join. I was keen as a bunny smelling carrots. There, every Saturday morning, we learnt the most amazing things: how to read a newspaper; which part of the newspaper is actually the newspaper; how to tell a good newspaper from a bad one; how to tell a fact from an opinion from a prejudice; how to debate; good and bad ways of saying the same thing; how to read a map; how to tell things about a book without reading it; what is a half-truth and why people tell them; and much more besides. I shall never forget that experience. The Library club taught me that it was within my power to decide what kind of human being I wanted to be and to make myself into it. Thank you, Mr Sassman, wherever you may be now.




Why do I get so excited about the twelfth century?

It's not just that so many different winds of change were tearing through so many societies during the long twelfth century—that would provide material enough—but as a writer of fiction, I also have to capture a reality that contains so much more than my own. The Crusades were in full swing, setting in train processes that would transform the Muslim world, Christendom and its pagan neighbours beyond all recognition. The once-glorious Al-Andalus was collapsing fast with reverberations that would be felt as far as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Guinea. The Fatimids were assigned to history at the same time as Turkic steppe tribesmen were mopping up what still remained of the once-great Abbasid Caliphate, effectively bringing the Age of the Caliphates to a close. Those same wild Turkic tribes, in this short period, transformed themselves into powerful, sophisticated states that provided the infrastructure of trade and education across their domains. The geography of Judaism was into its next cataclysmic reshaping. In China, the Song Dynasty, famed for its flair for invention, came to an end, as did the relatively genteel Heian Jidai in Japan, ushering in long periods of social instability and religious turmoil in both societies. Major religious realignments were taking place in India and the Khmer Empire, with Islam upsetting the long-standing balance between Hinduism and Buddhism. During that century, all certainties were crumbling, or at least, severely shaken, and everything was up for grabs. These developments as so enmeshed with one another that the temptation to embroider a novel out of it all was simply too strong to resist.




Why am I so obsessed with the Translation Movement?

Well, there’s a bit of a back-story to that. It was 1988, twenty years before I’d even dreamt of Working Title #1, and I was preparing to start my PhD. This entailed a number of things, the most important of which were sharpening up my philosophical skills and getting to understand Karl Marx. By then I’d read Marx’s Grundrisse perhaps three or four times and had been studying Aristotle and Hegel. So I was satisfied that I was gaining a pretty sound understanding of a truly great mind. It was when I then moved onto his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that the trouble started. Up to that point, all my reading of Marx’s works had been in English, so too the EPM. I became uneasy with the particular translation when I came across a phrase that, although logically consistent with the text around it, was inconsistent with my understanding of Marx. In short, I was certain there was simply no way Marx would’ve said that. I saw no point in consulting other translations, as I would, from then on, have to be constantly on my guard for such slip-ups. It was time to read Marx in the original and I had a clear run of two years in which to learn German. In 1990, I went back to the EPM and read it in the original (Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844). The translator of the English version I'd read earlier had erred not in the language, but in the philosophy. That’s when I appreciated translation as one of the most treacherous of the arts and philosophy as the most crucial. Since then I’ve been somewhat in awe of translation and those with the acumen and confidence to practise it.

When I started doing research for the novel, it soon became clear that many scholars idealise the Islamic Golden Age, especially in contradistinction to the contemporaneous Dark Ages in Latin Christendom. I found simplistic those historiographies that see the Islamic Golden Age translating everything the Greeks had written and then handing it over to 'Europe' in the fourteenth century to kick-start the Renaissance. Latin Christendom might have been dark, but by the twelfth century there were flashes of light going off everywhere, not least from contact with Muslim Andalus, so-called 'Gothic' architecture, for example, while Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christendom, was already bathing in the light of its own full-blown renaissance.


Looking more closely at Islam’s early centuries, I found it to contain the seeds of its own later idealisation. Those seeds were, in part, sown in what later came to be known as the Translation Movement, except that, by the time Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd comes along in the twelfth century, there’s practically nothing left of the once great Translation Movement and that was two hundred years before the 'European' Renaissance. It was also new to me that neither was a ‘translation movement’ unique to the Arabs, nor were they the first to do it.

The early Abbasid caliphs, with their capital, Baghdad, situated in Persia, continued and centralised what the Persians had been doing for a long time at the behest of their religion. Translation is integral to Zoroastrianism and the Persians had built up vast libraries of works written in or translated into Pahlavi. So it is by no means certain that the bulk of the Translation Movement's Arabic translations were from the Greek. They could just as well have been from Pahlavi works (much of which was from Sanskrit originals) that had escaped Alexander the Great's pillaging of those libraries to have them translated into Greek in Alexandria, or had been salvaged from the ruins after he destroyed those libraries. Either way, both Greek and Pahlavi were major source languages for the Translation Movement. The Arabs also translated from Syriac, Aramaic, Chinese and Sanskrit, drawing the world's greatest scholars to Baghdad with its many impressive libraries and the mother of all universities. At that time, the city was the inspiring cosmopolitan capital of a vast, unified caliphate ruled over by visionary caliphs.

So when a translation movement started up in Toledo in the late twelfth century, it was not a simple transferral of Greek knowledge via Arabic to Latin, as so often depicted. It was a transferral of as much of world knowledge as could be gathered in one place at that time from a vast area stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. The Latin translation movement inherited a handy concentration into one language, Arabic, of all the world's knowledge from Chinese, Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Syriac, Aramaic and, yes, Greek.

But the crucial discovery for me was that the Arabs did not translate all the Greek works they could lay their hands on, as is generally assumed. Spectacular as the scale of the Translation Movement was, they nevertheless translated only those works they considered of value to their society. Thus they concentrated on the sciences and philosophy, leaving all literature and the arts untranslated. This deliberate exclusion of that which makes us human, in favour of a strict utilitarian bias later comes to haunt the society and is especially personified in the life of Ibn Rushd. Centuries later, incidentally, 'the West', as we came to know it, emerged from its Renaissance in the eighteenth century to make the same mistake as the Translation Movement had: throwing out the human baby with the 'irrational' bathwater. It is time to re-examine the Enlightenment to see whether it really was the unqualified success we axiomatically hold it to be. I'd like to one day write a novel centred on the life of Isaac Newton. I suspect I might find a rerun of the life of Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd.


By the twelfth century, Baghdad had seen the Caliphate fracture and fracture again until it was little more than a vast patchwork of emirates run by princes constantly preoccupied with seizing one another's territory and with killing their brothers before their brothers could kill them. The caliph had been reduced from the head of a great polity to a head on a coin. The city's surviving institutions, including it's famous university, had become pits of intrigue where rival non-entities vied for favours from non-entities higher up the pecking order. Ignorance and the narrowest of self-interest were the moral and intellectual high grounds of the day. Religious oppression, part of this general social decay, had turned on itself. Clearly, anyone still practising the lofty art of translation in such a Baghdad would find himself or herself at a major historical and cultural tipping point facing a constant existential crisis. This was just the time and place in which to situate my main character, Munira. She just had to be one of the very last translators clinging on for dear life under the relentless onslaught of a rising anti-intellectual ethos.

An interesting twist to all this, and an elegant closing of a circle, came when I was researching the relationship between twelfth-century Chinese and Japanese cultures and the legacy of earlier Chinese cultural hegemony in East Asia. It gave me great satisfaction to learn that even though their languages were mutually unintelligible, the main Japanese script, Kanji, remained the same as its Chinese source (Han, hence Kanji) and their symbols continued to carry the same meanings. That meant, as my friend Gloria Molinero pointed out to me, that a Japanese person and a Chinese person unfamiliar with each other's languages would still be able to communicate in writing without any need for translation. Indeed, the script was the translator. Had the Chinese had an alphabet, this would not have been possible. This solved quite a few problems in the novel and also offered some wonderful opportunities. The way was now clear for Tomoe to cross China en route to Persia. Why, in Heaven's name, would she do that? Ooh, that's where the story comes in...


compartmentalisation is the enemy

compartmentalisation is the enemy

Why do I write in the first person present tense?

Much of what the contemporary Western mind has (mostly) assigned to the supernatural, the superstitious, the irrational, etc., would have been integral and active elements in the objective reality perceived by the medieval mind, even the educated medieval mind. The real challenge and the real excitement for me lies not only in writing in the first person present tense (for all the good reasons [Hilary Mantel has so eloquently explained]), but to be present in that first person, rather than just perched on their shoulder. In other words, I have to capture reality as my twelfth-century characters perceive reality without detachment and without condescension. I am participating in it as that first person, rather than just observing that first person in action. Annie Dillard, describing another artist being in his art, says, "As if Beethoven could not hear his final symphonies not because he was deaf, but because he was inside the paper on which he wrote." That's what I mean by first person present tense.

This, however, I find easier said than done. On re-reading the sections involving, say, what we would consider the supernatural, there were still subtle hints of, "Hey reader, just so there's no mistake here, they, those quaint twelfth-century folks, believed in such things, but I, enlightened twenty-first century person, know better." I found it quite a challenge at first, to get rid of that twenty-first century credibility life-line. The process of transposing my mind into a twelfth-century reality became easier once I imagined a thirty-first-century historical fiction writer doing the same thing with twenty-first century reality. Then I didn't feel so precious about our 'more scientific understanding' anymore. It's quite unpredictable and pleasantly surprising how the writing acquires a depth that wasn't there before, once I hand myself over to another reality without reservation. Perhaps that's a naïve thing to say. By the way, if my writing should come across as an attempt at magical realism, just to be clear, that's not what I'm trying to do.


There is another challenge, though. If I'm writing in the first person present tense and I don't change the narrator—oh, by the way, I don't change the narrator. In Munira's story, she's always the narrator, as is Tomoe always in hers—but if I stick to that, who tells the story of their births and early childhoods? This is where I've had to make a concession and assume the role of narrator myself, so that the story drops out of the first person to become third person present tense. This helped to impose a certain discipline on the writing when it came to other characters. Other characters only enter the story when they enter the lives of the narrators and the reader only learns more about them as the narrator learns about them. I'd already been writing for about three years when I figured this out. This meant culling huge parts of the story, some of which I was very proud of and had become wedded to. That was a hard thing to do, really hard, but it had to be done.

I once saw a neighbour pruning a tree. She was armed with a chainsaw and looked like she was doing a psycho job on the poor thing. Dismayed, I asked my friend about this demented pruner. All she said was, "She's an experienced gardener. She knows what she's doing." Come the next spring and lo and behold, the tree was the essence of all life! From that point I understood that those branches, good and strong as they'd seemed, were merely holding back the tree. Reminding myself of the psycho gardener helps me keep perspective on what stays and what goes when it comes to my oh-so-precious writing.

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How much can I expect my readers to know?

While the problem of what the narrator, in this case the main character, can know in relation to what the reader can know is easily solved by various simple devices, this only really works where the reader and writer share the same cultural space. Writing in the first person present tense throws up an additional problem for the writer of historical fiction set in cultures alien to reader.

A writer from an essentially Western European cultural background, for example, writing historical fiction set within that same cultural background, intended for readers who share that background, can take it for granted that the basic cultural space and the broad sweeps of history will be understood, even if the reader might need to be educated about some details. Where such readers find themselves unable to 'keep up', they are less likely find fault with either the book or the writer, and are more likely to assume themselves out of their depth.

There is little such generosity for historical fiction set in backgrounds unfamiliar to the Western reader. Written with a comparable density of information as an equivalent historical novel set in Western Europe (or its colonies), such a novel is charged with 'making an unreasonable demand on the reader' or 'containing too many specialist words that a reader cannot be expected to know'. Here the writer is taken, almost instinctively, to be responsible for the reader's ignorance. The writer might just redeem themselves by providing a glossary or by covering the page in footnotes. Which storyteller wants to do that? The fundamental unfairness of such Eurocentrism I cannot solve, though I acknowledge there have been hints, lately, of a new awareness. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the basic reality that most of my readers will be unfamiliar with much of the cultural and historical landscape of my writing. Cosmopolitan writers of historical fiction, whose settings might straddle many diverse cultures, cannot assume a common cultural repertoire with their readers. I have a problem that the writer working in Western culture and history doesn't have. That is the presumption that it is up to me to educate my readers.

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Madeleine Thien makes the point powerfully in her [review of Ma Jian's novel The Dark Road] In it she takes up noted literary critic Philip Marchand's remarks about Mo Yan's novel Pow! She qoutes Marchand, "If [readers] are puzzled by what the Wutong Temple is all about, I have no idea either. If the storyline is meaningless, so are the characters. Nevertheless, the novel does reflect some of the political realities the author has lived through...." She then teases out the implications of this:

 "What these 20th-century realities are appear to be lost on Marchand, despite the fact that they have claimed the lives of more than 40 million people during his lifetime. When looking for a tradition in which to frame Pow!, Marchand argues 'that the true precursor of the novel is Rabelais.' His dour conclusion: 'The novel may well be of interest to scholars of comparative literature.'

"And therein lies the punchline. What literary critic would dare write with such confidence about, for instance, European literature despite having read almost no European literature? Imagine a Chinese critic making this goofy comment about Philip Roth's American Pastoral:  'It seems to me the true precursor of the novel is the 17th-century writer Li Yu.'

"Intellectual inflexibility of Marchand's kind is ubiquitous, but it is tiring, to say the least." 

Tiring and intellectually inflexible it certainly is, and I would say more. A novel about 40 million people dying in Marchand's world during his lifetime would not be glibly dismissed as a "(possibly) of interest to scholars of comparative literature". The mindset that produces the Marchands of this world is the same mindset that coined 'world' music to mean 'other than Western', or 'ethnic' to mean 'other than white' and 'accent' to mean 'other than British'. Anything that isn't 'us' is of interest only to scholars and how can we reasonably be expected to know anything about such things? To my mind, it's not about what you don't know, but about your attitude towards not knowing.

The conceptual skeleton of my book is the Silk Road and everything it implied. If my school education is to be trusted, then the Silk Road existed to deliver silks and spices to Europe. That was its purpose. Here is a map of the Silk Road from the point of view of the land that produced the silk.

Source: Suzhou Silk Museum

Source: Suzhou Silk Museum

Suddenly, the Silk Road, relatively speaking, had little to do with Europe. The serious action took place on the stretch between Hamadan, in Persia and Dunhuang, on the Chinese then western border. Europe got the stuff that fell off the camels when no one was looking. There were no less than five major crossroads or confluences in Persia. Kashgar, an oasis city near the western edge of the Taklamakan, must have had the most incredible caravanserais. The number and variety of people converging on this one oasis city from Persia, India, China and central Asia must have made it the busiest and most vital trading point in the entire world. And, it conveyed not only goods, but also ideas, major ideas. Yes, yes, don't worry. Kashgar features in Working Title #1 and I cannot tell you how much I look forward to writing about the goings-on there in the winter of 1185-6.

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So, back to my problem with the first person present tense. It's the eve of 1789 and Marie Antoinette says, "Let them eat cake!" The reader knows there's going to be a revolution. Marie Antoinette doesn't. The writer's job is to make sure that her Highness behaves consistently with not knowing what the reader is automatically assumed to already know. Nobody in the scene is going to say or hint anything to inform the reader of the momentous events that are about to take place so that the "Let them eat cake!" remark may be properly understood. It'd ruin the story, apart from tip-off Marie Antoinette. So imagine it's the eve of the Battle of Karbala and Hussain is in his tent with his wife. He tenderly puts his arm around her and gently touches the head of their six-month-old son. Softly he says, "May you find Islam at peace." By the same token, I cannot let anything happen in that scene to 'inform the reader' that the next day Hussain and his party are going to be massacred, just so the reader might 'get' the meaning of "May you find Islam at peace."

Madeleine Thien again:

"I believe that when W.G. Sebald makes reference to a historical event of which we are ignorant, we readers know the lack is ours. But that is not true when we approach writers who engage with Lebanon, Sri Lanka, China or even our own First Nations history. Those writers are expected to be explainers, interpreters, educators, spokespeople. Their literature is partly judged by their ability to balance all these roles: their literary success depends on the success of 'our' education. Isn't it time to laugh, uproariously, at this ridiculous and unworthy measure of literary value?" 

My books will provide no footnotes, no glossary and no characters given to contrived soliloquies or lectures, nor will I avoid 'foreign words' when they serve my purpose. But I am trying something different: this website. Long before a book is published, I am hoping to provide a world into which I will invite my readers to immerse themselves so they might, both directly and indirectly, pick up both the framework and the frame of mind and, yes, quite a lot of information, that might head off such unreasonable demands on my books. This doesn't mean that I wouldn't provide such bits of information as might remind the reader that, for example, fajr is the dawn prayer, but I claim for myself the same freedom and flexibility as anyone to craft my story for its own sake. Here I'm doing my bit. Now it's up to those who would fault me for daring to write what they dare to not know.

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Do I have a special writing space? 

At the moment, unfortunately, no, at least, not the one I dream of. The writing space I dream of is a room at the top of my house, about 6m x 6m, lit from two sides, with one uninterrupted wall entirely corked, plenty of plants, my desk facing a featureless, windowless corner, stripwood floor with rugs, a winged armchair by the window, a 'slightly-distressed' brown, leather sofa (I know, I know), bookcases filled with what are nowadays prefixed as 'hardcopy' books and my most adorable, red JBL Creature (the one that caused such a stir). Laptop and big iMac, colour printer-scanner-copier. Remember that huge cork wall? Well, that's especially for huge maps, huge mindmaps and huge timelines (amazingly, no matter how big an idea, it can always fit onto a Post-it note), but also for pinning up whatever else pertains to what I happen to be writing at the time. That wall is my Command Centre, the physical equivalent of Scrivener on my computer. It is this with which I shall impress Winston Churchill, should he ever care to pop by. Oh, and no kettle, no television, no bed. I need to get off my backside and walk. That's the dream.

The reality is a little different. My apartment in Suzhou, China, has a modest, but well-lit living room that was once kitted-out with living-roomy type stuff. It used to say, "Come and sit down, have a cup of tea, turn on the television and relax." Wrong message. With vision, muscle, a firm foothold and perhaps the odd friend, much can be achieved. The bookcase, with those things called 'hardcopy' books, is now the first thing you see as you enter the room. Right message. The two sofas are now so arranged that people can better talk to one another, rather than watch (the) television, which they are now unable to do anyway because the daft thing has been banished to the storeroom where it's doing a fine job gathering dust (who would've thought?). If you come to visit me, be prepared to visit me. And the writing? Yes, over in a featureless, windowless corner sits my desk. That's where the writing happens. That's where this writing is happening. Alas, there is no 'hardcopy' Command Centre (not allowed, you see. Oh no, not allowed). No big iMac either. No fancy printer-everythingy, no winged armchair. But I do have my adorable, red JBL Creature (the one that caused such a stir). The chances that Churchill might pop by are, I think, pretty slim. He'd never get a visa.

It is actually a bit more nuanced than just all or nothing. Without being consciously aware of it at first, I've been noticing good places in which to write. Cafés with cheap lattes, friendly staff, comfortable seats and nice background music: they're filed away somewhere. Parks with tucked-away sunny corners and people who clean up their doggy poo and don't leave carpets of cigarette butts all over the place: they're filed away too. Lovely spots by the sides of rivers, canals and cycle paths: these are all filed away, adding to the wonderful selection of places where I can turn up with my laptop and quickly be somewhere else, only needing to return after ten hours, according to Apple. These help to mitigate my current reality, but they are also a value in their own right and I have no doubt that I shan't abandon them, should my dream writing space ever materialise.


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