The Big Idea: Daniel Fox
To wrap up this Week O’ Big Ideas, here’s Daniel Fox with Dragon in Chains. They say travel broadens the mind, but for Fox it did rather more than that: It gave him an idea and an inspiration to write about the place to which he’d traveled, one that in this case has paid off with no less than a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Where many Western authors try and fail to capture the nuances of Chinese culture and mythology, this melodious tale quietly succeeds”). But just as no journey is a straight line, so was Fox’s literary journey full of turns and twists. Here he is with a map of his travel.
Like so many good things, it came entirely out of the blue, and not strictly to me: an invitation for a Newcastle writer to spend time on a residency in Taipei.
It was very short notice, though, and just before Christmas. Most writers in Newcastle have families or jobs or other commitments, and weren’t free to just drop everything and go.
Me, I just dropped everything and went.
To be honest, I only took it because I didn’t want to be the kind of person who turns such chances down. I never was much of a traveler, except in my head where it doesn’t count; going halfway round the world on my own was too big a step to be comfortable. Especially not knowing what waited, what was expected of me. A residency might mean anything…
In this instance, it was like no residency I’d ever heard of. I was collected at the airport by charming young people with uncertain English and absolute attitudes. And cameras. They preserved my image for the record, then swept me away to a leather-lined limousine. They’d take me to my hotel, they said, but only to deposit my bags; I was due at a press conference instantly. I protested – all I wanted was a shower and a bed; I was grimy and exhausted, I’d been awake for thirty-six hours and stood no chance of making sense to the press, even if I’d known what I was there for – but they were insistent.
My hotel turned out to be the Ritz, which made me blink even harder than the limousine had; this is not normal fare for itinerant writers. The press conference was in a restaurant, and once we’d squeezed past the journos and the photographers and the TV cameras, I found myself at a table with a dozen other writers from all over the world, from Guatemala and Canada and Korea.
It wasn’t really a residency at all, it was a symposium. Or not even that, more a PR opportunity. For Taiwan, not for us. Its global position is so peculiar – functionally a separate state, legally still a province of China, diplomatically unrecognized except by a stubborn handful – it’s always looking for sidelong ways to improve international relations. All they wanted from us was a couple of public appearances, endless photo ops for internal consumption, and finally that we should go away and write nice things about Taipei. In return, they kept us in luxury, ferried us everywhere, paid for everything and gave us pocket-money on the side.
I had – surprise! – a wonderful time. The far east has been a fixation, almost a fetish all my life (I blame my mother: who was born in Rangoon, grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, talked about it just enough to feed a boy’s fevered imagination); now I was playing in the real thing, and finding it utterly unlike anything I’d imagined. Or indeed anything my mother had described, with seventy-odd years between her experience and mine.
But I was also very aware that I was seeing a heavily filtered version, isolated by money and ignorance, by privilege and adept PR. I needed to go back: which I did a few months later, sleeping on my interpreter’s floor and meeting the city again through her contacts and my own wanderings. I walked everywhere, I deliberately walked myself off the map. I’ve never felt more alien or more lost, in a city where I couldn’t even read the maps.
I ached to write about it, but I wasn’t at all ready. I nearly stayed; there was a house for rent, twenty minutes outside the city, in the mountains, overlooking the rice paddies on one side and the ocean on the other. Six months rent, two grand. I did so nearly stay. But I have cats…
Home again, I started Mandarin lessons and a book collection. I knew already what I wanted to do: I wanted to write about Taiwan since the arrival of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT, after they were driven from the mainland. Partly it was that classic image of the tiny island bristling at the vast mainland, bristling with weapons; partly it was the experience of the native Taiwanese, invaded by a vast northern army and living under military dictatorship. Marry those two together, and there’s a novel. But I’m a fantasist, I have small interest in mimetic fiction. I wanted to recast the story into feudal China first – an emperor in flight, the dynasty at hazard – and then into imagination, put magic in jade and a dragon in the strait.
It was six years before I was ready to start writing. And then, of course, the characters claim the story and take it in unexpected directions; so no, there is no one-to-one mapping between the actual events – or, indeed, the country – and the novel. There was never meant to be. I couldn’t pretend to represent the complexities of another culture after a few years’ distant study, and I wasn’t interested in reproducing the history under a cloak. Again, that distaste for the mimetic – I’d always rather make stuff up. So I took no notes and let the research slide largely out of my head, just to work with the traces that lingered.
It’s about impressions, not descriptions. Tolkien famously denied any allegorical significance to The Lord of the Rings, which was perhaps disingenuous; it would be equally disingenuous in me to assert any particular allegorical significance to Dragon in Chains. Any book belongs at the last to itself, and needs to subsist alone and unsupported. But the roots of this one lie absolutely in those trips, that history and my own susceptibility. All fiction is autobiography; we give ourselves away on every page.