I have already mentioned how much I enjoyed Madeleine Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing (see post 29 July) but what it stirred in me was not just the plight of its characters and the awful choices they had to make, but the strength of the love which bound people together despite their dire circumstances. It reminded me of a novel that someone I know intimately wrote a few years ago, but left untouched, as she struggled to think of a way to correct the structure.
Yes, that author was me. My novel The Moon Weeps is a sweeping story, set in the Hebei province of China. It tracks the lives of two couples, a generation apart. It begins with a young Japanese (ex-soldier) making his way back to China and the area where he was stationed during the second Sino-Japanese War, and ends in the final years of the Cultural Revolution. Goodness, you may be thinking. Sounds tense. Difficult to do. It was, although I did have some foundation for these wild plans.
I have some experience of Chinese and Japanese culture, having lived in both Hong Kong and Japan, teaching art in one and English in the other. So, I guess the seed for the novel sprang from these experiences, although it wouldn’t have germinated if I had not joined a writing class shortly after returning home. The tutor asked us to jot down potential novel characters, noting their race, age, gender, country of birth, etc. I recalled a student in Japan, half Japanese, half Chinese, who struggled with his identity. I jotted down: Japanese man; Chinese woman; New Zealand teacher?; Missionary?; met in China?; during/after the war?
I doubt the tutor realised how good her methods were that day, to have promoted a five-hundred-page novel from the exercise, but they certainly inspired this student. It is however, one thing to have a fantastic, wide-raging idea but quite another matter, I learned, to render the outcome satisfactorily. I knew the basis of the story was sound, and my characters too, in the main. The overlapping narratives and timeframes proved to be the sticking point. Madeleine Thien has helped me see a way to change the status quo, through the way she dealt with similar dualities in her novel. I sigh deeply here, for I know the task ahead of me is challenging, but I also know that the story I have given much of myself to, deserves to be finished.
The synopsis: The Moon Weeps is set largely in Songjiazhuang, China, against the backdrop of the second Sino-Japanese war. Alex, a young woman from New Zealand, takes up a teaching position at the village school, having been encouraged by New Zealander Kathleen Hall, a missionary and nurse, who had worked there during the war. Alex soon meets carpenter Lee LinWu and a close friendship develops. But when Alex finds Japanese kanji engraved on a bowl he’s given her, she is intrigued and wants to learn more. What she unearths however, puts herself and others in danger, for the man posing as LinWu’s father, is not who everyone believes him to be. As the narration unfolds, we learn of the similarities between this man, (Hiro Matsumoto) and Alex, and of the forces which drove them to leave their families and countries. We also learn the cost of carrying a burdensome secret, for the carpenter’s son knows nothing of his father’s real past. The title, The Moon Weeps, reflects the anguish Alex feels as political and personal events begin to overwhelm her. Mao’s revolutionary ideology impacts upon the close-knit community; her relationship with Lee LinWu becomes fraught with complications, and when a suspicious drowning occurs near the school, Alex feels she can no longer cope. She is given permission to take leave and returns to New Zealand; relieving her of one burden but adding the weight of another. When Alex comes to renew her visa, she is denied re-entry into China. Does Alex have the courage to return when she is able; to find the man she promised to love forever? Does she have the conviction as Hiro Matsumoto did, that the love for a person could substitute for the loss of one’s own country and culture? Was she even capable of believing in ‘following one’s own path’? Did she have that much faith anymore?
Thank you Madeleine Thien, for helping me see a better path for my story’s structure.