The Writer's Visa
ot long ago, I needed to travel to a country where a visa is required. Having set aside a morning, I went to the consulate, waited outside until admitted past the security gates, filled out my form, and stood in line again to deliver my form to the woman at the visa window.
The visa woman glanced at my form, at me, held up the form, and said,
"What is this?" She was not in genuine need of clarification. She seemed bemused, as if I had written on my form that my name was 'Bugs Bunny'.
"Is there a problem?" I asked.
"Your occupation," she said. "It says physician, and writer."
This has come up before. I work in both medicine and books. Sometimes this surprises people, and requires explanation. I began to tell her that, yes, I am a practicing doctor, I also write books, but she interrupted my cocktail chatter explanation of my life. She said,
"Writer is sensitive."
I understood from the deliberate tilt of her head, that she was not referring to the superbly honed, emotionally-attuned capacities of those of us who string words together. She gazed at the problematic form. At least it didn't seem that my status as a writer offended her, it was just a problem. It was not an offensive problem, I gathered from her air of ennui. Rather, it was a bureaucratic nuisance to her.
She sighed. She repeated, in case I had not heard, "Writer is sensitive."
This might make it more difficult for me to get my visa, I now realized. I began to talk. I hoped to show sympathy for her exasperation by providing a solution. I explained to her that I was a physician, and I wrote about health. (It was true that every book I had published – up to that time – was about doctors and health care... even if some of it was fiction that contained social commentary.) I reassured, soothed, my voice placating her in the administrative equivalent of cocktail chatter, whose subliminal intent is, 'if I keep on speaking pleasantly and at length, I hope you will do what I ask if only to make my droning voice stop'. I was trying to demonstrate, perhaps indirectly, how I was an utterly innocuous writer.
We do seem innocuous, don't we? Many of us writers are quiet observers, analysts, interpreters of human conflict but not its instigators – who as children said during playground disputes, 'Now, I can see your point of view, but surely you must understand that I look at it differently…' Or something like that. I was glad that the visa woman did not seem offended. It was a protocol problem, a procedural problem. I was glad that she seemed to be willing to consider my argument. I was also very glad, as I tried to demonstrate the benign nature of myself and my writing, that the book which I was writing at that time, 'The Headmaster's Wager' had not yet been published.
This novel, now published, is set in Vietnam. In occurs in wartime, and contains explicit violence and sex. It's part of the story, which is why it's there – I didn't want to explain at a visa window. The protagonist, Percival Chen, is a man of Chinese origin who flees the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. He starts an English language school in Vietnam. The diplomas of his school acquire huge value during the American military involvement in that country. This gives Percival enough money to get into lots of trouble. Percival is both a successful educator and businessman, and a compulsive gambler and hedonist. He has a loyalty to China which is both stubborn and simplistic, and yet he falls madly in love with a beauty of French-Vietnamese origins. He is sometimes willfully blind, and often maddeningly short-sighted. He is as frank about his ethnophobias and racisms as he is about love of beautiful women and good cognac.
He is inspired by my own grandfather.
I could have predicted that a few people would take exception to Percival's ways. I know, because many of my grandfather's questionable habits – philandering, compulsive gambling, drinking excessively – were presented to me, when I was a young boy, as a cautionary tale, 'this is how you must not live!'
As true as that may be, they certainly help to propel fiction.
I did not stop with these questionable elements in my writing of my novel. After all, racism, ethnophobia, naked greed, belief in spirits, abandonment to luck, a blithe willingness to profit from war, (and did I mention a lascivious appetite for beautiful women?) were all characteristics I deployed to create a particular Chinese male protagonist in Vietnam in the middle part of the 20th Century. Come to think of it, in many modern settings, these character traits could also ring true.
It sort of occurred to me in a theoretical way that having all of these elements flung through the pages might raise the ire of some readers. Namely, I understood that'The Headmaster's Wager' might provoke certain Vietnamese, Chinese, French, American, Japanese, inter-race, male, and female readers, in short, anyone who was in some way represented in my novel. But then, a writer cannot be hindered by what people will think about the characters while writing. Otherwise, how could one do true justice to the characters? (Actually, the whole truth is: I think the writer knows that they must follow the character faithfully and honestly in order to get them right, but the writer also secretly hopes that many readers will love the characters. It's just that some of us won't admit that last part.)
The book was published in Canada in the spring of 2012. An early review in the Ottawa Citizen judged that the novel was, "a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions… cinematic, multi-layered", and also said, "portrays Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community in a most unflattering light." In the Globe and Mail, one article asked, "what if your sophomore effort is a masterpiece?... The Headmaster's Wager has all the markings." In the same newspaper on a different day, a different writer complained of the novel's, "patronizing approach to characters ethnically different from the headmaster," and of its "exoticized stereotypes of racially mixed people." A recent BookBrowse blog post by Chet Yarbrough offered that the book would appeal to "male chauvinists". Mr. Yarbrough also described it as having "bell ringing clarity and concrete believability" and predicted that it would rise to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
I didn't intend to write specifically for male chauvinist readers. I'm glad it rings clearly and believably. Meanwhile, I really, really, really, hope that Mr. Yarbrough's New York Times bestseller prediction is true. Help me out on that front, if you can!
What I find fascinating is that different reviewers come away with such different impressions of whom I've slighted in 'The Headmaster's Wager'. For some, I have offended the Chinese, for others the Vietnamese. My depictions of westerners have been described as caricatures. My wife was worried that our Japanese nanny would take issue with my portrayal of the Japanese. It seems 'The Headmaster's Wager' is touching upon deep currents of people's emotions, for the responses to be so varied. For my part, it is not necessarily comfortable to challenge people or to be challenged for doing so, but in an uncomfortable way – it is very satisfying as a writer. This is part of what books can do, and should do.
With the book's impending launch in America in mid-August of 2012, I am curious about what the reactions there will be. The novel centers around a conflict which in America is known as the Vietnam War, and in Vietnam is known as the American War. By any name, I know that this era has important and painful psychic resonance for many Americans, as it does for the Vietnamese. I grew up on the Vietnam books of Halberstam, O'Brien, Duras, Greene, and other westerners. They wrote about Vietnam with their lens pointed in from the outside. Asian people appear a certain way – often written as if through a cloak of misunderstanding, which I think is usually honest to the point of view of those books. In 'The Headmaster's Wager', it is the western outsiders who become the distanced figures, seen as they are through Percival's China-centric eyes. I wonder how this inversion will be received in America.
There is a paradox: being quiet, analytical observers by natural inclination, I think many writers instinctively avoid plunging into offense and confrontation in our quotidian interactions with the world. Meanwhile, that same deep interest in understanding our world is what drives us to write about it. In representing it, we want to remain honest to what we see. What we see are characters, places, and scenarios that are raw, sometimes painfully so, and hopefully contain insight for the reader. We try to go there in our writing. This, if we get it right, provokes engagement, interaction and, yes, there is the risk of offense and confrontation.
At the consulate, I managed to convince the visa woman that what I do is so innocuous that it could bother no one. After all, 'The Headmaster's Wager' had not yet been published. She disappeared for a while, and apparently managed to convince her superior of my harmless nature. My visa was granted.
Yet, she was correct.
Writer is sensitive.