A Fiction Writer’s Ever So Delicate Negotiation of History
by Geri Lipschultz
Unlike her nonfiction counterpart, a fiction writer is rarely castigated for not adhering to the historical truth in a novel. I’ve heard fiction writers say that they will alter the truth for the sake of a higher truth, but any fiction writer worth her salt does at least a modicum of research. Readers enter into a piece of fiction because they are seduced into thinking, “well, this could be true,” and that tenuousness hinges upon the beauty of the writing, the availability and depth of the characters, and any number of crafty methods used by a fiction writer to lure her reader. I like to think of it as a license to lie, cheat, steal, plunder, and it’s one of the reasons I love the form of fiction. It’s like playing. However, there’s nothing innocent about a piece of writing once a writer lets her kite go. Once it is out of her hands, becomes an offering, finds its reader, it becomes information—a thing of power—and there is the rub.
It is one thing to write a fiction, and it is another thing to set that fiction in a specific time that references a specific history. This is especially so when the writer of the story must leave her own set of circumstances, must rightly engage in the research of said history, because it’s not something she herself has experienced. It’s not part of her own tradition, but rather a tradition she has married into.
In my case, this marriage is literal. My story, “Slow Dance of the Heart,” scheduled for Fall 2012 publication in So To Speak, is one that is inspired by the stories of my husband’s family. I have been given permission to do this, to fictionalize the stories, to engage in the activity of imagining, of envisioning, of seizing any number of stories that I have been privy to. It’s territory that is fraught with wrong turns, yet I have jumped in. I’ve tried to steer clear of misappropriation and of misdirection.
I have published two other stories from this collection. They appear in the online magazine Kartika Review. In both of these stories, there is a character like me, someone who has married into the family and into the history, but this character only nominally appears in “Slow Dance of the Heart.” The controlling voice in the collection, and especially featured in this story, is a character I have tried to fathom, and enter into the psyche of, a woman who came of age in World War II Hong Kong. Whether foolhardy or arrogant, I can only hope that I’ve intuited well in trespassing, that I’ve trodden with compassion, with empathy. Lovely as it is, empathy alone will not do.
The staging for this story is a nursing home in America, but the voice of the story clearly designates a character whose memory is at sea. She is not confined to place or time in her mind. She does not remain in the nursing home but remembers a past, and this memory displaces her. One could call it dementia. One could call it magical realism. It is not my business to deconstruct the story here but to discuss the role of history in a piece of fiction.
My characters, both the woman from Hong Kong, and her husband, originally from the south of China, are people who come out of a history. They are who they are partly because they are products of a difficult history that has been appropriated by an imagination and some study, and while this is not a history but a fiction, the history looms up as something to be acknowledged, to be reckoned with. I’ve called it “difficult” but it is ever so much more.
One could say, “well, this is a piece of fiction, after all”—and leave it at that. One could say, “well, this story is set in present-day America, and it is in another story where this history is dramatized”—and to some extent, this is true. However, it would seem negligent to let the matter of an under-reported and very ugly history be glossed over, when an opportunity arises to expose it. The tremendous suffering of those who experienced it is also a source of unspeakable pain and humiliation that remains virtually invisible to those who did not.
It is well known that the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s. History remembers the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and many other parts of Asia. But among the details not recorded in history books is the system by which the Japanese war effort serviced their soldiers, namely the establishment of “comfort stations” in these countries, where they requisitioned and kidnapped anywhere from two-hundred-thousand to three-hundred-thousand women and girls into prostitution.
In my effort to come to grips with this story, I compiled a bibliography and read a number of articles about “comfort women,” as they have been called, and I read several books, some of which were written by the women themselves. An example of a scholarly article that provides a general history of the controversy surrounding the tragedy is Hayashi Hirofumi’s article, “Japanese Comfort Women in Southeast Asia,” published in Japan Forum (1998). For an account of one woman’s experience, read the memoir of the Dutch Colonial Jan Ruff-O’Herne, in 50 Years of Silence.
In the story, I allude to such a history, but I do not spell it out. Similarly, I make a number of allusions to Chinese immigration to the United States without calling any attention to the racist and discriminatory policies that comprised the laws of immigration that permitted, even encouraged European immigration but excluded Chinese immigration. In 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration. Still, many Chinese people came to America by way of Canada, as well as Latin America and Cuba, where they risked becoming slave labor in sugar cane fields; they entered the country through loopholes in the legislation, or as stowaways. The legal question of birthright citizenship stated in the 14th Amendment had been won by a certain Wong Kim Ark in 1898. In 1906, an infamous earthquake and subsequent fire in San Francisco destroyed the buildings where records were kept. Taking clever advantage of this situation, many people claimed citizenship for their children, not only theirs but others whom they would contact in China, who could then enter the country as citizens. I first read of these “paper sons” in Maxine Hong Kingston’s books. It wasn’t until World War II—when China was our ally—that President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, and it was only this year, on June 18, 2012, that the United States Congress finally issued an apology for these laws.
These historical occasions are much more than a backdrop for this story, which nevertheless takes place a good fifty years after the liberation of the concentration camps, after the US dropped the terrible bombs that they gave names to—“Fat Man” and “Little Boy”—onto the good earth of Japan. In the 1930s and ‘40s, when some of the very real people from whom these fictional characters are derived were living in the United States, sending money back to China or Hong Kong, and—whether legally or not—boarding a vessel to cross the great seas, it was next to impossible for Chinese people to gain entrance into the United States.
It’s worth noting, however, that when a people are oppressed, when laws as draconian and repressive as the Chinese Exclusion Acts are instituted, the human spirit will do whatever it takes to burn a path to freedom.