Who are you?
Publicly I am a writer and an academic with something different to offer. I’m an Asian-Australian writer who was born in Hong Kong and who has lived in Australia for over 45 years. My father was Portuguese and my mother Eurasian. My grandmother on my mother’s side was born in Liverpool. My father’s people came from Portugal and Holland.
Australia is just as globalised as the rest of the developed world, but there isn’t the critical mass here that is necessary for minorities to sometimes make themselves heard. Personally I feel less anxiety than I used to. Anti-Asian movements in the past have been disturbing, but hopefully Australians have put that behind them.
What do you write?
My books take in the whole sweep of multicultural Australia without pushing any particular issue, and they place language, literature and irony at the forefront of their endeavour. I feel I am better able to speak than most by standing at the confluence of three cultures, being enriched by them without being compromised; seeing the humour in their assumptions; triangulating a moment of history without being one-eyed. My mission has been to write the best prose possible so that aesthetics, the creative construction of style and form, can all be appreciated by the reader. It’s not the message, but how it’s delivered.
What is the novel Shanghai Dancing?
Shanghai Dancing was an opportunity to fictionalise lives that were familiar to me. I was not interested in telling people this was ‘true’ so much as creating a psychological truth which they have to discover. I used bits of my family’s lives, but mainly I used the whole spectrum of literature. Shanghai is also Joyce’s Dublin. My father was also a character out of Stendhal or Hemingway. Antonio the narrator is the portrait of an artist as a young man. I've been influenced by Beckett and Sebald, Bernhard and Proust. These are my masters and they formulate my dreams. And that’s all I can do: lay my dreams at the reader’s feet.
Where did the idea for Shanghai Dancing originate?
The book arose out of the realization that my family’s lives were really quite extraordinary. To have gone through huge wealth and then terrible tragedy, to have lived in slums and prison camps, these things made them interesting. The book challenged me to look at memory and its recall in different ways. It affected my view of my parents. It gave me hope when the despair of writing led me to depression and to thoughts of suicide. Hyperbole is a great friend in the writing of lives.
Why did you include archival photographs in the book?
The photos are not illustrative. They have a narrative of their own. People always believe photos. They think there is ‘truth’ there. But in this book, this is put into doubt. The photos are images which have captured a dead moment which may be related to the narrative but may not be either. It is the story which weaves a life behind the images. It is the fiction which resurrects a dead moment. In the same way, memory weaves a story. Memory works in a fragmented fashion. Each time something is recalled there is a little change or embellishment or difference in mood. Memory takes a photo each time it functions. That photo-process is never stable.
What does Shanghai Dancing have to offer an American audience?
Perhaps Americans should know China better, since China is the future. I think also the colonial history of Britain in China is important. I came out of this miscegenation between colonials and Chinese, so I understand it a lot more than those who simply want to make ideological points on cultural grounds. A novel is probably the best vehicle for this kind of ambiguous reflection, which takes in loyalties, disloyalties, moods and resonances. The Shanghai in the 20s and 30s will never come again.
What do you want to tell your readers?
I guess I'm saying readers have to read better. Just reading a story is not good enough. Just getting a message across is not good enough. But having an experience is another thing. I'm saying: experience the flavours of a time which will never return. Experience life writ large.