Telling tales of 50 years of change
At the end of a session with thriller writer Sam Bourne this week, an audience member asked why there was so much writing about the Nazi Holocaust and so little about other, more recent ones. Bourne – whose novel Pantheon investigates the complicity of Yale and Oxford universities in eugenicist attempts to save “the brightest and best” during the second world war – was speaking in one of the bigger tents at the Edinburgh International Book festival.
One of the richest strands to emerge from this year’s festival is fiction from writers of East Asian origin, whose different stories add up to a record of some of the most devastating social and political upheavals of the last half century.
Four of the most interesting of such writers were women. Kim Thúy’s family were among those who fled Vietnam. She says they were fortunate to have been cleared for emigration to Canada. Her debut novel Ru – originally published in French – recounts their stories in shards of semi-autobiographical anecdote. In one of the most striking chapters, her central character chats to young cousins as they work together as machinists in her parents’ garage. “They described to me how they had masturbated men in exchange for a bowl of soup.” Another Canadian at the festival was Madeleine Thien, who was born in Vancouver in 1974, the year her Chinese-Malaysian family moved to Canada. Like Thúy, she now lives in Montreal. Her fourth book, Dogs at the Perimeter, tells the story of the Cambodian genocide, as seen by a traumatised emigrée scientist.
Krys Lee, who grew up in the US but has now moved back to South Korea, in her debut short story collection Drifting House narrates two stories about the differing traumas of North and South Korea.
The Chinese American writer Yiyun Li in a discussion of her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, mused about its significance: communality is not simply a physical reality in China – all her characters live in tiny spaces – but a way of being. It is a very different plurality to the “techno-postmodern we” adopted by American-born Joshua Ferris in his acclaimed novel Then We Came to the End.