The Madness of War: Q&A with Dominique Wilson
February 2, 2016 by Good Reading Magazine
Dominique Wilson spent her childhood in Algeria before she and her family fled the country as it became embroiled in civil war. She is the author of The Yellow Pages, and her latest novel, That Devil’s Madness, switches between friends Louis and Imez in 1896 Algiers and Nicolette, an Australian photojournalist in 1974. We asked Dominique about her memories of growing up in a war zone and the discoveries she made while researching her novels.
You take your title from a poem by Robert W Service, and a stanza from the poem preludes the opening to your book:
When we the workers all demand
‘What are we fighting for?’
Then, then we’ll end that stupid crime
That Devil’s Madness – War
How does the poem and the title phrase in particular relate to the story and themes you explore in your new novel?
War is, to my mind, madness. No one wins – not the vanquished, and not the victors. Look at the Algerian War, which That Devil’s Madness is centred around – it lasted almost eight years, killed close to a million Muslim Algerians and some 80,000 French soldiers and civilians. When it ended, some 900,000 pieds noirs [French settlers] fled back to France as homeless refugees, and three times it took France to the brink of civil war. Even when it officially ended, still over 100,000 Harkis and their families [Muslim Algerians who had fought beside the French] were murdered by the FLN or by lynch-mobs who regarded them as traitors. And still peace didn’t come to Algeria. Now I’m not saying there is never a good reason to go to war – that, unfortunately, is a reality we can’t deny – but maybe demanding honest answers to ‘What are we fighting for?’ can stop some of this madness.
What memories do you have from your childhood in Algiers? At what age did you leave and under what circumstances?
I was ten when we left, after experiencing six years of that war. By that time, Algeria was like a pressure cooker about to explode, but you’d be considered a traitor by your own people for wanting to leave. So we pretended to be going on holidays – we left everything behind, taking only one suitcase. We went to Corsica, and from there applied to come to Australia.
‘The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…’
I still have a lot of memories from that time – a strange conglomeration of contrasts. Watching the sky for the arrival of white storks in spring, watching a formation of Alouettes – those missile-armed, tadpole-like helicopters – flying overhead. I remember classes interrupted by a siren followed by a dash to the school cellar until the threat had passed, and the freedom of roaming the streets of Constantine after escaping the watchful eye of Fatma, the Muslim woman who was supposed to look after me until my sister or mother got home. Soldiers everywhere, the peace of public parks where I used to float origami paper boats in their lakes. People being frisked at random in the streets. The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
How have these memories bled into That Devil’s Madness?
I’ve used them to enrich the story, in the way any writer will use past experiences to enhance their work. That Devil’s Madness is a work of fiction, though the historical events depicted are accurate.
Both The Yellow Papers and That Devil’s Madness combine Australian settings with international history and characters. Why did you choose to do this in your novels?
Australia is such a multi-cultural society, and many people here have experienced, either directly or indirectly, a war or civil conflict elsewhere – it seemed natural to link the two.
‘How do you behave when face-to-face with someone you once loved, that you now must hate? Must kill?’
The Yellow Papers was inspired between the differing opinions of two Chinese women who immigrated to Australia. Did a particular event or person begin to germinate the story in That Devil’s Madness?
As a child in Algeria, my closest friend was a Muslim girl. I wasn’t allowed to play with her, but did anyway. Later, as an adult, I learnt how often in a war situation one’s friends or family can suddenly become one’s enemy. For instance, whilst researching the Korean War section of The Yellow Papers, I came across a number of accounts of South Korean villagers being captured by North Koreans and forced to fight for the North. What must that be like? How do you come to terms with it? How do you behave when face-to-face with someone you once loved, that you now must hate? Must kill? I wanted to explore this further, and did so via Louis and Imez in That Devil’s Madness.
While researching The Yellow Papers you mentioned that you delved into both ‘factual’ and ‘psychological’ research. Can you explain the difference? Was the same kind of research involved in That Devil’s Madness?
A poor choice of words on my part, I’m afraid! What I meant was that firstly, there were facts that had to be correct – things like the dates of political events, the geography of a place, even small things like the types of plants or insects found in a particular region. Things that anyone who has lived there, or at that time, would know. That is the easier of the two types of research. But then there are other, more abstract things that are just as important if the story is to ring true. For example, for The Yellow Papers, it was important to understand how a Chinese person might view Western customs, or the psychological trauma a prisoner undergoing torture may experience. So I did a lot of research into those areas. Similarly with That Devil’s Madness – for example, the old doctor calling Michael, who had been a medic in Vietnam, a ‘patch-up merchant’, came from talking to Vietnam Vets about what it had been like, coming back to Australia after that war – how some Australians treated them on their return. That sort of information is invaluable for authenticity.
Did you travel to any of the places described in That Devil’s Madness while you were writing it? Or did you rely on memory and research to evoke your settings?
The Algerian sections were from memory and research – unfortunately, there really hasn’t been true peace in that country for many years. It had been under emergency law from 1992 until 2011, and since then there have been mass protests, hostage-taking incidents and so forth. So I didn’t consider it a safe place to travel to, unlike Melbourne and Gippsland.
What were some of the surprising discoveries you made when researching your new novel? Were there any unexpected sources that were helpful?
Absolutely! What I love most about researching a new novel is the serendipity of it all – the way you come across bits of information that you would never have thought to look for, simply because you never knew such a thing existed – if that makes any sense. For example, in The Yellow Papers it was discovering the secret Australian/British military mission called Tulip Force. With That Devil’s Madness, it was being lucky enough to meet people who had been either foreign correspondents or photojournalists during the sixties and seventies, and who were generous enough with their time to let me pick their brains, as it were. That’s how I found out they often had an extra fake passport, so as to keep the original one hidden in case one was confiscated, or that they used little Remington typewriters whose keys folded over to make them more portable. Little gems of information that you’d never know to ask about.
Can you tell us about Nicolette? Is she the main protagonist, or is your attention split evenly between her storyline and Louis’s chapters?
Split equally between Nicolette and Louis – both are equally important, in that Louis’ story is that of the coloniser, and Nicolette’s is that of naïve outsider.
How do the two story strands connect?
Each is essential to the other. Louis’ view of Algeria – and of its Muslim population – is the result of his friendship with Imez, which in turn influences Nicolette’s view of the world, and of Algeria. They intertwine, so that years after Louis’ death, Nicolette is still influenced by him.
What is the significance of the relationship between Louis and Imez?
Their relationship represents – to me at least – what could be. What can happen when two people are willing to accept each other, even when each comes from a very different world to the other. What can happen when you refuse to let religious or cultural differences become the focus of a relationship. Somewhat idealistic, perhaps, but I like to think it can happen…
The Yellow Papers was described by a Good Reading reviewer as an ‘uncompromising examination of the impact of historical events on individual lives’. Is the major priority of your novels to inform people of historical events they mightn’t know of?
No, the major priority of my novels is to tell a good story. But it is true that I tend to examine the impact of historical events on the individual, and that I use different conflicts to do so. I believe my job as a novelist is to create a world that the reader can inhabit for a while, and if, in the process, they learn something new, then that’s a bonus, but it’s not my priority.
You’ve been involved in many projects aimed at publishing and encouraging new Australian writing, like Wet Ink and two anthologies of new work. What drives you to help propagate new writing?
I think it’s important for readers to have access to the work of writers who may not be published by mainstream publications – many of these little-known writers have intelligent and thought-provoking things to say, so that reading their work – whether as a writer, teacher or reader – can only enrich one’s opinions and view of the world.
Radio Adelaide Arts Breakfast 101.5fm
Saturday, 22 February 2014: 10.00 a.m.
The lovely Cath Kenneally, producer of the Arts Breakfast program on Radio Adelaide, invited me to talk about The Yellow Papers on her program. You can listen to this segment here:
‘Strangers in a strange land’ – An Algerian-born novelist muses on Chinese immigration and identity.
Linda Morris, Features writer
30 March 2014
In her grandfather’s apartment in the French quarter of the Algerian city of Constantine, as a girl of three or four, Dominique Wilson would sit for dinner on a stack of four leather-bound art history books.
They were thick volumes, the size of atlases, and when the meal was finished, her grandfather would open them and they would admire the reproductions protected by tissue paper. She never tired of hearing the stories behind each image.
Algeria was in the midst of civil war then. Wilson remembers the siren and the dash to the school basement, and the small-shell fire that lit the night sky in the mountains surrounding the beautiful ravine town.
A half-world away in Adelaide, Wilson would make up elaborate bedtime stories for her two daughters and hand-illustrate them. Looking back, her grandfather’s books were the beginning of her interest in illustration, probably in storytelling too. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
Ten years ago she started writing short stories, one of which is being made into a short student film, and in 2005 co-founded Wet Ink, a journal of ‘new’ writing.
But the impulse to write her first novel, The Yellow Papers, came only as she was musing over the different immigrant experiences of two Chinese women. One a good friend, the other a post-graduate student, both had migrated to Australia in their late teens or early 20s. The first had quickly settled, married and become a successful businesswoman; the other would often turn up in tears at Wilson’s office at the University of Adelaide, where she was a tutor. She couldn’t wait to return to China, thought Australians two-faced and Western culture decadent.
Spanning almost a century of China’s formation, The Yellow Papers is about identity and home and begins after China’s defeat in the two Opium Wars when the peasant boy Chen Mu is sent to Connecticut to study the secrets of the West. He cuts his queue, adopts Western clothes and treasures a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but outside the Chinese Education Mission he meets mistrust and violence.
Fleeing America, Chen Mu finds himself head gardener on an Australian pastoral station where he mentors the farmer’s grandson, Edward, who grows up a wealthy dealer in Chinese antiques and falls for Ming Li, the wife of an upper-class Shanghai mandarin, shortly before Japan’s occupation of Shanghai.
Edward and Ming reunite and are parted by World War II, the Korean War and China’s Cultural Revolution.
‘When you think about it,’ says Wilson, ‘Ming Li represents the traditional China in the way she is part of an arranged marriage and is very quiet and subdued in the Cercle Sportif Francais; the way she so strongly thinks of family and also uses the past – this is a very Chinese thing – to create the future, when she opens the shop of small antiques.
‘Edward is the romanticisation of the East by the West. His ideas are somewhat naive at the beginning and [Ming Li’s grandson] Huang Ho, he is revolutionary China.’
‘Chen Mu is emblematic of the passage of people across borders, propelled by war, famine and political strife, who come to adapt to new ways without ever forgetting the old world. That’s something I’ve seen a lot of in my own family,’ says Wilson. ‘My mother was one who dreamt the rest of her life about going home, not realising that home as she knew it no longer existed.’
Wilson arrived from Algeria in 1960 when she was 10, with her French-speaking mother and older sister. Melbourne felt strange, confusing and yet exciting. Australia was an escape from civil strife but was neither sophisticated Paris nor the Arab casbah.
‘I thought it would make a good idea for a story, the different approaches to identity and home. For a long time all I had was two characters moving around in my head, looking for a story without actually much of an idea what was going to go on.’
Wilson relied on documentaries, news reels, travel journals and diaries to recreate historic Shanghai. (She had not set foot in China until recently invited by the Australian embassy to the writers’ festivals in Shanghai, Beijing, Hefei and Chengdu).
However, the author was almost at the point of abandoning her storyline, unable to figure out how to get Edward to Shanghai during World War II, when she tripped over an obituary that mentioned Tulip Force, a top secret British mission to teach Chinese fighters guerilla warfare. She put Edward in the team of 45 Australian men sent into China via Burma.
What gives The Yellow Papers its pace is Wilson’s willingness to leap years.
In the first draft she tried to write between the gaps but found the extraneous historical detail slowed the narrative.
‘In the end I decided, no, you’ve got to trust your reader. If they are really interested in what happens in that period in between times they’ll look it up. If they are not interested in it, why bore them with it?’
As to how she defines herself, Wilson considers Australia home. ‘Do I consider myself Australian? No, but then again, I don’t consider myself French and I don’t consider myself Algerian. I don’t know what I consider myself.’[/read]
Issue 4, 2013
What sparked your interest in China?
I’ve always had an interest in other countries, in other ways of seeing and doing things, and China has such a rich history and culture, so it’s something that’s always been there. But what decided me to write a story set in China was two Chinese women I knew with totally opposing views of Australia. The possible reasons behind this interested me enough to decide to explore this idea via fiction.
The Yellow Papers is rich in historical detail. How long did it take you to gather material for this book, and what research methods did you use?
It took me about two-and-a-half years all up to research and write to a first draft standard. I started the research with a broad focus, narrowing it down to finer and finer details as the plot took shape—if you imagine a funnel, starting off broad and narrowing down, you’ll have an image of my research method. I used all sorts of things to build in my mind a picture of China at that time—books (both fiction and nonfiction, written both by Westerners and Chinese), documentaries, films, academic papers, diaries. I also spoke to a lot of people who had lived there during the latter time of my novel. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
But what I found invaluable was all the film footage, available on YouTube, taken by film enthusiasts of the time—tourist film, if you will, and newsreels as well. To be able to stop film footage taken of the backstreets of Shanghai in the 1920s, for example, and examine every detail—priceless! I spent hours, weeks, watching such footage. And then there’s serendipity—that wonderful thing that happens when you’re researching one thing and come across something you never even knew existed, but which would be so useful for your novel. Tulip Force [a British military mission to China] was such a serendipitous find. I was on the point of changing my storyline, because I could find no way to get Edward into Shanghai during WWII, when, as part of an obituary, I saw: ‘Colonel—served in China as part of Tulip Force during WWII.’ Even the war memorial had been unable to help me, but this obituary was all I needed to explore a new path and find what I needed to get Edward into China.
One thing that really impressed me about this book was how you created so many fully formed characters in often very short paragraphs or chapters. Do you think this can be attributed to your background as a short-story writer?
I’ve never really thought about it, but perhaps. Maybe it’s because, when I first introduce a character, I tend not to describe their physical attributes—their eye colour or hair colour, for example—because I don’t think that’s what you really notice when you first meet someone. Rather, I think it’s their attitude or behaviour or mannerisms that make you form an opinion of them, so that’s what I describe. Of course, as with real people, these first impressions can change as you get to know a person. So, when I introduce a character, I visualise them in my mind—if I turned a corner and there they were, what would I see in that first split second? That’s what I describe.
One of your short stories has been turned into a short film. Would you like to see The Yellow Papers adapted for the screen? And if so, are there any particular actors you envisage for the main roles?
I’d love to see The Yellow Papers as a film! As far as which actors for which roles, I hadn’t thought about it. But I suppose either Zhou Xun (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) or Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) have that quiet elegance I picture Ming Li to have. Maybe Stephen Chow or Jet Li for Chen Mu as a young adult? As for Edward and Huang Ho, I’ve no idea. Maybe Hugh Jackman for Edward in the later part of the book?
You were involved in the Australian writing journal Wet Ink, which was established to address the lack of publishing opportunities for new writers in Australia. Do you think these opportunities have improved?
I think so—there are so many new little journals springing up all over the place and a number of new book publishers as well. It’s also interesting to note that a number of prizes have been won by ‘new’ writers these past years. So, yes, I do think there are many opportunities out there.[/read]
That’s Shanghai! Magazine Interview
Andrew Chin [Arts Editor]
Your debut novel The Yellow Papers takes place in China and Australia and spans both countries’ histories over a few decades. Why did you decide to set the novel in China and as a writer?
The original idea came about because of two Chinese women I know who both came to Australia at about the same age. One loved Australia from the very beginning. She eventually married an Australian and established herself as a successful business woman. The other – a tertiary student of mine – hated it and could see nothing good in this country. All she wanted to do was go back home, and she spent many-an-hour in my office in tears. This contrast interested me greatly, because it’s something I’ve seen again and again – people leaving everything behind, sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstances, and having to cope with a totally new world, as it were. My own family was like that – we immigrated to Australia from Algeria when I was ten, to escape a country that had been in the midst of civil war for seven years. Some of us quickly settled into this new life, but others – my mother, for instance – never did. So what is it that makes some people embrace a new country, and others reject it? I decided to explore this via fiction. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
Why China? Well, like I said, the initial germ of the idea came from two Chinese women, but also because China has such a rich and complex history. For a writer, that’s inspirational. The Yellow Papers covers several decades, from just after the two Opium Wars to the time of the Cultural Revolution. And in between you have Sino-Japanese War, WWI, the Great Depression, the Second Sino-Japanese War, WWII and the Korean War. Can you imagine how many people would have been displaced through all that? How many would have fled to the cities, to the country? How many left loved ones behind? And of course, whenever you have displaced people, you have some that will adapt and some that won’t. So I used this history almost as a character in its own right, in that it influences the actions of my four main characters. You have Chen Mu, sent to America when only a very small boy, only to flee to Australia years later. Edward, an Australian man with a romanticised idea of the East, who falls in love with Ming Li, the beautiful young wife of a Chinese business man. And you have Huang Ho, Ming Li’s grandson and a child of the Cultural Revolution. All four are carried on the wings of history, as it were, and how they adapt is what decides their destiny…
Parts of the book take place in Shanghai during its most glamorous time. What type of research did you do to properly convey this environment and is Shanghai a fun place to set a book?
Shanghai certainly was glamorous during the 1920s and 30s – for some. It was a great city of commerce between East and West, and Westerners from all over the world went there to make their fortunes. There was a building boom – Victor Sassoon was there, building extraordinary properties in every corner of the city. The Cathay Cinema and the Embankment Building, for example. Electricity and trams had been introduced. The cigar-smoking American reporter and author Emily Hahn was also there with her pet gibbon – Mr Mills – forever draped over her shoulder. Shanghai was known as the Hollywood of the East with a thriving cinematic and musical industry. It had cabarets, nightclubs and restaurants, and was also known as the Paris of the East.
So yes, if you had money, Shanghai was very glamorous in the 20s and 30s. But there was another side to the city. There were the White Russians and Russian Jews fleeing the newly established Soviet Union. They were poorly regarded, and had to take jobs that no other European would consider. Other Jewish refugees were also fleeing Europe to Shanghai, because it was one of the few cities left in the world where you didn’t need a visa. And you also had the Chinese fleeing the north and flooding into the city. There was corruption too, as with any city – the Green Gang operated there in the 20s. And for a writer researching the city, there is a wealth of information available; it was a time when people – both men and women – wrote in their diaries or travel journals on a daily basis. It was also a time when people did the Grand Tour of the ‘Far East’, and many filmed their travels. Newsreels were also popular. Luckily, from a writer’s point of view, many of these amateur and professional films have been archived, so to be able to actually see what the streets of Shanghai were like, to be able to stop the film and examine in minute detail a particular street, or inside a building or someone’s house – priceless! And then there are photographs, travel guides, memoirs, maps and so on… So I wouldn’t say writing Shanghai was fun per se – there was too much misery there as well as all the glamour – but it certainly was fascinating.
You’ll be coming to Shanghai as part of the lit fest. Will this be your first time here and what are you looking forward to most at the festival?
Yes, it will be my first time – I didn’t visit as part of my research because I felt Shanghai of the 21st Century would be a totally different city to the Shanghai of the 1920s – but I’m very excited to be coming, and so pleased to have been invited. At the festival itself, what I’m looking forward to most is meeting potential readers, and going to other writers’ events to hear their interpretation of China. But I’m also looking forward to imagining all the history that has taken place everywhere I look…
The Yellow Papers comes out in March. What was the process like in writing the novel and what are your hopes for the book’s reception?
Yes, it comes out the 1st of March. Process-wise, I started off with just a germ of an idea – two Chinese characters with opposing views of the West. I let that ‘simmer’, as it were, trying to think of possible reasons for this. I started with research – very broadly at first, to get an idea of the history of China, so as to find the best time-slot in which to place my characters. Then, as a possible plot began to form, I narrowed my research more and more – if you can imagine a funnel, starting off wide but quickly narrowing, you’ll have a good image of this. But the more narrow my research became, the more detailed it had to be, and I soon found myself doing some serious study in all sorts of areas – from history to psychology to symbolism to religion to regional diets and so forth. And as I researched, the plot became more and more detailed as I found wonderful nuggets of information. By then I’d started a first draft, and as I wrote more research was needed for minute details. What was the weather like at that particular time, at that particular place? What are the signs and symptoms of cholera? What posters would have been on the streets? How are silkworms raised? How did women wear their hair in the late 1800s? In the 20s? The 40s? The 60s? And so on until the book was written to first draft stage. Then came a second draft, and a third, and then still more until I felt I’d written the story I’d wanted to write.
My hopes for the book’s reception? The same as any writer’s who’s just published a book, I guess – that it does well because people really enjoy the story.[/read]
Dominique Wilson on making the leap from short stories to writing a novel
Australian Writers Centre Interview
February 28, 2014
Tell us about The Yellow Papers.
The Yellow Papers is a story of love, obsession and friendship set against a backdrop of war and racial prejudice, and it spans the histories of China and Australia from the time of just after the two Opium Wars until the Cultural Revolution. When researching possible material for this book, I wanted to focus on human issues – the human face, if you will – of how decisions made by States or Government affect the ordinary person, especially in time of war or civil unrest, and how people react to these circumstances, how they cope, sometimes against all odds.
What inspired you to write this novel?
Two Chinese women I knew, here in Australia. One loved this country, adapted easily and became a successful business woman. The other hated it – she could find nothing good about Australia, thought Australians two-faced and couldn’t wait to go back home. This contrast interested me, because I’ve seen both reactions in people new to Australia. So this was the initial germ of an idea – two characters with opposing views. Why did one adapt and another not? Why did they come here in the first place? And so on… [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
How do you think your own background – growing up in Algiers and moving to Australia as a child – influenced you when writing The Yellow Papers?
It greatly influenced my writing. We fled a country that had been in the midst of civil war for seven years, so I still have vivid memories of what that was like. And also how it felt to arrive in a country I knew nothing about, whose language I couldn’t speak, and whose traditions, food, ideas and so on were very different to what I knew. When it came to putting my characters in similar situations, I was able to draw on some of these memories.
This is your first novel but you’ve written many short stories. What made you take the leap and write a novel?
I noticed the stories I really wanted to write covered some big social issues, and to explore these properly, to be able to look at two or more sides to the one issue, I needed more words than a short story allows.
How did you find writing a novel different to writing short stories?
With a short story, you usually focus on a single event or moment or emotion – the crisis that exists now. But in a novel, the crisis or climax is still to come, influenced by the thoughts and actions of the characters, through all the twists and turns that fate or history or circumstances throw at them. But I don’t think you can just build to that one crisis or climax for the whole 80 or 100 thousand words. It would be exhausting, even boring, to read. So you have to have lesser crises, as well as moments of calm, and of happiness. I think it’s these contrasts that make a novel interesting.
What’s your writing day like? Do you have a routine you stick to?
No, life keeps intruding on the routine I’d like to have. But I make a point of doing something to do with my writing every day, be it reading, researching, or simply thinking about how to develop a particular scene whilst on the bus to work. I also find I get terribly grumpy and irritable if I don’t get to actually write for any length of time, so when I get to that point, I allocate a couple of days when I ignore everything and everyone, and sit at the keyboard from the moment I get up till late in the day. That usually cures the withdrawal symptoms!
What’s your advice to writers embarking on their first novel?
Remember that writing a novel is a long term activity, so you have to be prepared to stick to it, even when things aren’t going the way you want them to. Research – even if you’re writing about something you think you know, still research the details. Know that the first draft you write is just that – a draft. So it’s ok to decide you don’t like a section, a chapter, or even all of it, and start all over again. And again. And again. And during all this time, read. Read the types of novels you wish you’d written. You can’t be a writer without being a reader. Read constantly.[/read] #writer #writerinterview #bookinterview