by Sarah Bower
I recently made my second visit to a restaurant in Wanchai. Wanchai is one of Hong Kong’s more famous tourist areas, full of lurid neon, lurid men with paunches drinking lurid quantities of beer at unexpected times of day, and hard-working girls in hot pants and thigh boots. This restaurant, however, is a low-key, family-run affair down a little side street, its front door obscured by gigantic air conditioners and trolleys whose purposes are mysterious, a place you would never notice if you didn’t know it was there, to which I was lucky enough to be introduced by a Chinese friend who is attentive to my adaptation to life in Hong Kong.
On our first visit, though my friend was the soul of courtesy and forbearance, she must have been mortified by my messy and profligate inability to use chopsticks for anything practical like getting food in my mouth. (Well, yes, she was – she took photographs, warning me that, if I ever crossed her, they would appear on Facebook.) On our most recent visit, I was handling my chopsticks almost like a native. I could even eat jing sui dan, which is a kind of savoury egg custard, and to die for, with chopsticks. I surprised myself with the effectiveness of my adaptation. My friend was incredulous. Somehow, my brain had done the work required to learn this new trick. As I don’t use chopsticks all the time (indeed, Hong Kong is as well known for its western style restaurants as its Asian ones). It seems to have happened by osmosis.
The wielding of chopsticks is merely the outward evidence of something deeper which has been taking place since I arrived in Hong Kong in January. Last week, I was in Tokyo for the annual literature festival. It was a wonderful trip and I loved every minute of it, but when I raised the window blind to watch my return flight land, and the city’s lights marked out its now familiar pattern of islands and bridges against the usual misty night, the thought that entered my head, and the feeling in my heart, was ‘home’. I was coming home. Until now, I have lived nearly all my life in the UK. I define myself as English or, at least, as one kind of English, with roots in the socialism of the Fabian Society and the dark pastoral of Hardy, a love of the shipping forecast, afternoon tea and golden retrievers and an abiding conviction that the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible sits at the pinnacle of what language is capable of. Yet, in three months, China has become home.
How did that happen? The why is relatively straightforward, though outside the scope of this essay, but the when and the how are more difficult. You don’t know at what point this kind of adaptation begins, nor where it may end. It is an odd, hybrid, unpredictable thing defined by bizarre compromises. The Archers Omnibus, for example, with Sunday evening cocktails rather than Sunday morning breakfast. The reflection, on a recent birthday, that I had got there eight hours sooner than I would have done in the UK, and whether this actually makes any difference to how old I am. (Perhaps, if you keep travelling around the world the other way at the right pace, you might avoid birthdays altogether!)
It’s like a microcosm of how language itself adapts and English, with its long colonial history and its pragmatic approach to its definition of itself, is surely one of the most adaptable, stretchy, downright baggy languages on the planet. We’re all familiar with the best-known examples – words like cha, bungalow, pyjamas or googly that speak to us of our Asian histories, or bower, portico, ham, entrepreneur (for which George W. Bush once said there was no French equivalent), that are children of our complex love (and hate) affair with mainland Europe. It’s almost impossible, now, to conceive of an English without the neologisms of the computer age, from website to kilobyte, an English in which we do not Google or Skype or plague our virtual friends with selfies. Then there are the acronyms, the chavs and neets and asbos, and the words whose function slips over time. Bad becomes a noun, as in ‘my bad’. Medal becomes a verb in the mouths of Olympic athletes and commentators. What, in fact, is English but a fabulous Gormenghast of a language whose every word and usage opens up a maze of passages into history, geography, science and politics, half lit, poorly signposted, endlessly enticing?
I don’t want to write about the process of adapting books for the screen or, increasingly the musical theatre. American Psycho the musical? I’m sorry, but even Matt Smith can’t redeem that one for my money! While a movie may become something altogether greater than the book from whence it came - The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind – or might come to inform the story in a way which blesses both – Cabaret, Brokeback Mountain - the initial process whereby book is rendered into script is mechanical. At its best, it becomes creative, but it begins as cutting and pasting, and alas, sometimes it stays that way.
What I want to explore here is the kind of adaptation that begins consciously but becomes a kind of second nature. This is what the novelist looks to achieve when creating voices for her characters, the transition point at which what began as a deliberate exercise in ventriloquism becomes something more magical, when the dummy comes to life and takes over. Yet, when I say ‘explore’, how possible is that? How can an intuitive process be mapped? How much, in fact, do we want to know about the malevolent interior workings of the dummy’s mind, long imprisoned and drunk on liberty?
For me, the process of adapting to a new voice begins with immersive reading - which certainly makes my bookshelves and London Library request history appear a little strange. For the about-to-be-published Erosion, for example, I had to master the art of becoming a child murderer, a soldier in Northern Ireland and a garden designer, among others. All of this seems straightforward in comparison to preparing to enter the mind of Cesare Borgia.
I am currently writing in the voice of a Palestinian man living in the camps in Lebanon, while residing in China and listening to John Humphrys wishing me a lugubrious good morning at two o-clock in the afternoon. I pass the long and beautiful bus journey which takes me from my home in the New Territories to Hong Kong Island with the sea view and the iconic IFC2 (from which Batman jumped in The Dark Knight) in the corner of my eye and my main attention focused on the experience of the refugees massacred at Sabra and Shatila. As I read and write, my mind also races forward to a planned research trip to Palestine in the autumn, when I shall be joining the Zaytoun Project () to pick olives near Nablus. How, then, will the voice of my Palestinian character change? What new adaptations shall I make? What layers will be added to the complex and analysis-defying voice that is both me, and my history, and the characters I create and theirs?
During a panel discussion at the Tokyo LitFest, David Mitchell and Ruth Ozeki agreed that, if the novel form didn’t exist, they and others like them would most likely end up in an asylum. (Cue knowing and sympathetic laughter from the audience.) As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, ‘Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’ Writing a novel is a kind of madness, is in itself an attempt to adapt to some disconnect in one’s relation to the outside world that has the effect of making that world seem far less real, or sensible, than the one inside the novelist’s head. I have heard many novelists say they write novels to make sense of life, or to take control of it - aspirations which seem to me, in and of themselves, insane. Life is neither rational nor subject to control. Stuff happens, as they say. Writing a novel is more like spinning a chrysalis around oneself, inside which one may endlessly hope to transform into a butterfly.
‘A chrysalis would be quite easy to pick up with chopsticks,’ mutters the author to herself, still in her pyjamas at lunch time, the better to adapt to the Radio Four morning schedule with an eight hour time delay. Or perhaps it’s just a game she’s playing with the six year old son of her Palestinian protagonist to take his mind off the fact he will shortly be blown up by an Israeli bomb. Oh, wait…he doesn’t know that, it’s only me who knows that…
Sarah Bower is quite mad. You shouldn’t trust a word she says. Do read her books, though - the people in those are relatively rational.