Q&A with Aimee Liu and Bridget Lawless

Bridget:  How did you come to learn about this moment in history – when the Japanese took the Andamans and liberated the Indian nationals, who were happy to join forces with them against the British? And what prompted you want to write a fictionalised account of it around the fate of a mute boy?

Aimee:  I discovered the Andamans in stages.

First, I met an anthropologist couple who had visited in the 1990s and told me about the islands’ extraordinary indigenous history as well as the importance of Port Blair, a former penal colony for Indian and Burmese political prisoners, in the Indian Independence movement. I was also struck by their description of the Andamans as one place in India that was not riven by caste and sectarian prejudices.

This is a fascinating example of people from different faiths and classes being united by the shared dream of home rule. Unhappily for the Port Blair residents, that common dream made them susceptible to the Japanese propaganda slogan of “Asia for the Asians,” and many of the locals did expect the Japanese to liberate them; instead, thousands were rounded up and killed by their new colonizers during the war. Later, however, the Andaman archipelago was one of the few territories in India not torn apart by Hindu vs. Muslim fighting during Partition. Having lived in India as a child in the 1950s, I was keenly aware of the carnage that took place throughout the subcontinent during Partition, so I was curious to learn more about this tropical zone of peace.

But twenty years ago, I couldn’t find much in America about the Andamans, nor was there information online. I had no idea that these islands represented the western front of the Pacific Theatre until I finally visited Port Blair in 2010. That’s when I noticed the blood red bunkers left by the Japanese along all the beaches. And I visited the Cellular Jail, where political prisoners once were held, and Ross Island, both of which left an indelible impression. (I wrote an article about this research for LitHub.) Ross is now a living museum with ruins of the British cantonment and an exhibit of photographs of life in the Andamans at the turn of the 20th century. Most important for my book, I was able to obtain local publications about life on Ross Island and around Port Blair before and during World War II. I doubt I’d have found these materials anywhere else on earth, and they contained 90% of the historical details that eventually provided the context for Glorious Boy.

As for the story at the heart of the novel, that came to me in a dream in 2003. I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the scene of Naila and Ty hiding during an evacuation, emerging only after everyone was gone. In the dream, I was Naila, and the dream ended with the ghastly realization that I’d made a horrific mistake.

I didn’t know when this evacuation happened, however, until I visited Port Blair and learned that there had, in fact, been just such an evacuation in 1942, and a number of people were left behind who met terrible fates during the Japanese Occupation. And that’s when the whole novel began to fall into place.

Bridget:  Shep is a self-confessed coward who manages to hide from conscription behind Claire’s determination to stay on the island. Yet when the boat is leaving, he forcibly drugs her to ensure she leaves. Two things struck me about that incident: Why he was so eager for her to go when he couldn’t go with her? And why wasn’t she blazingly furious with him for doing it!

Aimee: Early in the story, Claire accuses Shep of having “an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.” I’d say that is his true problem. He berates himself for being a coward, when in fact, he ties himself in knots trying to take care of his family and keep peace in the household even when everything’s beyond his control. He’s dutiful to a fault, which means that he’s also a bit myopic when it comes to the looming threat of the war.

This wasn’t uncommon, by the way. I did a great deal of research on the British colonies during the Japanese advance, and people all over Asia were hunkering down, focusing on the challenges right in front of them and refusing to acknowledge the larger threat until it overtook them. That’s why so many foreigners remained in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rangoon until it was too late to escape.

Shep’s sense of duty is on full display when the children vanish during the evacuation. He belatedly knows that the Japanese invasion is imminent, and he feels completely responsible for his family’s survival. If he forces Claire onto the ship he’s at least saving one of them – and he knows she’ll never go without being forced! He has to save his son, and it won’t help anyone if Claire stays. Shep thinks that he alone is responsible.

Only later he realizes, he cannot safeguard Ty without the help of Naila and Leyo. He needs to surrender control. And as events unfold, he must keep surrendering control. Still, he keeps grasping for whatever opportunities he can find to save Ty. I think he’s anything but a coward.

Claire, meanwhile, is too suffused with guilt to blame Shep, especially since she believes they’re both safe. She blames herself (and Naila) for the children’s disappearance. By the time she reaches Calcutta she, too, understands the true scope of the danger they all face. Guilt, terror, and hope leave no room for anger, except at herself.

Bridget:  Claire uses her knowledge of the Biya language to create a code that the Japanese will be unable to interpret. Were you inspired by the Najavo Code Talkers, who did the same thing during WWII?

Aimee:  I was inspired by both the Choctaw Code Talkers of WWI and the later Navajo Code Talkers. There were so many parallels between the treatment of indigenous peoples in America and in the Andamans, and it made sense that Claire would see these parallels, thanks to her studies with Ruth Benedict.

It also made sense to me that she’d search every skill she possessed for angles that might help her save her family. Women played such an enormous role as code breakers during WWII that this seemed a logical way for her to get involved.

Bridget:  Code features again between Ty and Naila – one that neither Shep nor Claire can crack, ‘it was as if they had their own spirit language…’ Claire as a rookie anthropologist hopes to decipher the codes of the Biya and find the key to something she’s possibly projecting on them. And later, Claire eventually receives a coded message from Shep, telling her that Ty is still on the island with the Biya. Does code have a particular significance to you?

Aimee: A central theme of this novel is attunement. Between parents and children, between and within cultures, and between humans and the natural world. I first realized the importance of attunement while working on a book many years ago about infant development. Not all mothers bond easily or naturally with their babies. Because of temperamental differences or special needs, the attunement is just off. It’s nobody’s fault, but it can cause acute maternal guilt. This seemed to me an important idea to explore fictionally.

Attunement requires many types of communication – or codes — other than spoken language. The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote several books in the 1950s about the many nonverbal codes used by cultures around the world. One of these books, The Silent Language, was hugely helpful in shaping my understanding of Claire’s concerns and discoveries.

Western cultures are much more dependent on verbal language than other cultures, and societies that are more directly dependent on nature do tend to read and relay the signals of the natural world in ways that “modern” people cannot comprehend. That’s one reason why the indigenous Andamanese knew that the 2004 tsunami was coming long before the wave arrived. While over 200,000 Indonesians, Thais, Sri Lankans, and coastal residents of the Andamans died in that disaster, the indigenous tribes all escaped harm. I found this fascinating and built on that historical fact in the novel.

Bridget:  Claire and Shep see visions of each other, and with Ty, at key moments. They encourage and almost cheer each other on. This is an almost magical realism element and a big feature of the latter part of the book. Yet they actually both felt excluded by Ty and his bond with Naila, who isn’t present at all in their visions. Do these visions represent an idealised version of family life? Or does it simply represent hope?

Aimee:  I think such visions are a natural response to loss. Yes, they certainly represent hope, but they’re also an attempt to work out what happened, what might have happened, and how the loss might yet be remedied. It is magical thinking.

Naila is present in one of Shep’s latter visions because she represents his only hope for Ty’s survival at that point. Naila is mostly absent from Claire’s visions because her feelings about the girl are so confused and conflicted that she can’t really bring herself to conjure her. Claire’s relationship with Naila is a cauldron of jealousy, envy, guilt, and love – almost too hot to handle. And certainly too complicated for the easy answers that appear in visions.Her relationship with Ty and Shep in absentia is bound more tightly by dread and yearning. It’s much clearer what a solution would look like: they would be there with Claire. So that’s how she imagines them. If only wishing would make it so. Who’s lost a loved one who doesn’t have such visions?

Bridget:  Who are your own writing heroes and heroines?

Aimee: The writer who most inspired me while writing this book is Michael Ondaatje. I feel a kinship with him because we both have mixed-race backgrounds and were marked early in life by South Asia. Beyond that, though, his fusion of poetry and prose enthralls me, and I adore the way he tells stories through the lens of fascination. His characters all have passions, skills, vocations, and fixations that you rarely see in fiction, and he always drills down into a situation until you feel yourself inside the character who is defusing a bomb, or exploring the bowels of a ship, or piecing together the truth about a parent who was a spy. He also creates this immediacy and authenticity with extraordinary economy. I marvel at that. Pat Barker is another author whose work I adore. Her Regeneration trilogy knit together so many different disciplines – psychology, warfare, poetry. It completely changed my understanding of what fiction could do, and all with exquisite beauty and deep humanity.

Bridget:  What are you writing at the moment?

Aimee: I juggle many different types of writing – essays, book reviews, articles, and ghost writing, as well as my own novels and memoirs. That’s one reason why my books take so long to write. But I do have a big project underway that circles my father’s life and my relationship with him.

My father was born and raised in China and was half Chinese. My second novel, Cloud Mountain, was based on the story of his parents’ marriage. He rarely spoke about his early life, yet I gathered enough bits and pieces to get a sense of the pressures and conflicts that shaped him. Then, as he was dying, he asked me to bring him a box that seemed to have great significance to him. The search for that box led me to many new discoveries and insights. That’s what this new book is about.