I’ve talked a lot on social media about my romance novel influences (e.g. Laura Kinsale, Joanna Bourne, and others), but I’ve not mentioned authors and books that have meant just as much to me as a writer, especially pre-romance days. So I’m starting an occasional series on all the works of fiction, science fiction, children’s fiction, and adult nonfiction that have permanently taken up real estate in my brain.
My literature exposure in public high school was hit or miss, depending on the teacher I had. I tried to make up for this in college, even though I had passed out of my English requirements and took only international relations and history courses. My first year I took a required class called “Empire and Independence in the Modern World,” with a specific focus on Africa, where I was assigned Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a revelation. I also studied a lot of Southeast Asian history and politics, and that professor must have had me read The Quiet American by Graham Greene three times in three separate classes. It was not a hardship. I loved it from the start. I think I also picked up Burmese Days by George Orwell on this professor’s recommendation. Finally, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, suggested James Clavell’s Tai-Pan as “fun” and “light”—which, in comparison to most of the heavy nonfiction we had to read, it was. Now, as I look back upon this college reading, I realize two things:
First, far too many of these books were written by white men, even when the subject was the injustice of colonialism. I did not question this fact too much as a student, but then again most of my professors were white men. I have read more widely since, but this post is really about the books from my youth.
Second, flawed or not, these novels left a big impression. They shaped how I approach a fictional treatment of the American colonial Philippines.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart is a story of a Nigerian village before and after the arrival of British missionaries. The first half of the book gives no hint of what is coming: it is the story of an ambitious man in the village and his downfall. It is a story that could be told anywhere, and yet it is distinctly Nigerian. This is Achebe’s point. He portrays Igbo society as complex and flawed at times—like every other society on the globe. But, with the arrival of Protestant missionaries and British officials, everything falls apart. The beliefs, laws, and customs of the village are turned on their head, and this is not good. Interestingly, not all of Achebe’s missionaries are bad people. The first white man to arrive in the village thinks he is doing good work. He listens to the Igbo people’s problems and welcomes all who seek his help. Ironically, it is his compassion that accelerates the rate of conversion and hastens the collapse of the traditional village structure. This is a beautiful, nuanced story of the consequences—some unintended—of European rule in Africa. It explains why many parts of Africa have had such a hard time recovering.
Achebe grew up with a foot in both worlds: he was the child of converted Protestants, born in the city and educated in British-style schools; but his parents always kept ties with their traditional religion, and they moved their children back to their ancestral village at a young age.
Achebe was well-versed in the canon of British literature, but he was not afraid to criticize it. He especially criticized Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for celebrating the dehumanization of the African people:
It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa. In place of speech they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.” They “exchanged short grunting phrases” even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy.
I am not saying that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He wrote his novel based on his own experiences, twenty years before he gave that speech on Conrad. But the two books are a remarkable pairing. I prefer Achebe’s discerning view that portrays all characters—Nigerian or British—with very human strengths and weaknesses.
Takeaways: complex social networks, multiple perspectives, ambiguous characters, unintended consequences.
BURMESE DAYS BY GEORGE ORWELL
Orwell was born in Bengal and worked as a policeman in what is now Burma—both parts of the British crown colony of India at the time. According to the original dust jacket of Burmese Days, he resigned “because he disliked putting people in prison for the same things which he should have done in their circumstances.” Six years after he quit, he published a scathing indictment of colonial superciliousness in novel form. This is Burmese Days. Orwell’s treatment was so controversial at the time (1934) that one of his former colleagues claimed he had “rather let the side down” and his former principal threatened to horsewhip Orwell if he ever saw him again. Orwell claimed that most of the book was “simply reporting what I have seen.” (Source)
This book could never be romance. It’s about racism, poverty, prostitution, spurned love, and suicide. No HEA at all. Not even close. And while there is sort of a hero, Flory, he’s pretty wishy-washy. And there is no true heroine—Flory’s love interest is the most infuriating, horrible snob. You want to throw her—and her friends and family—off the roof of the British club, where most of the novel takes place.
The characters are not subtle, and the Burmese in the story are superficially drawn. (For all-around depth, read Achebe.) Orwell did not understand the Burmese as well as he understood—and was disgusted by—his fellow countrymen. His novel exposes the small-mindedness of white imperialists, and it does so in a visceral, immediate way. You will not like most of the characters in the book, but that is the point. Orwell didn’t, either. Clearly, he felt a lot of ambivalence while working in India: he wanted a paycheck, but hated the way he was getting it. He proved luckier than his “hero,” though, and quit instead of doing himself harm—which is good since Orwell had still to write 1984. (That will be covered in a later post, of course.) It is unbelievable to me that out of the original 2000 print copies of Burmese Days, over 900 had to be remaindered because the book was so badly panned by the critics. (Maybe that’s encouragement to us all.)
Takeaways: critical portrayal of the “white club” phenomenon in colonial societies, complex political points made through conversation.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Moving into neo-colonial fiction, the Quiet American is loosely based on a real spy: an American CIA officer named Edward Lansdale. Lansdale was the “advisor” who helped elect Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, and together they pulled the teeth out of a communist insurrection in Luzon. After that success, Lansdale was sent to Indochina, just as the French empire was dying, with instructions to shore up South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem against the growing communist movement. He was not as successful the second time around.
Greene’s version of this tale reimagines Lansdale as a seemingly naive foreign aid bureaucrat named Pyle. The story is told from the perspective of a jaded British reporter, Fowler, who notices that wherever our quiet American goes, trouble follows. And, of course, there is a woman, Phuong, that they compete over. But this is not a romance, either. It is a beautiful, profound, and yet hardboiled story. There’s action, too, with battle scenes based on real events. Most importantly, the book explains the American entrance into this war in the 1950s—and it predicts its disastrous end—but you hardly notice these lessons because you are too wrapped up in the humanity of the story. The Quiet American was made into a gorgeous movie, for which Michael Caine received an Academy Award Nomination.
Takeaways: using real people and events as inspiration for fiction, masterful weaving of political points into human drama, setting as character.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell
This story is about the creation of Hong Kong in the nineteenth century. It features British, American, and Chinese traders and blockade-runners who build a free market playground to make themselves rich. Clavell himself was a fan of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which will come as no surprise when you read the book. And this is not the only thing that makes Clavell’s fiction problematic. Tai-Pan actually romanticizes colonial acquisition at the same time that it claims to honor Asian culture. Nor am I sure that he had a lot of respect for women. Honestly, I cannot think of much that he and I would have agreed on. And this book isn’t literary, like the three works above. It’s not even my favorite of the author’s novels. (That’s King Rat, based upon Clavell’s own experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.)
So what makes it special? Clavell is a heck of a storyteller. An epic storyteller, really, creating dynasties that span hundreds of years. This is solid genre fiction—and yet Clavell does not sacrifice content to bring you a pulpy, fast-paced novel. He especially does not back away from economic history. Yes, it’s a little laissez-faire for my tastes, but it’s still well-told. I loved the subtleties of his negotiation scenes, including a nuanced use of chopsticks that still makes me self-conscious about my lack of finesse. Finally, Clavell gives voice to mixed race characters, who are often the most sympathetic of the lot.
Takeaways: economic and historical content that is highly readable, excellent pacing, subtleties of interactions between characters, cross-cultural relationships and mixed race characters.
Edited to Add:
I did not include Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere to this list only because I plan to do more with it and the role it played in fomenting the Philippine Revolution when I get closer to publishing Padre Andrés’s book, Sugar Communion. Until that time comes, let me say that the Noli is another seminal work of colonial literature. It was written by an author of color, but (like the others) penned in the language of the imperialists, in this case Spanish. Rizal deserves a post of his own because I cannot explain all the ways he fascinates me here.
Noli Me Tangere is about the unchecked power of the Spanish in a system based on race and class, and how this leads to a pretty depressing end for most of the Filipinos in the story. What I especially liked about this book was the voice given to otherwise minor characters, like the devoted mother of two young sacristans in the church. I also loved the social commentary delivered in ornate dinner and banquet scenes. Throughout, Rizal was making a political point about the cruelty and hypocrisy of Spanish friars. He did not seem to be espousing violent revolution, though, at least not in this book. But he did want equal treatment under the law. It shouldn’t have been a big ask.
Takeaways: depth of secondary characters, nuanced political discussions, setting as character.