Finding the plot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am

A WRITER WHO was born on the Macau ferry should be ideal for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. But Brian Castro returned to his childhood home with some disquiet last week. He has the talent, the output and the prizes of a top writer, but has only recently convinced himself to join the marketing circuit at the occasional festival.

'For most of my career I've been a reclusive writer,' he says from his home outside Melbourne. 'But things have changed in the past 20 years. Self-promotion and marketing are now important. I find I have a body of work and readers don't know who I am. Writers with one book who do the self-promotion are better known than I am. I'm being overtaken.

'But that's OK. The commitments and pressure of self-promotion change your personality. You become a different person. Fame turns your head and makes it very hard to get back in touch with the daily grind of writing.'

Coming to Hong Kong - home until he was packed off to boarding school as an 11-year-old - leaves Castro untangling his life. Chinese characters dominate his writing, and his most acclaimed novel, the complex Shanghai Dancing, fills the gaps in the story of his family with fiction. But Castro says he struggles with this place.

'I don't feel any connection to it,' he says. 'Not that I'm hostile to it. While I write novels with a lot of Chinese or Chinese-Australian characters, I speak Cantonese at an 11-year-old level. My father enforced a European household. Everyone had to speak English or Portuguese. The west was where you had to go, he thought.

'Even though my mother spoke Cantonese and Mandarin and had Chinese friends, I wasn't really initiated into Chinese society.

'In the writing of Shanghai Dancing, I tried to recover a lot of that. I tried to recover those early days and wondered what might have happened to me if I'd stayed in Hong Kong. The memories of Hong Kong are like a time warp - they're stuck in the period. I thought that the only way to get it out of the crystals was to invent and add layers to the memories to make the bits and pieces in my mind coherent.'

Only a devoted writer could find the thread in this life. Castro's father was from a family of Spanish, Portuguese and English merchants. His mother was the daughter of a Liverpudlian woman who came to Guangdong as a missionary and married a Chinese farmer.

After she married, Castro's mother was often packed off to Macau's Bella Vista hotel while his father conducted his business and love affairs or gambled. During one of these stays in 1950 she went into labour with Castro. Fearing a difficult birth, she caught a ferry back to Hong Kong on a stormy night.

'Maybe the trauma of the trip induced my birth a bit early,' says Castro. 'It was quite late at night. Luckily, there was a Portuguese doctor on board.'

He included an account of his birth in Shanghai Dancing, transforming the storm into a typhoon.

Shortly after he was sent to boarding school in Australia, money started getting tight, thanks to his father's gambling. His parents couldn't afford to bring him back to Hong Kong during school holidays, so he was stranded on another continent for four years.

'I was totally alone,' he says. 'I didn't even have visits on weekends.' Sometimes, he stayed with the families of his school friends. 'In a way that was the creation of me as a writer. I looked into other people's lives and families. Most were country people, so I learnt how to ride horses and fix fences while seeing so much dysfunction in these families. It gave me a lot of material. I do write a lot about families.

'I had no problems as an Asian child in rural Australia. It was partly because of the novelty factor. But it was mostly about kind people who saw me as an abandoned orphan and took pity on me.

'I did find that in that time there was much less racism than there is now. I was simply accepted into the household. A militaristic family would take me in and ask which part of the armed services I wanted to join. There was this assumption that I was part of the family. I was living their lives.

'But I was also on isolated properties, and I had a lot of time to be solitary. It was a time of constant reflection on my alienation, not in Australia but from my parents. My writing exhibits a lot of that - people out in the bush and alienated.'

The isolation also helped him escape the pressure to give up writing that so many Chinese writers say they experience from their families.

His father, a cousin of Hong Kong journalist Alan Castro, had a strong interest in literature. 'He had those ambitions, but never made it as a writer and became a gambler and an accountant. He would write weird letters to me to educate me on things like sex. Nothing normal. But at the same time he said I had to get a proper job because writers were riff-raff. He thought I'd end up being a drunk. He wanted me to be an accountant or lawyer.' But by the end of his lonely time in Australia, Castro's literary ambitions were unshakeable. 'I remember quite clearly becoming interested in writing at the age of 14. I was a bit of a rebel in that I hated sport. I read behind the locker sheds and created a glossary of dirty words in Shakespeare. There were these terms in the plays that teachers never explained. I had the impression they were slightly risque. I got them together and I looked them up. If I couldn't find out what they were, I invented them. The glossary was passed around. I got found out and punished, and I became a subversive writer from then on.'

He carried the attitude into his nine novels and two non-fiction books. He won Australia's Vogel Award for his debut, Birds of Passage in 1982. Shanghai Dancing won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards Book of the Year, the Victorian Premier's Award for Fiction and the Christina Stead Fiction Prize.

'In my writing I'm very sceptical of immediacy or the current issue of the day. I don't write about terrorism or anything like that. That sort of writing tends to pass very quickly, like a tabloid newspaper. I tend to go further back into history. I don't press my characters into speaking directly. I want to let it percolate and look at it in an obtuse way so that the book is discovered by the reader and not just read for information.'

That patience with readers means Castro often comes to grief with the more mercenary needs of his publishers. He turned his back on the likes of Random House because of pressure to transform Shanghai Dancing into 'a straight memoir or a straighter novel'.

'Random House just couldn't get its heads around it. I was dealing with a lot of publishing people who were quite illiterate. I was telling them to look up words in the dictionary that they had crossed out [from the manuscript]. They didn't have any comprehension of literary fiction.

'Even major writers like Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul are having these problems and saying the novel is finished. All intelligent writers need contempt for publishers.'

With the backing of small Australian publisher Giramondo, Castro brings his new novel, The Garden Book, to Hong Kong. Set near Castro's home in the Victorian Dandenongs during the 1930s and 40s, it's the story of errant traveller Darcy Damon and his wife, Swan Hay, the daughter of a Latin professor at Melbourne University whose family emigrated from China in the 1850s. Swan's American lover, a friend of Hemingway, translates her poems and makes a name for her in Paris by spruiking her as 'an exotic Chinese woman trapped in a lonely and loveless marriage in the wilds of Australia'.

Physically and mentally exhausted by writing the novel, Castro has been bolstering himself to promote it, even though he says the true gauge of his work is time.

'I'm gregarious when I have to be,' he says. 'I can get into that mode.'

The Garden Book (Giramondo, www. A$27.95)


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Finding the plot

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