Saturday, August 20, 2016

The House of Wives by Simon Choa-Johnston

Toronto: Penguin, 2016 (Image from Amazon)

This absorbing novel begins in Calcutta at the height of the opium trade and portrays the early days of Hong Kong, market place of the valuable drug. Loosely based on the ancestors of author Simon Choa-Johnston, the tale evoked memories of the time I spent there before the former British colony reverted to China in 1997.

Against a backdrop of fascinating historic detail, the story begins when Emanuel, a younger brother from a Jewish trading family in Calcutta, defies his father's prohibition against the opium trade. Others monopolize the trading docks of Central District, but he and two partners grow rich developing a new market for high quality opium in the Chinese interior as the colony grows.

Having gained partners, confidence and money in Hong Kong, Emanuel spends an increasing part of the year there. When he falls in love with Pearl, the much younger daughter of his Chinese business partner, he builds a lavish mansion on Victoria Peak and asks her to marry him.

However, this means abandoning his first wife back in Calcutta. Before leaving India for Hong Kong, he had married Semah, a crippled girl with a large dowry, and used this money to establish himself in the opium business. This marriage has not prospered as Emanuel has. After building a mansion for his first bride, he continues his regular opium runs between Calcutta and Hong Kong.

But Semah is strong-willed. When she hears of Emanuel's defection, she recruits a single Indian servant and sails to Hong Kong in search of her errant husband. Once there, she ascends the hill to confront Pearl and reclaim her role as wife. With strength and determination as their common bonds, both wives refuse to retreat from the airy hilltop mansion of Kingsclere.

As time passes, Emanuel manages to settle his two-wife household and become a father, despite warning by fortune tellers that a curse on opium traders that will prevent their sons from growing up. Superstition, scoff the inhabitants of the hill. But could the curse be real?

Meanwhile, as the opium business goes into decline, the risk-addicted Emanuel is desperate to get more land in Kowloon. Will he succeed again? And in the long term, can a man live peacefully with two different-but-equal wives in the same house? Can these women overcome their jealousy and competitiveness when life brings hardship and heartbreak?

Choa-Johnston's writing makes the reader care deeply about the struggles of these fascinating people. The author says that during years of research, his ancestors began to talk to him. No doubt their voices helped him develop his story, which morphed from a play into an engrossing novel.

One more reason to read this book is to get a sense of the real characters and the history of the opium trade, on which so many later fortunes were based. I was interested to learn that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's grandfather was an opium trader, as were the ancestors of the great British poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

Another historic character mentioned in this book is a real artist of the time. Amitav Ghosh, who has written extensively of the opium trade era in his Ibis trilogy, says his artist character, Robin Chinnery, is loosely based on the real artist George Chinnery. Perhaps the mention of George in Choa-Johnston's book is a nod to a fellow historical novelist.

Simon Choa-Johnston has enjoyed a long career in theatre. He's worked as a playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director. He is a member of the Playwright's Guild of Canada and Artistic Director Emeritus of Gateway Theatre in Richmond.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Coinage: unprofly

Image from thumbs.dreamtime

My daughter, a linguist, just finished a course in cognitive psychology. After the final, she began telling me about her instructor. Having signed up for his section based on what prior students said on Rate My Professor, she wasn't disappointed. This prof's unorthodox methods worked well.

He created an atmosphere of closeness in the class, and exposed his own vulnerability in surprising ways. Telling the students about his episode of depression, he said working with them had helped him overcome his gloom. Yasemin enjoyed his teaching and learned a lot.

"He was very unprofly," she said. This was an instant coinage, but I knew exactly what she meant. Which left me with the feeling that, either consciously or unconsciously, profs follow a set of unwritten rules about how to behave in class.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Primogeniture and the appeal of Downton Abbey

Image of Lady Mary Crawley from instyle

Primogeniture. It was one of those lovely words that rolled from the tongue. I didn't know what it meant, and at age six or seven, I was not in the habit of asking word meanings. It was just a single phrase of word music that landed softly on my ear as my father harangued my mother about the evils of the British class system. Watching Downton Abbey recently caused me to think deeply about primogeniture and imagine the human implications of the ancient practice of leaving large estates to the eldest male heir.

In the early episodes of the drama, Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Earl and Lady Grantham, seems unsympathetic, even cold. While Edith snipes jealously at her elder sister and pities herself over her failed love affairs, Mary maintains a brittle pride and dignity. Sybil, the youngest, is free to rebel by marrying the chauffeur, but the eldest child, even if she is female, is an integral part of the system.

As seen above, the actress's portrayal of Mary hints at the cost of her inherited "privilege" of primogeniture. A mere woman, she must stand by while her father grooms Matthew Crawley, a stranger to the family but Lord Grantham's closest male relative, to inherit her home. Later, with the war looming, she falls for Matthew, and has to learn to trust this cuckoo in her nest. When their son George is born, this new male heir will bypass Mary to become the future Lord Grantham.

Mary's sudden widowhood does not threaten her son's right to the title, but he is a child and Mary is still young. Ergo, she must re-marry, and much hangs on her choice of husband. Not only must he be approved by her father, he must be capable of preserving Downton through times of radical social and economic change. Easier said than done.

Of course Mary is not the only character whose destiny is driven by rules of primogeniture. The stubborn but warmhearted Isobel renounces her beloved Lord Merton because his cruel eldest, Larry Grey, is determined to inherit all. Unconcerned about the wishes of his aging parent, Larry uses ruthless tactics in his effort to separate Isobel from his father's wealth.

In Downton Abbey, we see clearly how social rules and hierarchies press upon individual lives. Yet contemporary societies also clip our wings, fitting us into the roles that serve the system. Perhaps the appeal of this drama of class evokes in contemporary viewers the repressed awareness that we too are being molded by social forces far more powerful than our individual desires.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Paw tracks on velvet

The chair has been out of circulation awhile, during a phase when we gradually renovated and rearranged the house.

Can you see them? Faint paw marks left by our cat on the velvet upholstery.

Professor Plum has been gone for over a year now, but many things still remind us of our loving and funny furry friend.

He left velvet paw prints on our hearts as well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hesitatant wild geese hold up airport-bound traffic

Summer evening. On the approach to the Vancouver Airport, A handful of Canada geese crossed the highway in an indecisive fashion. Some turned back to look at their fellows, while others paused before changing lanes. All were quacking away among themselves.

Net result: fewer than a dozen geese brought three lanes of fast-moving traffic to a halt.

"Why are they walking?" my husband mused. "They have wings. Why don't they fly?"

Monday, August 1, 2016

Green Grass Running Water, and more by Thomas King

Image from Wikimedia

Thomas King is an academic who has travelled widely and taught at various universities in Canada and the US. He gave the 2003 Massey Lectures, "The Truth about Stories, a Native Narrative," which I heard on a road trip into the interior. I still imagine the dry sage-covered hills rushing by as I listened to these heartbreaking tales.

King's most recent book is The Back of the Turtle, which came out in 2014. Originally published by Harper Collins in 1993, Green Grass Running Water was an early reflection of the writing genius of its author, whose literary input continues to educate, amuse, and amaze.

Culling old papers from my office, I found some comments I wrote just after reading it, and offer some excerpts below.

The novel is full of fantastic happenings. Vanishing cars punctuate the comings and goings of "four old Indians" who appear and disappear at will, as they bring various gifts in an effort to set the world straight. Cameo appearances of historical characters feature John Wayne and Queen Elizabeth as seen in the once iconic portrait -- in satin dress, tiara, jewels and white ermine -- so often seen on the walls of Canadian schools and other public buildings. 

Between bouts of fussily organizing his dam builders, Sir Clifford Siftonthe infamous historic Minister of Immigration, comes to Eli's cabin for coffee and tries to persuade him to move off Indian land so the dam can be opened...All in all, a surreal story, constructed with amazing sleight of hand. Surefooted, Thomas King moves from shrewd political comment, to zany humour, to the pathos of our shared human dilemmas.

A couple of years ago, I met King at a reception hosted by the Vancouver International Writers' Festival. We talked about The Inconvenient Indian. I was delighted to learn it would soon be listed on the Ontario school curriculum, and told the author I hoped it would soon be required reading for every Canadian high school kid.

For a recent state visit to President Barak Obama in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was invited to bring a book he felt represented our nation. His choice was good: Three Day Roadby Joseph Boyden. He could equally have selected King's unique and uncategorizable opus, The Inconvenient Indian, which so brilliantly plies "the knife of insight that cuts as it heals."