Monday, August 27, 2012
Lily Chan on the story behind Toyo
My grandma has lived with us – the family of Chans – ever since I can remember. As is the tradition with Chinese/Japanese families, the mother often stays with the oldest son (woe begone is the daughter-in-law who marries into this age-old arrangement). My earliest memories often feature her, at some stage – dressing me up, walking me to school – a constant presence. She was a fantastic storyteller of her past. She would recreate an entire episode with this vivacious, natural style, completely absorbed and unselfconscious – as if it was happening right in front of her eyes, and we (her audience; usually the family) did not even exist.
I was fascinated by her. She did not seem to be the typical grandmother, the kindly, amiable, knitting, cake-baking ones with soft hands. She had soft hands, but they were ringed in jewels. She was an empress. She held royal court of her own. We were her subjects, spellbound by her next mood, her impulse or thought.
The majority of the stories which feature in Toyo came directly from her. As a child, I was struck by a morbid thought – that she would one day pass away, that these stories would disappear if I did not record them. So I began to write them down. My primary school teacher from sixth grade recalls that my first feature on my grandma appeared then. The writing project continued through high school. I did not yet know that this would become a book. I was collecting stories, like lollies in a jar.
When I went to university, she became ill. I thought this was the end of my writing project. But then it wasn't – the illness progressed slowly. It took the more recent memories first. And she had repeated her stories so often, to so many family members, that I could go back to my parents and relatives to confirm details. I wrote letters to relatives in Japan whom I had never met, asking them questions. I researched history and social context in libraries. Research was limited by the very nature of the topics. I seemed to have hit on every minority possible – unmarried women in the 1930s, Chinese migrants to Japan, Japanese women marrying into Chinese families during a time of racial tension and ostracisation – these were the voices of people who did not occupy large tomes in history. I went through old photo albums and began to flesh out silences and gaps. I found stories she had chosen not to tell me. The illness, too, began to be part of the book; it began to uncover some of the stories she had repressed. She was unable to keep the secrets she had held so close for so long.
When I was eight years old I danced in a folk festival. She took photos of me dancing with my classmates; from the corner of my eye I could see her smiling and clapping in time to the music. It seems we have come full circle – once she had taken photos of me. Now I was trying to capture her.
The people are all real – and in the case of “minor characters” (friends, pedestrians) are based on real people. Where my imagination played a part was in the particulars, the details – I knew a conversation, say, between Ryu and Toyo would have happened at some point. But whether it happened exactly at that time as depicted in the book, or in exactly those words – I cannot say. When it came to stories she had not told me herself, I imagined how she would react or feel according to what I already knew about her.
The memoir is written in a novelistic style. I found it suited Toyo. I have picked out certain strands of her life, etched out and delineated particular memories and stories and meetings and people over others. I have heard writing compared to weaving – choosing a colour thread over another, to highlight and feature in composites. A life – one life, in itself – is so much more sprawling and gargantuan and messy than I can ever hope to contain in these pages. I was greatly aided by the acute intelligence and discernment of my editors, mentors and friends over the years. In plucking out its shape, I hope that its essence, and the astonishing character that she is, are shown in all its understated and subtle glory.
– Lily Chan
Toyo is available now at all good bookstores and ebook retailers. Find out more about Toyo on the Black Inc. website.