Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Location Envy: on knowing your place, but still envying others theirs, by Louisa Young


I write this in bed, with a turkey sandwich and a good book. A friend has given me this Christmas that mixed blessing: a copy of her bound proof of her novel, so that if I like it I might provide a pithy comment for the cover of the actual book.

What if I hate it it? Oh god. Why did I agree? Normally I don't - like Stephen Fry, only considerably less often, I decline gracefully, specially if I know the author. So why did did I say yes to this one? I don't even have the security of knowing beforehand that she's a good writer - though she is an experienced and skilled scriptwriter, this is her debut novel.

I'll tell you why: location envy. Location that is, not only in place but in time. (Is there a word for placing in time? There should be. Is there a dictionary where you can look words up by their definition? There should be.) Her book is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940s.

Ah, the images which swim before my mind! The jumble of wooden buildings, the long low cars, the junks silhouetted against the gunmetal surface of the harbour at dusk, the cocktail dresses, the flat white faces and the scarlet lipstick, the men in uniform, the shadows, and the waft of opium and jasmine . . . .
I have never been to Hong Kong. But I have seen In the Mood for Love (yes I know it was set in the 1960s) and The World of Suzie Wong and Macau and Shanghai Express and Shanghai Cobra and Empire of the Sun and even that terrible one with Madonna in it, so I know all about the imaginary landscapes of Shanghai and Hong Kong.


But I would never have the nerve to approach them as locations. Too alien! The very thing which makes them attractive scares me off. I prefer to have at least one foot in territory which is in some way familiar to me: the time, or the place, or the gender, or the political outlook, or at least something of the who what where why and when.

But I do not know what motivates the heart beneath the turquoise or crimson cheongsam. I cannot understand the dark purposes of the man with the thin moustache, the camellia buttonhole and the handmade silk suit. Look at this woman - what is her story?


Alas, I am not the one to tell you . . .

Yet I have written books set in ancient Greece and future London, imaginary Paris and the Caribbean, in 1918 and in 2046, in Cairo and god knows where else.

Strange how some times and places are possible for us to approach, and some are just not. Thankfully, we have other people to write about them for us.



*The Harbour by Francesca Brill, Bloomsbury, May 2012


6 comments:

adele said...

Very good post and most interesting that indeed some places and times 'call' to us and others don't. Though HK in the 40s is a good one, I must say, to read about anyway. And I also never give 'jacket quotes' AS SUCH. I get round this by saying: if you send me the proof and I like the book, I will put up a review on my website or on ABBA or here on History Girls and then you can quote from that review as much as you like.' I hope that's an honest way round it. And I long ago stopped worrying about the 'knowing the writer' thing. I can't help it if a lot of my pals write lovely books, right? I just declare it right up front: This review is of a book by a good friend of mine...etc. Again, hope this is an honest way of proceeding.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Adele - that is exactly the advice I needed. Altogether simpler and - at risk of sounding like a politician - more transparent. I shall follow your lead -

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

what is ABBA by the way?

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting post - and good for you, Louisa! Because I've read stuff set in HK by people who've never been there. Like the person who made the Noonday Gun audible over the entire city in the 80s. What, above the sound of all the drilling and pile- driving and the roar of elderly vehicles and the planes coming into Kai Tak? And then the people who've visited, only for a week or so.. Mind, I only lived there for 18 months. But I know what you mean about feeling hesitant about getting into peoples' heads though wishing you could, and it IS a challenge. I wrote about 19th century HK expats and a Chinese orphan brought up by an Englishman. Does one take the jump or abstain out of respect? If it comes to that, how easy is it, really, to get inside the head even of an English person in the past?

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting post - and good for you, Louisa! Because I've read stuff set in HK by people who've never been there. Like the person who made the Noonday Gun audible over the entire city in the 80s. What, above the sound of all the drilling and pile- driving and the roar of elderly vehicles and the planes coming into Kai Tak? And then the people who've visited, only for a week or so.. Mind, I only lived there for 18 months. But I know what you mean about feeling hesitant about getting into peoples' heads though wishing you could, and it IS a challenge. I wrote about 19th century HK expats and a Chinese orphan brought up by an Englishman. Does one take the jump or abstain out of respect? If it comes to that, how easy is it, really, to get inside the head even of an English person in the past?

arab girlscool said...

This is such a nice addition thanks!!!

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