Sunday, August 16, 2009


BRIAN CASTRO tackles the question of truth in personal histories, and owns up that his own memoir should not be taken as entirely factual. There’s more truth in personal histories than you would think—and at the same time, less

THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY defines a memoir as “a person’s written account of incidents in his own life.” I don’t think I’ve ever written a memoir. Indeed, I have always found in my writing a benign struggle between authenticity and invention.

When I first started writing my book Shanghai Dancing in 1996, I wondered whether I should use the name Castro in it at all, because this would surely confuse readers. But then again, engaged readers are never entirely confused, because sooner or later the serious reader would stop asking what is fact and what is fiction, in order to be carried along by the prose alone. That is where the test is.

When I began the book I knew I wasn’t interested in childhood. I was well aware of the boredom potential of a conventional autobiography. As Philip Larkin once said: “Whenever I read an autobiography I tend to start halfway through, when the chap’s grown up and it becomes interesting.”

So what I did was to challenge the autobiographical genre, to dismiss all the conventions of biography and autobiography. I not only plundered my own family’s rich archive of gossip and rumour, but I also looted from history. I re-positioned and re-invented, realising that reading consisted of pleasure and texture. By texture I mean the style or the music in the prose. If successful, the reader recognises what you are doing is subversive, but there is also a chance the reader appreciates the way a particular memory contains a dream-like truth, and is brought back through the rhythms and music of storytelling.

My father’s side hailed from Macau, that former Portuguese enclave across the water which has a colourful reputation for casinos and rampant construction. It is full of churches with garish statues and on a fine weekend people always drive to church, because churches always occupy the most picturesque spots. They do this in order to wash their cars. This ritual combines religious superstition with the Grand Prix, which is one of Macau’s claims to fame. But Macau produced great storytellers as well. One of the greatest inventors, my uncle Umberto Rosa de Castro, claimed to have been a Jesuit priest and to have founded a monastery on a remote island.

Why did you leave the priesthood? I once asked him, having encountered him dressed rather shabbily in the plush lobby of a grand hotel. There wasn’t any money in it, he claimed. It transpired that he had built a fake monastery with fake saints’ bones, plastic stained-glass windows, and was charging a huge entrance fee when the authorities and the Catholic church caught up with him. Hyper-reality was the business of my Uncle Umberto. Fake history and theme parks, false roses and real names.

Believe me, this is a true story. I mean, you can begin to see what a terrible power the terms fiction and non-fiction exercise over us. Categorisation exerts a disproportionate influence on reading. Children know more about this, since the idea of fact and fiction is not a meaningful division for a child. There is only belief and disbelief. So children are actually more “literary” than adults, in that they are not intimidated by facts, and can only be convinced by how they feel about something or someone.

William Faulkner once remarked that a writer should sell his grandmother for a story. Of course, with the proviso that she’s worth it. Well, it’s a fact that my grandmother was from Liverpool and that she was a missionary in China between 1913 and 1926. It’s a fact that when I visited Liverpool some years ago, there was a memorable scene. I saw a family emptying some ashes from an urn into the sea. The wind blew the ashes back. A few minutes later, as if on cue, they all took out their combs and ran them through their hair.

It’s a fact that my grandmother became the principal of a girls’ school in Hong Kong and started up girls-only schools all over China, since girls were the most disadvantaged people, particularly in rural Chinese communities. And this is where fact ends and the imagination starts.

I remember playing in the basketball courts at the school while my mother visited her mother. I was probably five at the time. There was a janitor; a black man. He was stacking chairs in the gymnasium and he was removing chewing gum stuck to the floor, peeling it off with an ivory comb. I’m not sure if I made up the idea of the ivory comb. Maybe I confused ivory comb with the Ivory Coast.

Once upon a time I was told there was a famous African writer by the name of Untebele. I liked that name. The child mishears the name Untebele. Mr Untebele was Granny’s underbelly, the child says to his parents. I remember my mother threatening me with a feather-duster for connecting my grandmother with the janitor. But this would have made what I said significant, so perhaps the incident was true. In writing about it in a chapter in Shanghai Dancing, I have the grandmother and the janitor conduct a shipboard romance when the ship sailed for Liverpool ... all by implication rather than by actually narrating it. And as they waltz together on deck, the disastrous lives of all the family members around them unfold.

I later found out there was no famous African writer with the name of Untebele. So my narrator is an unreliable narrator, but his fetishism for certain objects should alert readers to the uncanny nature of how the dead reassert themselves in memory.

In the end I wonder whether any irritable reaching after fact or fiction is way off the point. In that it misses the vital element of why anything is written ... which is essentially to portray a way of seeing things; a perspective; to tell a story where truth and meaning come into existence not in real life, but in the writing itself. Like the ends of our noses and the English language, this point is always something we overlook. So I’m working in the opposite direction to the definition of “memoir” in that I’m not recalling a life, but inventing a suitable site for how one feels about life. And my family tree, represented on the first page of Shanghai Dancing, is a ‘Furphy,’ to use that Australianism which I love because it’s an entirely literary confusion. [‘Furphy’: a tall story told around the water cart. The term ‘furphy’ probably derives from the historical connection to John Furphy, a Victorian manufacturer of water and sanitation carts, but I prefer the more popular association with the writer Joseph Furphy who published Australia’s most celebrated—and confusing—tall story in the 1903 novel Such Is Life.]

I should therefore relinquish the word “memoir” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, because I’m not “documenting” anything. I should probably describe Shanghai Dancing as something informed by overhearing things in the corridors in my childhood, so perhaps it is a “couloir,” rather than a memoir, or maybe a “boudoir” because it seems to have been in the bedroom ... the natural place of true conception... where everything was misunderstood and misconceived.

Showing rather than telling, as children know, even if we belong to the liars’ club, is a far more effective way of demonstrating that facts should never get in the way of a good story. But a really good story dismantles even the showing. It disappears into an exceptional use of language, which is often unconscious and hypnotic.

Because memory works in a fragmented way, most of my writing is fragmentation. We recall things in bits and pieces and each time we recall something, there are always changes, and when we actually relate our memories to others, there is a change again. There is another transformation when we have to put memory into written words, so you can see how we continually rewrite and combine and shape when dealing with memory. Memory is not a static thing. What we remember today is changed when we recall it in twenty years, and it will continually change, like Chinese whispers. So for me, memory is writing. And writing, for the most part, exaggerates the facts. This affinity with writing rather than talking probably comes from my childhood. I was never much of a talker. Talking still seems to me to be a form of non-thinking. As a child I eavesdropped a lot. I tuned into adult conversations, spoken in hushed tones, which always had a surreal quality to them, particularly when everything was taken out of context.

Freud said something interesting about memory. He said that the memories least likely to be recorded are the most significant ones, and they are significant because they are least interesting, since they are what the unconscious wants to conceal. As a quasi-autobiographer, I was not into revelation, but I was into concealment. Even today I’m still haunted by that comb, because the janitor was completely bald. By hiding what was significant in what seemed least interesting, rather than telling it straight out because it appeared significant, I hoped to allow the reader to reconstruct meaning in the gaps between my grandmother, Mr Untebele and Liverpool.

The purpose of writing is not to publicize, but to hide. Not to be found out, but desiring meaning to be found. A secret communing with the reader based on desire. It’s why reading, like sex, is such an intimate and personal thing. It only happens between two people; at least, if it is to be significant. It’s a bit like psychoanalysis in that if you question me, I will tell you nothing, but if you listen carefully, much will be revealed in a different kind of way.

I think we have innumerable lives inside us. Each one of us is a multiple plot, and we have many ways of writing those lives to ourselves. If you stick to the so-called facts you will limit this process. You will edit yourself to a point when you can no longer write; you will imprison yourself in how others see you. In the end you are not trying to convince anyone of your life. You are letting them discover a story for themselves. It is the way you go about it that lets them own this story of you, so they too, can liberate themselves from the conventions of daily life in order for them to start imagining themselves in a totally liberated way.

And isn’t that why we do it, rather than simply telling you to believe us?

As Groucho Marx once said: “Who do you believe? Me? Or your own eyes?”

BRIAN CASTRO was born in Hong Kong in 1950. In 2003 Giramondo published Shanghai Dancing, which won the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the New South Wales Premier’s Book of the Year Award. He is also the author of Birds of Passage, Double-Wolf, After China, Stepper and The Garden Book, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction. His latest book, The Bath Fugues (Giramondo, 2009), is a collection of novellas.


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