“Go Back to China”: Bo Caldwell, November 30 at St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 17 November 2011 14:34

Bo CaldwellGiven that her November 30 lecture at St. Ambrose University is titled “Finding Faith & Fiction in China,” it seems odd that author Bo Caldwell has never actually been to the country.

Once you know her story, though, the title of the lecture (being presented as part of the school’s academic-year-long China Project) makes more sense. Caldwell might not have found faith and fiction in the physical China, but she did in a China that has disappeared – the place where her grandparents and uncle lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century.

“I was writing about a China that was long ago,” Caldwell explained in an interview last month. “And the country and the city of Shanghai have changed so dramatically. ... I didn’t feel like it would help me that much to go there.”

She added that “China has a connection in a home-like way. That’s where my grandparents spent much of their lives. It’s where my mom and her siblings grew up. Chinese things when I was a kid felt like home in a weird way.”

The Distant Land of My Father was published in 2001 and follows the outline of her uncle’s life in Shanghai – how he lost his wealth and almost his life during a tumultuous time. Last year’s City of Tranquil Light is based on the experiences of her missionary grandparents in China.

That makes clear how Caldwell found fiction in China. But faith was a function of breast cancer and its treatment, both of which changed the nature of the book that would become City of Tranquil Light.

For both novels, she had a wealth of family material to draw from: transcripts of tapes her uncle made, and a privately published memoir her grandfather wrote. Those were augmented by historical research into both China and missionary life.

“China’s history to me is almost like another character ... ,” she said. “In both novels, especially the second one, I saw people’s commitment to things in the face of great turmoil and difficulty and threats.”

One of the striking things about Caldwell’s prose is its authenticity; she balances narrative and detail in a way that makes obvious that she knows the China of her books – the geography, everyday life, pivotal events – without showing off.

Take, for instance, this early passage in Distant Land, in which the narrator Anna recalls a scene from her youth with eager eyes: “On our left were the jetties, where coolies unloaded barges and ships and cranes hovered overhead. In the street, trams rattled past us and cars fought for space while rickshaws wove around them. The coolies who pulled them never looked up, and their long black queues of hair looked like braided whips on the bare skin of their backs. On the sidewalks were hawkers, some of them offering to polish my father’s shoes, others holding things out for sale, things like fountain pens, Chinese slippers, cold drinks, pomelos, and small green bananas that you would never eat without washing and maybe boiling. And there were the beggars, all ages, all of them missing something – a few teeth, a leg, an arm, an eye, a nose. They hunched in doorways, they crouched along the curb, they stood in the street, ahead of us, behind us, next to to us, in our steps, everywhere, all of them demanding cumshaw, at least a few dragon coppers.”

“The memoir-style structure lends the characters a certain flatness, but Caldwell’s even tone gives the tale a panoramic elegance,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “Though lacking in narrative vitality, the novel is interesting from a historical perspective and vivid with details of prewar Shanghai and Los Angeles.”

Caldwell said she began her research with historical books about Shanghai but found that memoirs were the best resources – and that there were plenty of them. “ Doing Shanghai was like researching Paris or New York in the ’30s,” she said. “Memoirs are gold for a novelist. ... That’s where they talk about the parties they went to, and where they ate, and what they ate, and the streets and houses, and what furniture they bought ... . I read that and I’d get really excited. Because then you get to be God. ... You get to build this house, and put in whatever you want, and you plant a eucalyptus tree. ... It’s a high.”

After Distant Land, Caldwell began a novel set in 1953 London. She got 30 pages into it, but struggled. She dedicated a day to see how far she could get with it.

“And about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” she said, “it was as though something inside me said, ‘Go back to China.’ And I knew what that meant.”

Caldwell’s mother had long encouraged her to write a book based on the lives of her missionary grandparents. “I had shied away from it,” she said. “I had thought that the story of missionaries’ lives would not be very interesting.”

But she revisited her grandfather’s memoir, and “I saw it ... through a novelist’s eyes rather than a granddaughter’s eyes for the first time.”

That suggests that following that epiphany, the path to City of Tranquil Light was direct. It was not.

Her initial approach, she said, was to treat the missionaries’ faith “like a character. It doesn’t have to be about mine.”

She began writing, and the 80 pages she produced were typically problematic, she said: “My first drafts aren’t very good. ... A lot of times, that’s just part of the process. For me the analogy is building a house. ... If you drive by a house being built and it’s two-by-fours and drywall, you don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s so ugly.’ You say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what a house looks like when it’s being built.’ And you can kind of get hints of what it’s going to look like ... . My early drafts just look awful to me; it’s just two-by-fours.”

This time, however, there was something different. “In this case,” she said, “it really was awful. It wasn’t just two-by-fours.”

In retrospect, she said, she recognizes that “it was just me trying to write this story that I kind of liked, but my heart wasn’t really in it. ... The character of the missionary was not real at all yet. His faith wasn’t real ... . It was very kind of godly in language but nothing else.”

In the fall of 2004, she was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer, which put the novel on hold. She occasionally revisited what she had written. “It looked not only bad, but it looked like bad writing that someone else had done,” she said. “It just was so far away.”

When she returned to working the book, she said, her faith had changed. It was two years after her diagnosis, and she was on vacation in Mexico. “I started writing the very end of the book, where the main character is looking back on his life and talking about his faith. ... It was a whole different thing. The voice was more authentic. And it was me writing about my feelings and my faith through this character. ... And that opened the door. It just kind of breathed life right back into the novel. Even from that day, I felt like I could do it.”

During cancer treatments, she said, “I had to rely on God in a way that I never had before and really trust him. When I came back to the novel later on, I didn’t want to write about my grandfather’s faith and kind of pretend. I was going to use that as a safety shield ... to be honest. I was scared to write about faith. ... When I came back to it, I understood much more about my grandfather’s trust of God. ... I learned a lot about trust through illness. And so I was much more willing and excited about faith being part of the novel instead of it just being something that I was going to hold at arm’s length.”

Caldwell said she’s beginning work on a new novel, about a single mother and her daughter in California in the 1940s and ’50s. She said she might visit China one day as a daughter, niece, and granddaughter, but she said it’s unlikely she’ll ever return there as a novelist. “I’m finished with China right now. ... I can’t imagine doing something else in China.”

Bo Caldwell will present “Finding Faith & Fiction in China” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 30, in the Rogalksi Center at St. Ambrose University (518 West Locust Street in Davenport).

For more information on St. Ambrose University’s China Project, visit RCReader.com/y/china.