Rebecca Mackenzie talks about her inspiration for IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS
January 21, 2016
A story of a child far from home and caught between two cultures, IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS marries exuberant imagination with sharp pathos, and introduces Rebecca Mackenzie as a striking and original new voice. Here, Rebecca shares her author’s note about how she came to write her extraordinary novel.
This book is a work of fiction inspired by the history of missionaries in China. The first Protestant missionaries came to China in 1807 and remained there until the Communists closed the country to mission work in 1953. During this time, missionaries founded hospitals, preached from tracts and gospel gloves, ran schools for blind children, and evangelised up and down the fabled Women’s River. As the missionaries pursued their calling, mission boarding schools were set up to educate their children. One such school was the China Inland Mission’s Chefoo School, situated in the treaty port Chefoo (now Yantai) and overlooking the Yellow Sea. With many parents working far inland, it was not uncommon for pupils, some as young as six or seven, to have a 3,000 mile trip home for their yearly holiday. The onset of war meant these journeys became more perilous, and so the separation between parent and child lengthened.
The novel’s school is set on a fictional mountain, a landscape inspired by Wang Wusheng’s photographs of Huangshan in his book Celestial Realm: The Yellow Mountains of China. Captivated by the granite peaks and pouring mists of his photographs, I travelled to China to climb the Huangshan for myself. As I walked the ancient paths that criss-crossed the mountain, I the searched for places where Etta would have played, feeling my way for an Etta-like absence as I went. I also spent time on a mountain called Lushan, which was situated further east in Jiangxi Province. A strong missionary community once lived there, including, at certain periods of its history, a missionary school. During the Second World War the Japanese invaded and sent the missionaries to interment camps near Shanghai. I used the historical detail of this invasion, combining it with the mystical landscape of Huangshan along with much imagination to create a fictional ‘Lushan.’
One of the novel’s key events was inspired by a moment in the history of Chefoo School. The port of Chefoo was occupied by the Japanese and after Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the whole school was interned, first at Temple Hill Camp and then Weihsien Civilian Assembly Centre. The imagined camp of the novel is a darker place than the one experienced by Chefoo School children, with a tougher regime, perhaps something more akin to that experienced by children in the other Japanese camps. Nicola Tyrer’s book Stolen Childhoods was helpful here. However, one shared event between the Weihsien camp and the fictional camp was the liberation by American airmen who parachuted from their plane into a nearby field and were carried atop prisoners’ shoulders on a victory march through the gates to the accompaniment of the camp band.
After the war ended, the children were repatriated to their home countries and reunited with their parents. One ship, the SS Arawa, set sail from Shanghai with a group of missionary children on board, docking in Southampton in last days of 1945. Some of the children had not seen their parents for more than seven years. Some did not recognise the faces waiting on the pier. But it is on the ocean that I chose to end Etta’s story, a young woman in-between places.