A Q&A with Rebecca Mackenzie
July 28, 2016
Today we publish IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS in paperback, the story of precocious Etta and her childhood spent in a Chinese boarding school for the children of British missionaries. This is a novel that received outstanding reviews when we first published and we are so excited to send it in its beautiful new livery out in to the world once more.
What gave you the idea for IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS?
The novel started as an idea I wanted to explore; that of the life of a missionary child in China, during a turbulent period in China’s pre-Communist history. This idea became a voice, which I was then compelled to follow.
How did your own childhood in Thailand, Malaysia and India come into play?
My parents were missionaries and my childhood was spent in Asia. As a child, you experience what is around you in a highly sensory way. I drew on the intensity of that feeling, knowing the almost fierce affection Etta would have had for these places and the power they had to sculpt her own internal landscape. I wanted to let that strangeness and wonder of childhood creep up on me as I wrote. The Chinese location allowed me to explore somewhere new, as did setting the story in a different period in history. My parents’ missionary organisation was founded in China and I grew up listening to stories of missionaries in China’s villages and deserts. Now, as then, my imagination is awakened by what is outside my immediate experience.
You describe some heartrending scenes among the children of loneliness, abandonment and un-belonging. Do you think the missionaries were essentially selfish in sending their children away so that they could pursue their own calling?
I think missionaries are humans; wonderful, complex, courageous, and unique, and like all of us, living out certain values of their society. In this case, there was a great emphasis on education, and, with little alternative locally, sending their children to a mission-run school in China was seen as a better choice than sending them to England where they might not see each other for several years. In common with many Christians then, they also believed deeply in heaven and hell. They were there to save souls, and this gave an urgency to their work. ‘Missionary’ was a grand job title and, I suppose, for some of them, it overshadowed their role as mothers and fathers.
In the book, the missionaries use a glove with different coloured fingers, the gospel glove, in their work. Was this based on a real method?
I found the glove mentioned briefly in one book and found it intriguing. The missionaries created many ways of telling the gospel story, often by appropriating storytelling methods of that culture. Colours are important in Chinese culture and this colour-coded gospel, whether presented as a glove or a flag flown in the market square, was a useful tool for evangelising.
Why did the English, missionaries and other ex-pats leave it so late to leave the country when it must have been obvious that war was on its way?
Until Pearl Harbour, the English were not enemies of the Japanese, and they made the best of things as their freedoms diminished. Some missionaries had outposts in Free China, far in-land, these were a great distance from Japanese occupied coastal regions and were never invaded. Others chose to remain in the crossfire. They felt that China was their home. Some had lived there most of their lives. They felt a great loyalty to their congregations and wanted to live and suffer alongside them.
There was a school, Chefoo, which was occupied by the Japanese and then interned. How far did this serve as a model for the school in your book?
That part of the school’s history very much inspired a central event in the book. I did read the school prospectus, staff diaries and various accounts, but in the end I found it most effective to let my imagination furnish the school.
What research did you have to do in order to capture the world of the internment camp?
I read a lot of military books and narrative accounts, and interviewed people, and so I amassed a huge amount of material, some fascinating but not an organic part of the narrative. Before I could actually write that part of the book, I had to put my research to one side, and allow myself to dream the camp.
Religion appears to offer little comfort except in the form of self-righteousness and its – to the girls at least – unintelligible practices lead to tragedy. Did your feelings towards the missionaries change in the course of researching and writing the book or did you find yourself becoming more or less sympathetic towards them?
For every instance that I read of pettiness, pig-headedness and repression, there were instances of love, courage, and humour. I’d say this is fairly reflective of people in general. I’d say I came away with that: that missionaries are people. We human beings are extraordinary, complex creatures with a capacity for great good as well as harm.
As for religion offering little comfort, I think what I am describing in the novel is partly a function of institutions back then. The way people organised institutions in that era, whether it be a public school in Britain or in China, or a religious or military organisation elsewhere in the Empire, can often seem unenlightened when viewed by today’s standards. Having said that, people have and will continue to use external constructs to de-value each other, whether that be a religious school, or shaming through the structures of social media.
Religion aside, missionaries made a valuable contribution to human progress. Many missionaries are honoured in China today for their work in health care and education, which has had an impact beyond their lifetimes. The missionary life offered an alternative to the buttoned-up existence available to women in Britain: Gladys Aylward, Mildred Cable, Evangeline and Francesca French are all examples of passionate women whose missionary work enabled them to live a life of pioneering adventure.
In my research I encountered many extraordinary facts and stories, and it began to seem to me that, perhaps ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t a helpful way to categorise the past. As a novelist, I want to stay open and explore the colour and complexity of our human experience.
Learn more about IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS by following Rebecca on her blog tour:
The original version of this interview by Frances Gertler first appeared on Foyles.co.uk