RAILWAY NOVEL: Thinking about Writing
I never thought to write a novel for adults around Chinese railway workers until my trip to Nepal (see previous blog).
My past approach to historical fiction was to uncover unknown facts and stories and bring them to life for a wider audience. But Chinese railway workers were already known: Pierre Berton had told their story, acclaimed writers Wayson Choy and SKY Lee had portrayed them in their novels, and a Heritage Minute praised them. An opera and a movie were produced, both called IRON ROAD. Monuments honoring the workers had been erected in several Canadian cities.
How would my approach be different?
In their fiction, both Choy and Lee had framed railway-building in a larger historical experience that included Canadian-born Chinese. But I knew that there were few early Chinese families in Canada. Up to the 1950s, Chinatowns were dominated by "bachelor men," whose wives and families waited in China.
"Bingo!" I thought. "I'll focus on 'bachelor men,' and see railway work through their eyes!"
It remained a daunting topic because the history is seen in black-and-white terms.
The Chinese workers suffered in an unfair situation. They were brave but disadvantaged, they endured horrific working and living conditions, and they died from work injuries and by malnutrition. They got no thanks for their efforts. Pitched against the Chinese were the bosses who paid the Chinese lower wages, disregarded worker safety, and expressed raicsm. They took all the credit for building the railway.
For me, this posed problems for writing fiction that sympathized with the Chinese workers and yet did not make the whites into dastardly bad guys.
I needed to give my Chinese protagonist, a railway worker, more control over his life. But the ultimate control that a man has over his work is to quit. If he quits, then how would I be writing about Chinese railway workers?
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