RAILWAY NOVEL: What inspired "The Superior Man?"
I wrote about Chinese railway workers before "The Superior Man," but those stories were aimed at young readers. Back then, my work explored the Pacific coast frontier economy of the Chinese: farms, mines, canneries, households, etc. The railway has a mythic grip on the Canadian imagination, so of course I wrote about rail hands.
In the summer of 2010, Scholastic Canada released BLOOD AND IRON, my fictional journal of a fourteen-year-old who comes from China to toil on the railroad in B.C. As part of Scholastic's I AM CANADA series, this book was written in a realistic tone, quite different from my more fanciful portrayals of these workers in GHOST TRAIN and TALES FROM GOLD MOUNTAIN,
In October of that year, I went trekking in the Himalayas, in Nepal. I had trekked there before, but this was our longest venture, the three-week Annapurna Circuit. On the first day out, I saw on the steep mountain across the river a few workers starting some roadwork. The next day, more workers used power drills, pickaxes, and shovels to tear away the rock.
The government was putting a road through to the villages along the Circuit in order to reduce the villagers' isolation and to improve their access to markets.
The huge mountains, rushing rivers, and steep cliffs made the workers look puny and reminded me of Canada's Chinese rail hands. There was no safety gear. The gulf between those Nepali workers and me was similar to the gap of 130 years between me and the Chinese coolies.
I began to dream about a novel for adults about railroad workers. The trek helped me imagine a sojourner seeing such rugged territory for the first time. I thought of plots, none of which survived in the final manuscript. But, the sighting of the Nepali workers was a good omen for me because my camera went on the blink at that moment. I did the rest of the trek with no camera, relying on words and not digital images to recall my trip.
Here are some images from that trip.
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