Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Boyd Anderson

Boyd Anderson is visiting Singapore from Sydney, to promote his new novel, Amber Road – see the previous post for a notice. I met him at BooksActually, an independent bookshop-cum-publisher specializing in books at the literary end of the market.  Boyd was there to sign his novel; his wife, Oola, accompanied him.

Boyd is Australian, but Oola is Malaysian. Their creative and constructive partnership seems to have informed much of Boyd’s work. Amber Road can be summed up in one sentence as: Gone With The Wind set against the backdrop of the Pacific War. Oola, Boyd’s first reader and first editor, checked all the Peranakan, Chinese, and Malay cultural references, but, more than this, a branch of her own family lived on the real Amber Road during the Japanese occupation of Singapore; her relatives’ histories and memories inspired many of the novel’s settings, incidents, and details.

Boyd’s next novel, The Heart Radical, which is to be published by Random House, Australia, in February 2014, also owes a big debt to Oola.  This new work can be summed up as: To Kill A Mockingbird set against the backdrop of the Malay Emergency. Oola’s beloved father was a lawyer in Ipoh.  In The Heart Radical characters inspired by Oola and her father fill the spaces occupied by Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird – in The Heart Radical the lawyer defends a Chinese guerrilla who is accused of murder, and not a black accused of raping a white.

Each written Chinese character has a set of strokes that make up the radical.  Many characters can share a radical, and if you know the radical you can work out the general area of the character’s meaning.  Oola, who is a Chinese calligrapher, explained to me that The Heart Radical refers to the Chinese radical meaning heart, also found in the characters for love, loving, etc.   Boyd then added that he also intended radical to refer to the root that gives a life meaning, and that in his novel the lawyer is the daughter’s heart radical. I forgot to ask where this left romantic love, but I did learn that The Heart Radical is to incorporate a contemporary love story.

As if Oola hasn’t contributed enough to Boyd’s output, one of her ancestors was Chung Keng Kwee, better known as Kapitan China, a millionaire businessman-philanthropist, and a leader of the Chinese community in Penang in the mid-to-late 19th century – he owned one of the grandest private homes on the island, now converted to a museum.  The Kapitan was involved in all sorts of secret societies, schemes, and shenanigans, but many stories about him would have been lost, were it not for Oola, who persuaded Boyd to talk to her grandmother, keeper of the family memory, before the old woman died.   As a result of those conversations, and of subsequent research, workaholic Boyd has now written The Kapitan’s Daughters, a novel currently with his agent. Let’s hope she manages to sell it, so we can all read it.