Ian Buruma | The China Lover
October 5, 2009
Dr. Kent: Welcome to Sound Authors. Today is an exciting day on Sound Authors. We’ve got three guests on the show instead of the usual four. At the end of the show there’s a musician, Johnny Helm who’s going to join us, and he’s got some amazing tunes that we’re going to listen to. And of course, he’s an author of sound. And before that we’re going to listen to a couple of Sound Authors. I’ve got Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States and the poet laureate of New York. We’re going to talk to him later on in the show. And at the beginning, without further ado, I’m excited to speak to author Ian Buruma, who’s the author of The China Lover. Welcome to the show.
Ian Buruma: Thank you.
Dr. Kent: Well, tell me a little bit about The China Lover.
Ian Buruma: Well, it’s a novel, but based on the real life of a movie star who’s still alive, although now I think in her 90’s living in Tokyo, and she was born in China, northeast China, in Manchuria, and grew up speaking both Chinese and Japanese. So she came in very usefully during the war when the Japanese wanted to convince the Asians that the Japanese Empire was there to liberate Asia from the West, and unite Asians and so on. She was always cast in Japanese movies, propaganda movies, as the Chinese girl who was in love with Japanese soldiers, or brave pioneers. I first came across her as a film student in Tokyo when I actually saw some of these films in the film archives. The most famous of these films was actually, was recently well known in the United States, too, because it was used during the war for American Intelligence soldiers to learn Japanese.
Dr. Kent: Now you’ve gotten several awards recently. One for this book, and it was published last fall, and it was named one of Asia’s best books. What makes this book different from the many books you’ve written in the past?
Ian Buruma: Well, I’m not known as a fiction writer, so that’s different. I’ve written one novel before and there’s a very different kind of writing in that you’re not arguing any kind of case, or you’re not simply presenting a history or a section of history, or trying to breathe life into characters. That’s a different entity.
Dr. Kent: Well, and your most recent book before this was about Theo van Gogh, and fascinating story, the whole world was watching from Amsterdam. What is the difference between putting a book like that together, which is criticism and history and that, and then writing a fiction story that kind of gets at the same issues in a way, but it’s fiction?
Ian Buruma: Well actually, in the text of that book, the difference is not all that large, because that was a story with different characters, all of whom were very colorful. And in a way I used, didn’t make anything up, but I used sort of a novelistic form to describe what happened in Amsterdam. So I did take the various characters who ended up being involved in this terrible murder in a kind of fictional way. But again, without making anything up, which of course you do do in a true work of fiction.
Dr. Kent: And where did your interest in all of these subjects derive? Especially for the latest book, your interest in Asia? Where did that all start?
Ian Buruma: Well, my interest in Asia came fairly late, I didn’t grow up in it, there’s no colonial background in my family, or anything of that sort. Like most people who grew up in the 1960’s, I had a sort of vague attraction to the exotic East. And when I studied at university I thought I might combine that attraction to something that might be useful. So I studied Chinese, which now of course is quite useful. In those days that wasn’t really apparent yet. And I ended up finding, being more drawn to Japan than China, I thought maybe because when China was still on the (inaudible) and was not very accessible, nor very attractive, at least not to me, I wanted to make films. And so I got a scholarship to study film in Tokyo at a film school. And one thing sort of led to anther, it turns out I wasn’t really made for filmmaking, I didn’t have the patience, and I started writing. And so film and Japan, the Far East, China and film, all these things really came together in this novel.
Dr. Kent: And it’s really a fascinating thing, you know, the New York Times talked about how your novel is put together in several different ways, and of course it’s based on the real life character. How did you come across this character, and how do you go about fictionalizing an interesting character like her?
Ian Buruma: Well that’s always a tricky problem, especially when people are still alive. You don’t want to make some silly things up about them. And I have met, in fact for many years when I, I always wanted to write her story, and I never quite figured out how to do it. And I thought in between I might do it as a (inaudible), and I did talk to her, she was very forthcoming. Her life in Japan is a legend, literally the stuff of legends, I mean there are comic strips, and there’s a musical about her life there. There is at least one movie, there’s a TV soap opera, and so on. And so the last thing she wants to do is sit down with somebody with a recorder and depart from the legend. So I never got much out of her, and I decided that to really get inside the story that I wanted to tell, it was better to use my own imagination. Now in her case everything in the novel is pretty much recorded. It’s true. And where I’ve made things up are the people around her, and the narrators, of course, are made up, even though there are three in the book. People who knew her, based loosely on many different people. And they’re fictional.
Dr. Kent: And what got you into writing in the first place? Way back when, what inspired you to write your first book?
Ian Buruma: Well this was in Japan when I was there, as I said, first as a film student, and then I started making some films, and then worked as a photographer. But to make money I also wrote movie reviews for an English language newspaper called The Japan Times. And it turns out I was quite good at it, or so people told me. And I began to write more and make films less. And I sort of, I slipped into writing. But in my late 20’s, so unlike many writers I didn’t start on the school magazine and that kind of thing.
Dr. Kent: And what are you working on these days?
Ian Buruma: I’m now writing various essays, one of which is going to come out in the spring next year on religion and democracy.
Dr. Kent: And will those go into a book at some point?
Ian Buruma: Yes, and it’s coming out in, it is coming out in a book, by Princeton University Press in the spring.
Dr. Kent: Well, wonderful. And so, The China Lover, of course, was published by Penguin USA. Was this one of your most enjoyable projects? Was it sort of, did it take over your life and you’re happy to get it out? What was it like?
Ian Buruma: No, well, I find writing, especially fiction writing too hard for it to be entirely enjoyable. It’s enjoyable to have done it, more than the actual process. But no it, well, it takes over your life sometimes. I didn’t write it in one sort of fell swoop, I did it in various stages, and so I don’t know. I try to take it in stride.
Dr. Kent: Well, it’s been such an honor talking with you. And the book is fascinating, and your career is also fascinating. People can find out more about Ian Buruma at his website, ianburuma.com. There’s a whole bunch of great stuff on there, as well as links to The China Lover. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Ian Buruma: Thank you.
Dr. Kent: And my next guest on the show is Billy Collins, who was once the poet laureate of the United States. Comes on back and we’re going to talk to him.