Saturday, March 24, 2018

Author Interview - Wayne Ng, Author of "Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu"

Earnshaw Books will soon be publishing Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu as part of its Old China Historical Fiction Series, following the publication of The Green Phoenix. The expected publication date is 1st April, 2018. I am very excited to have the opportunity to interview the author, Wayne Ng. 

As suggested by the title, this historical novel is about ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. We all know that Lao Tzu was purported to be the seminal founder of Taoism thoughts and that the ideology expressed in Tao Te Ching has had far-reaching influence not only on Chinese culture, values and beliefs, but also on Western philosophical studies. Wayne’s fictionalized account of the life of this revered intellectual promises us a great opportunity to peer inside his mind and soul and to be transported to China’s tumultuous Spring and Autumn period, some twenty-six centuries ago.

Without further ado, onto the Q & A session!

Alice: Hi Wayne! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Why did you choose Lao Tzu for your first novel? What is it about him that resonates with you?

Wayne: I was inspired by the image of Lao Tzu, who after a lifetime of regrets, wandered off to die. I imagined him to be very much like myself---a dreamer, an idealist, one whose social conscience underpinned all that he was. He is a figure of such veneration yet we know so little of him. To my knowledge, he hadn’t ever been dramatized, so I saw an opportunity to literally put some flesh into the legend of someone as relevant today as ever.

Alice: There are two ways to do such a book – write it as a story, or as a reflection of philosophy. How did you do it?

Wayne: Lao Tzu would answer that a natural equilibrium answers all. Here I applied a similar paradigm by juggling the narrative and the development and application of the philosophy. Dyed in the wool Taoists will find many elements of their beliefs woven into the story. Those just learning about Taoism will get the primer without feeling lectured. While the story preceded the principles, the two became intertwined. Lao Tzu created Taoism in order to make sense of the disorder around him. His story and his beliefs evolved naturally, organically. I like to think he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In the end it became a balancing act of integrating selected timeless Taoist notions into a personal odyssey.

Alice: To what extent is the story anchored to history as it is known?

Wayne:   We know that pre-dynastic China was tumultuous, but also a period of significant change and enlightenment. The bronze age was morphing into the iron age. The Zhou House had long since fragmented into smaller, warring kingdoms. Lao Tzu and Confucius challenged the existing order and were often treated like rock stars, but likely also as pariahs by others. That they supposedly met in the Royal Court is one of the few known details of Lao Tzu. However legends also give us the opening chapter where Lao wanders off to die on a water buffalo, only to be stopped by Yin to tell his story. While precise details are often sketchy, characters such as the Princes and the Kings, place names, and the construction palaces and cities are a matter of record. Like any good historical fiction writer, I’ve delicately seasoned facts with creative essence.

Alice: What connections or lessons are there in Lao Tzu and the story as you tell it in “Finding” for people today?

Wayne: Imagine a world spinning too fast. People feeling alienated, disconnected, insecure, unable to find solace in each other or governments, leaders without a moral or altruistic foundation…this isn’t 6th century BC, but here and now. The historical context of FTW was written to synchronize with similar modern questions today. The emptiness and imbalance Lao Tzu spoke of then weighs us down as heavily then as it does now. However he also offered a soothing balm through Taoism that gateways into an inner peace and harmony that’s as relevant and necessary now as it was then.

Alice: You are of Chinese ancestry but born in Canada. How did that background influence you, do you think, in terms of your choice of the story and the nature of the plot?

Wayne: It’s disappointed me that most historical fiction is “Eurocentric”. Fantastic Chinese stories about massively influential people and world influencing periods such as Lao Tzu, are waiting to be discovered. Being of Chinese heritage I understand there is something in the DNA of the Chinese, whether you live in China or as part of the diaspora. There is a sense of duty to family, acceptance of authority and order, a feverish practicality, a survival instinct that has kept the culture intact for thousands of years. I understand this inner rumbling, but also the yearning for a quietude that is best found through inner reflection.

Alice: The book involves a confrontation between Lao Tzu and Confucius. Both had a huge impact / influence on Chinese culture. How would you describe that influence?

Wayne: The genesis of both giants came from the chaos of constant conflicts with the goal of self and societal improvement. Confucianism sought to ingratiate harmony social order and hierarchies through filial piety, and a clearly defined moral code. Lao Tzu would have argued that order and harmony are achieved only through an inner journey without undue, unnatural and extraneous influences. I believe that many Chinese live within Confucianist order but quietly believe in and even yearn for the peace of the Tao/the Way.


Many thanks to Wayne for his insightful answers to my questions.

Earnshaw Books will be releasing the digital versions of “Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu” on April 1, 2018. The paperback version will be available on July 1, 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review - "The Sense of An Ending" by Julian Barnes

This was a haunting read, with depth. The author effortlessly leads readers into the protagonist’s recollection of his banal life as an average guy and then his subtle rediscovery of certain details of that life that have long been submerged in his memory, asking in the process philosophical questions about time and warped memory.

Part One (the recollection) shows the contrast in personality and intellect between Tony (the narrator-protagonist) and his prodigy friend Adrian whom he adores, captured during their school days. It tells the failed love affair between Tony and his girlfriend Veronica. As Tony remembers it, the fault lies with Veronica, as corroborated by her mother, who is sympathetic to Tony. Adrian goes on to become a brilliant philosophy graduate of Cambridge. One day Tony gets a letter from Adrian asking for his permission to date Veronica. Tony replies to the letter, which he burns in a fit. Shortly after, Tony receives news of Adrian’s suicide. Tony instinctively puts the blame of Adrian’s death on Veronica. Meanwhile he gets on with life.

Part Two (the rediscovery) begins with Tony receiving from a lawyer a sum of money bequeathed to him by Veronica’s mother and her letter telling him to get Adrian’s diary, which is in Veronica’s possession. Tony’s reunion with Veronica sets off an unraveling of the deeply buried details of his past life that relate to her, which details, along with desultory hints from Veronica, help him to change his perception of Veronica’s and Adrian’s character. Everything is not what it seems. The ultimate denouement is quite evocative.

The main theme of the novel centers on the effects that the passage of time can have on a person’s memory. Sometimes memory plays tricks on the human mind.

But time….how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…. Give us enough time and our best-supported decision will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

‘History is the lies of the victors.’ ‘As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.’

I’m giving this novel 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Book Review - "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak

Before finally reading this novel, I had watched the 1965 movie adaptation starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie many many times. By way of simple comparison, the movie captured very well the spontaneous passion of a brief love affair between physician/poet Yuri and his lover Lara, whereas the book dealt in much greater depth the tumultuous factional warfare incidents between the First Russian Revolution (1905) and the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922), and their deleterious impact on everyday Russian life. As much as I loved the movie, I have to say that the novel was much more satisfying, if only for the stunning power of the written word.

The novel is divided into two Parts. Part One primarily dwells on Yuri’s family life as a doctor in Moscow and the lives of those close to him, weaving them into the fabric of the violent ideological strife and abrupt social upheaval that were taking place in Russia. Highlights include schoolgirl Lara’s descent into debauchery under an immoral lawyer’s evil influence, the chance but indelible encounter between young Yuri and Lara, and Lara’s falling for a shy idealist, Pasha, whom she later marries. After a short reunion in the town of Meluzeyevo, Yuri and Lara come to know each other better but return home to their respective families. In the background loom the bloodshed resulting from the fall of the monarchy and the advent of the Civil War.

Part Two zooms in on the spontaneous development of the love affair between Yuri and Lara in the Siberian towns of Varykino and Yuryatin, interrupted by Yuri’s being kidnapped by the Forest Brotherhood (a branch of the Red Faction) to serve as their camp doctor. In the background the Civil War is raging on. For fear of being arrested for being anti-revolutionary, the lovers decide to hide in a deserted house in Varykino. As much as they both struggle inwardly with their respective loyalties to family, they are able to savor the most magical and memorable moments in the week-and- a-half in that unforgiving icy wilderness. Then they are forced to accept the unscrupulous lawyer’s offer of a safe passage to Vladivostok, which means for them separation for life.

Throughout the novel, the author makes it quite clear through Yuri’s viewpoint his own take on the falsehood and futility of slogan-driven abstract ideology as against living life with passion and purpose. Even in Yuri’s all-consuming sentimental love for Lara, he never loses sight of the wholesome beauty of being a part of the universe. This is the poetic essence of the novel.

It was not out of necessity that they loved each other, ‘enslaved by passion’, as lovers are described. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the landscapes drawn up for them to see on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, were even more pleased with their love than they were themselves…. Never, never had they lost the sense of what is higher and most ravishing – joy in the whole universe, its form, its beauty, the feeling of their own belonging to it, being part of it. This compatibility of the whole was the breath of life to them.

I’m giving the novel 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.