Colum McCann: "What could be worse than being called a historical novelist?"

The Books Interview.

TransAtlantic moves back and forth between Ireland and the US. You haven’t written much about Irish history before now – are you becoming more interested in writing about the past?

I didn’t want to write a historical novel. Jesus, what could be worse than being called a historical novelist, as if you’re preserved in amber? Despite their complex and reasoned arguments, people like Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel run up against that assumption all the time. It’s the idea of becoming an alternative historian that really interests me: a historian of the smaller, more anonymous moments. It’s a privileged position for the fiction writer, one that opens up a lot of pores – and sometimes wounds, as well.

And, of course, there is a narrative element to any work of non-fiction.

I’m interested in the idea that these categories don’t really exist. Aleksandar Hemon says that, in Bosnian, there is no word for either “fiction” or “non-fiction”: there is only “storytelling”. He inserts himself into much of his work but it’s a construct. To put it another way, what Google or Wikipedia says about you might be an utter fiction. The storyteller must at least be responsible to a textural truth: not so much the dates and facts but the textural contradictions that he or she finds.

One great historical event in the novel is the arrival of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and orator, in Ireland. How did you come by it?

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember. Academics began to write about it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, probing the relationship between “the black and the green”, class, culture, slavery – asking questions like: when did the Irish become “white”? But I think most people had forgotten until Obama came to Ireland in 2011. He quoted Douglass: “I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breath and lo! The chattel becomes a man.”

Ultimately, the novel works around these events, through the lives of women.

I knew I wanted to write about Douglass and George Mitchell [the US special envoy for Northern Ireland from 1995-2001] but there needed to be something in between them. I thought, what is the matrix here? I became interested in Douglass’s housekeeper, Lily, and slowly it became a novel about women, about the line between non-fiction and fiction, the male narrative and the female narrative, the anonymous and grandly historical lined up side by side and working with each other.

I noticed in the acknowledgements that you spoke to Tony Blair as part of your research.

Yeah. Believe it or not, I got a half-hour face-to-face with him in New York. I told him first off: “I’m not going to talk about politics.” Or, “I’m not going to talk about other politics” – I was thinking, what if he googles some of my articles about Iraq. I told him I’m going to ask only about Northern Ireland and what the peace process was like. I asked him what he thought of Mitchell and, fair play to him, after a few minutes of dancing around each other, he said, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. That process did belong to Mitchell. A lot of us came in and stood on its back and it carried us a lot of different places. That’s politics. But it was people like Mitchell on the ground who did a lot of the work.” When I told Mitchell, he was very happy.

Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic” is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

Colum McCann in Paris earlier this year. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia