When Silence Says More than Words: Glorious Boy by Aimee Liu

Aimee Liu describes her novel, Glorious Boy (Red Hen Press, May 2020), as being a “story of [an] unusual family, yanked apart by [the second world] war and desperate to be reunited.” It took seventeen years for Liu to write Glorious Boy and there were three events that happened before the book came together. The seed was sown when an anthropologist told Liu about the Andaman Islands, which were opened up to foreigners in 1998, and she was left with an impression of “a place lost in time.”

The second event was a vivid dream in 2003 that Liu can clearly recall: “In the dream the adolescent girl who became my character Naila was hiding the little boy who became Ty under the house on a tropical island during an evacuation. The girl was jealous of the child in her care. She knew his family wouldn’t take her when they evacuated. So she hid with him out of spite, only to emerge when the noise died down to find the whole town abandoned, smoke rising in the distance. Only then did she think, What have I done?

The final event was when Liu visited the Andaman Islands in 2010, where, she recalls, she “inhaled the place.” She says that the visit was “transformative. There’s no substitute for feeling that torpid heat and witnessing the scale of those primeval forests. The ruins of Ross Island, the Cellular Jail, and the blood red World War II bunkers up and down the coast are all unforgettable. Above all, I would never have found the local, first-hand records if I hadn’t gone to Port Blair, and I could never have written my book without them.”

The records that Liu refers to are local and provide history and details that could not have been found elsewhere, such as the “firsthand accounts of growing up on Ross Island before World War II, of the penal colony and the Japanese occupation, the indigenous tribes and their languages, and the local flora and fauna.” Liu pays tribute to the anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s The Andaman Islands (1922) and says this book was particularly useful as it “describes the islands as they still were at the time of my story. It provides detailed descriptions of the local tribes, the plants they use – including medicinal uses, the food they eat, their customs and rituals and relationships with each other. There is some linguistic information and quite a lot on the indigenous myths, legends, and spiritual beliefs. This tome was my core informational resource, along with work by earlier colonial researchers.”

This reference book is actually referred to throughout Glorious Boy by the main female character, Claire Durant, who herself is an anthropologist, attempting to study the Biyu tribe. Her husband, Shep, is a doctor and a keen collector of orchids. They have a son, Ty, who, for most of the duration of the novel, is silent, resulting in the relationship between mother and son being oftentimes difficult. The only person who can communicate in any way with Ty is Naila, a young, orphaned islander who acts as the boy’s nanny. As Liu explains, the fact of Ty being silent is important because “his muteness made him a mysterious character and contributed both to the jealousy that rages over him and to the crisis at the center of the story. If he were a normal, communicative child, Naila would have little leverage over Claire, and it would be much more difficult for Naila to hide him. Then I learned the developmental reason for his muteness, which itself is a fascinating condition, and it made his silence all the more essential to the plot.”

Author Aimee Liu: photo by Emily Claire Petrie

The Durant family and closest friends and family are all fictional. The other characters, however, are based on real people Liu discovered during her research, such as the Chief Commissioner, who surrendered the islands to the Japanese; the Assistant Commissioner who was beheaded after being falsely accused of spying; a local boy who fired a shot to deter the soldiers from raping his mother and sisters and who was caught and executed as a warning to others; the police chief who escaped the islands before the Japanese landed, but who later returned leading a secret mission; the chief of a local tribe who gathered information for the allies.

Liu admits that initially, “I didn’t know what era the book would be set in, but the story always revolved around a family who are outsiders living in this extraordinary place of wildness and cultural collision that’s historically menacing, yet so fascinating that it’s irresistible.” Liu’s research resolved her uncertainty and the occupation of the islands by the Japanese during World War II provided the perfect period for her story. The occupation results in the family being separated: Claire is shipped alone to Calcutta; Shep is a prisoner of war on the island and Naila takes Ty and seeks refuge with the Biyu tribe.

Liu suggests that the core insight she would like readers to take away with them is actually articulated by a line in her book: “The most difficult thing is to remember that the enemy is human, but this is also the most important.” Liu goes on to explain that “These deeply human characters are often at war with each other and with themselves because they lose sight of their common humanity. They fixate on language barriers and misunderstandings instead of recognizing the inchoate feelings, needs, and longings they share. This not only is the source of the jealousy that divides them personally, but it also helps to explain the small and large wars that, to this day, are ripping the world apart.”

 

About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer of fairy tales, out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in The Jewel Garden.  Her second published novel, Song of the Nightingale, tells of the fate of two young castrati. Marilyn is in the process of seeking representation for a historical novel in which a girl in the 1820s tells unconventional fairytales but discovers that real life holds little enchantment.

 


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