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Monday 23 November 2015

Author Interview: Fiona Wood on Cloudwish

Credit: Giulia McGauran
Kids' Book Review is delighted to feature an interview by Jo Burnell with award-wining writer Fiona Wood, author of the recently published YA novel Cloudwish.

Cloudwish explores the difficult world of straddling two cultures. It’s a far cry from Wildlife’s school camp and even further from Dan Ceriell in Six Impossible Things. How did the storyline for Cloudwish come about?
To me, it’s not a far cry. Dan deals with a parent leaving home (Six Impossible Things); Sibylla’s shift in self-image prompts questions of identity, while Lou grieves the death of someone she loved (Wildlife); Vân Uóc longs to know her family’s history, worries about her mother’s health, and is figuring out if she has wished Billy’s attraction into being.

Preoccupations and problems such as these could conceivably be floating above the heads of students in any classroom.

The story came about partly as a result of me having written a Vietnamese Australian character in Six Impossible Things – Uyen Nguyen – and my Vietnamese Australian student at Friday Night School (the homework club where I’ve been a volunteer for seven years) noting that the character didn’t get to do much. So I established Vân Uóc Phan in Wildlife, as a minor character; she takes centre stage in Cloudwish, and gets to do plenty.

I also wanted to use Jane Eyre as a reference text. For Vân Uóc, Jane Eyre is a resonant and inspiring character: she is shy and quiet, but strong and passionate. She is an artist. And she is someone who prevails due to moral courage, despite having little ostensible power.

The magical element in the story was prompted in an entirely serendipitous way by a gift, from author and friend Simmone Howell, of a little glass vial with a slip of paper inside it. As soon as I held it in my hand, it was asking to have a story written about it.

Gaining insight into another person’s family background is difficult enough. Penetrating the incomprehensible labyrinth of emotions and cultural differences that come with having refugee parents must have been excruciatingly difficult. How did you go about gathering information for Vân Uóc’s parents and their tortuous journey?
The story of children of refugee parents is an important one. Things had better not remain incomprehensible to us, or we’re in big trouble as a society. We need to find the empathy required to imagine another person’s story. Fiction is a wonderful route to empathy and understanding.

In creating the backstory for Vân Uóc’s parents, I read many first hand accounts of people who had fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon, and I spoke to some generous people who made the journey and shared their memories with me. I spent time imagining what it would be like living through such horrors, risking everything in undertaking such a dangerous boat journey for the chance of a better life, and how I would cope if such courage were ever required of me. (Not well, I concluded, as Vân Uóc does, too, when she wonders about the same thing.)

I had some very kind early readers of the manuscript who pointed out where I’d made mistakes. I also called on my knowledge of the experience of friends whose parents had been refugees a generation ago. I’m writing from the outside of the Vietnamese Australian cultural experience and to note that in a formal way I wrote this book in the third person. The other two books in this loosely linked trilogy are written in the first person.

Plumbing the depths of post-traumatic stress disorder and its ongoing effects is another minefield. Where did you source authentic examples in order to frame Vân Uóc’s mother’s story?
I didn’t see it as a minefield, though I guess it could be if you were attempting to represent it as a singular or definitive experience. It’s a disorder that manifests in such varied and nuanced ways. Years ago I had a copywriting job to rewrite and update a hospital’s patient information brochure on PTSD, so I did a lot of reading about the disorder at that time. And I did the usual desk research, including looking at information about current treatment regimes and protocols. I spoke to a social worker who worked with refugees dealing with the long term aftermath of relocating to a new country following trauma.

The balance I look for is to do the research, and then to include the minimum amount required for the story. So, for example, in earlier drafts I named the medication that Vân Uóc’s mother was taking, but pulled back on that detail in subsequent drafts. The reason for that is that my objective is to keep the focus not on the disorder itself, but on exactly how her mother’s suffering affects Vân Uóc.

Creating authentic conversations that represent the words a person with English as a second language would use is another huge challenge. How did you go about deciding the ways in which to characterise Vân Uóc speech and that of her parents?
The device I’ve used is that early on in the narrative I describe the fact that the family members speak to each other in Vietnamese, “They always spoke Vietnamese at home.” However, because I’m writing for an English-speaking readership, I have written all those conversations in English. So the language the parents use is just regular English, not broken, or imperfect English – because we understand that they are actually speaking Vietnamese most of the time. A device I use to remind the reader of that is, for example, Vân Uóc becoming frustrated, in conversation with her mother, because she doesn’t know the right word for ‘counsellor’ in Vietnamese.

There are a couple of further reminders of the language gap between the generations in the text, and I also note Vân Uóc’s awareness that her discontinuation of Vietnamese studies puts her at a distance from her parents with regard to proficiency. Readers might notice that Vân Uóc speaks using simpler language to her parents than she does to English-speaking Jess, or Billy, and that is an indication that her Vietnamese is not as sophisticated as her parents’.

I thought carefully about the way to represent the language gap, but to me, the key to authentic conversations between characters is knowing each of them, and the dynamics between them, very well.

Fiona Wood is an Australian author of Young Adult fiction. Her novels Six Impossible Things and Wildlife have received numerous awards and commendations. Her latest book, Cloudwish, (Macmillan Australia) is loosely connected to the previous novels through peripheral characters. Visit Fiona's website for more information about her books and author events.