In the run-up to Monday’s official release of Trusting Bamboo Bridges on e-book, I am facing the inevitable question: is this novel about you?
After years of telling stories from my travels, and hearing over and over again that I should write them down, I finally thought “Yes, perhaps I should.” So, I poured myself a coffee, opened up my computer, flexed my typing fingers, and stared at the blank page for a while. Then stared out the window a bit. Then went and played with the cat. That’s when I noticed my notebooks. Of course, I thought, my notebooks! I kept copious notes during my work with MSF—it was the only way to keep my life on track. Reading through them reminded me of events and places that had been stored in the cache files of my brain. That, then, lead me to my photo box. I made many friends along the way, and took hundreds of photos. People and their stories came flooding back and ideas for a chapter or two began forming.
Sadly, the notebooks also brought to mind my day-to-day slog, and I quickly came to the conclusion that, although bits and pieces of my adventures were interesting, the bulk of it really wasn’t. The work was repetitive, technical and organizational, and not terribly plot-worthy.
With all this history now fresh in my head, I allowed my imagination to wander and, almost magically, a fiction novel began to appear. Each major theme or event in the novel came from a kernel of real-life, taken that extra, more interesting, step further. For example, the location of Kwicle camp was taken from a site that was just setting up as I was leaving Thailand. The characters populating the novel all have shadows of my colleagues and friends, mashed together to create a new world. I don’t know if this is how other authors write, but it works for me. (It’s why there is always a disclaimer saying that events are products of the author’s imagination, right?)
What is true, as far as I experienced it, is the history of the region. Refugee politics is always difficult for a nation and seeing what is going on in the world these days, it’s difficult to be too critical of Thailand. However, it’s important to understand that the decision to leave your home, your belongings, even your family, is a huge one. Made worse when the country you flee to doesn’t want you there. Most refugees don’t want to leave—they have to leave. When your personal and physical safety is in question, there is no choice. In war and oppression, the only difference between the CEO of a major company and a street sweeper, is the method by which you escape. The backstories of the novel’s characters reflect the type of diversity you might find in any refugee camp. They highlight the individuality and humanity of the amorphous blob known as ‘refugees’.
But I digress.
What was true in my tale, you ask?
The slogging through the forest on foot, fending off blisters and leeches was real.
Working closely with young, capable, friendly people was true.
As was this…
I only wish I could figure out who to attribute these photos to. The trouble is remembering who I was working with, and when. Teams members shifted. People came and went. Complicating things further, my work moved from the Karen region, in the north of the country, to the Mon region in the south. I knew many people solely by their first names, so there’s no possibility of finding out what happened to them. Some of my NGO friends are still in touch, which is wonderful. No one understands so well as someone who was there. I am, and will continue, to protect their identities, as who knows what kind of responsible adult image they are trying to protect. Again, the background and motivation of an aid worker is as individual as a flower petal. They are not all heroes, or villains. Mostly we were a motley crew of well-intentioned people looking to make a difference, and if a little adventure was to be had along the way … all the better. I attribute many of my grey hairs and more than a few wrinkles to my time in the NGO world, but wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Whether aid workers, or refugees, my characters are tributes to them all; my story, a tribute to their struggles.
The answer to whether Trusting Bamboo Bridges is about me? The truth is, it is, and it isn’t. The novel, as it turns out, is a memoir gone mad. Like Geoff, I back-packed in Thailand and enjoyed the cultural wonders and the food. But I also worked along the Burmese border, much of it with the Karen people, and was a laboratory supervisor, like Kelley. My expat team was primarily French, and I suffered many of the challenges and frustrations of our hero, but, as I stress to my parents repeatedly, Kelley is not me.
My life was rarely so exciting.