Kevin Chong is the author of six books, including the memoir My Year of the Racehorse and the novels Beauty Plus Pity and Baroque-a-Nova.
His work has been published in Canada, the US, France, Australia, and Macedonia, and has been shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Fiction Prize and a National Magazine Award. He lives in Vancouver, where he teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program and The Writers’ Studio at Simon Fraser University.
INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN CHONG
Q: Your new novel is a retelling of Albert Camus’ classic novel The Plague, set in the French Algerian city of Oran, which was strangely devoid of native perspectives. What drew you to Camus’ novel and why did you decide to retell it in Vancouver?
A: The idea for the book came to me in late fall 2016. In Vancouver, firecrackers were going off. As you know, it’s a local tradition for people to blow up stuff around Halloween. I fancifully thought of the city as being under siege. The US election came and depressed everyone I knew. There was despair on both sides of the border. At the same time I recognized that not everyone was equally affected. Some groups were more immediately threatened than others. There were also people who were pleased by the turn of events.
Around that time, my wife was moving books around the house. As a result, a copy of Camus’ The Plague was lying out in the open and caught my eye. I started re-reading it again. I read the book in Arts One at UBC. It was one of those books made for your university years: it not only asks big questions about morality and love and despair, but also has characters unabashedly discussing them.
I loved the book again. I loved its descriptions of Algeria and its depictions of suffering. It also read from a bygone world. I hadn’t noticed in my first reading that all the characters were male. It was also a book set in Algeria that made no reference to the Arab or Berber peoples.
I was also thinking of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction and how the original Plague relates to that. I feel like this book presents an apocalyptic scenario, but explores how people react when separated from loved ones and confronted with illness. Just like the original, it’s about how people choose to behave selflessly in the absence of God or even the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Q: Camus’ work continues to be retold through post-colonial lenses, and one such version is Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which featured an Arab perspective of the events of The Stranger. This raises a question of originality. How do you draw the line between paying homage/being inspired by Camus’ work and your own voice?
A: Although I hadn’t read the book at the time I wrote my own first draft, I was aware of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. That book offers an untold side to Camus’ The Stranger by talking about the incidents described in that novel from the perspective of the family of the unnamed Arab killed by Meursault. It made Camus’ tale relevant to contemporary concerns around erasure and Western views of Arab people.
I wanted to revisit The Plague along similar lines. Part of updating this novel that went beyond changing names and locations was to imagine what infectious disease and quarantine would mean in Vancouver, Canada and the western world in our contemporary age. We are now aware that any misfortune affects a population asymmetrically: the poor and marginalized suffer more. Then there’s the idea that the suffering depicted in this story would have historical antecedents: the Indigenous people who died from smallpox and tuberculosis after contact with European settlers; people who have died from the AIDS epidemic, and those who have been allowed to die with minimal intervention from synthetic opioids. All of these “plagues” have been continually overlooked and forgotten. I kept asking myself, what would it take for people not to ignore an epidemic? For me, it boiled down to losing freedom of mobility.
Here’s what I kept from the original: the name of the protagonist (many of my characters were inspired by counterparts in the original), a couple of key story points, and the remote, objective voice of the narration. What’s different is the setting, time and the various ethnicities and genders of the characters. My novel also has three storylines and protagonists instead of one.
Ultimately, since I was transparent about this creative undertaking, I’m not really sure there was a line I respected other than not taking any language directly from the original text.
Q: You write both fiction and nonfiction, but teach creative nonfiction at the University of British Columbia. How does the writing process differ for both forms of writing, and which do you personally prefer?
A: And I teach fiction at the Writer’s Studio at SFU. I think the process can feel different. With non-fiction, you’re often commissioned to write a piece, sometimes based on a proposal. You interview people and do the research. With fiction it’s generally on spec. Consequently, a lot of the fiction I write is written not knowing if it will ever see the light of day. A lot of it falls by the wayside as I do other more pressing work. As a result, more of my fiction feel like laboratory experiments that might not lead to anything. Non-fiction hasn’t been like that. It has paid more of my bills. I don’t think I have any real preference, though I have spent more of my writing time on fiction in the last three or four years. Now that I’m done, the pendulum might swing in the other direction.