Michael Kaan was born in Winnipeg, the second child of a father from Hong Kong and a Canadian mother. The Water Beetles is his first novel and was listed as a most anticipated read by Quill & Quire, CBC Books, and 49th Shelf. The Water Beetles is based loosely on his father’s wartime diaries and stories.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL KAAN
Q: Your novel is based on your father’s experiences during the Second World War, during which the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Hong Kong. How much of it is based on the truth and how much of it is fictionalized? How do you gauge what goes into a book and what stays unmentioned?
A: The book is based almost on entirely on his written memoirs. Aside from fictional elements like characters’ names and ages, the family structure, and the Chung-Man’s later life as an adult, the entire story is true, which is to say that the incidents described all happened. The only totally fictional element is the character Ling, but even she is based on a brief note about a girl who was an indentured slave, or bondsmaid.
On the issue of what to include, it what was partly a mechanical question of narrative and partly an aesthetic question. I took only a small amount of the total material and reordered a couple of elements for dramatic effect. A more important issue is that I included almost no historical or cultural background. There is only one paragraph that gives the reader some background on the war, aside from which I provided no other information. I did this because people in these kinds of situations, and especially in a time with little access to information, are rarely informed of what is generally going on and can only react hour-by-hour to events. So the reader is brought into the action this way too and can only consider the story from the viewpoint of people living day by day, not in any historical context.
Q: How difficult was it for you to write this story, especially because of your own personal connection to it? Did it raise any issues in terms of intergenerational trauma?
A: It was troubling to recall that my father experienced these things at such a young age, and I was reminded constantly of how common this is even now around the world. Sadly, especially during WWII, this was a fairly typical kind of life for people in East and Southeast Asia. It was more difficult to consider how to present this in a way that was real and psychologically plausible, instead of indulging in a gratuitous parade of horrors. Moreover, the long-term effects, which can sometimes be depicted sensationally in literature and film, needed to be shown in my view more as a permanent troubling of the waters rather than a constant reliving of trauma. I think that is what happens to most people over the long term.
Q: Does your half-Chinese background influence your writing style?
A: I’m not sure that it does. Personally, it’s very true that I am aware of having grown up with different cultures, though to what I’m attached to, let alone identify with, is a more uncertain question. It may have affected some content choices, but in terms of style, probably not.