Writing a historical novel is difficult. It is not like composing a blog or writing a poem. Creativity is limited to the personalities of the imaginary characters I create.
I am writing a historical novel that takes place in 1937 Nanjing. Yes, I’m writing about the Rape of Nanking, now Nanjing. The topic itself is difficult and a contentious one since the Japanese government claims that the massacre is a fabrication of the Chinese government. While I also take any Chinese government claim with a grain of salt, I still do not understand how the government of Japan can overlook thousands of first hand documents of western journalists, missionaries, scholars, and business people who were actually in Nanjing at the time of the massacre. This event will not be swept under the rug that easily especially since the 80th anniversary of the massacre is next year.
The research is overwhelming. There is a lot I don’t know. For example I know there were air raids before the invasion. But what kind of planes did the Japanese use? I also know that Ginling Women’s College did exist back in 1937. But what did the campus look like back then?
The documents I do have are quite telling. The Yale School of Divinity website is full of western observers’ letters and diaries. One of those westerners was Minnie Vautrin, Dean of Ginling Women’s College. Her diary is 555 pages long and all on microfiche film. There were others who kept diaries and wrote letters to their families and friends in their home countries. They wrote extensively about what they saw.
What they saw is shocking. Some of the figures recorded in their writings are mind boggling. For example Ginling Women’s College held up to 10,000 women and girls over a period of six weeks. When I read figures like that I am speechless. I have to stop reading and put down my material to let that information sink in because it is unbelievable.
But the massacre did happen.
But the most overwhelming and the most disturbing research are the photographs. All the pictures and short films I’ve seen are in black and white. Victims’ faces are black and white. Soldiers are black and white. Even massacre scenes are in black and white. If my novel is ever made into a movie it would have to be in black and white.
Looking at these photographs is the most difficult part of my research. I sometimes get nightmares. I see a silhouette of a Japanese soldier with a katana dangling from his waist standing in my doorway. At one point I pictured myself with some of the westerners in my novel listening to an English broadcast of how the Japanese have taken the town of Zhenjiang, the city to the east of Nanjing between Nanjing and Shanghai. The announcer read reports of the Japanese looting homes and killing men.
But it was the report of rape that caught everyone’s attention including mine. All eyes were on me and I knew why.
I feared being a rape victim. Since I’m half Chinese I could be mistaken for a Chinese national. In my nightmare I begged a male friend, a fellow foreigner to protect me.
Thankfully I awoke from my nightmare.
I’m also haunted by the depression and eventual suicide by another Chinese American writer. Iris Chang, author of the best seller The Rape of Nanking, shot herself in 2004. I have seen the documentary Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking in which her husband described her office. She would post black and white photos of corpses and Japanese soldiers slaughtering their victims on her walls.
I am not Iris Chang. Although I write with just as much enthusiasm and passion about the Nanjing Massacre I am my own writer with my own boundaries when it comes to doing my research for this novel. I just have two simple rules. I want to live.
Rule number one. Do not buy, borrow, or download items that contain photos of beheadings, mass graves, scenes of violence, or rape. The only two exceptions to that rule would be if I had to borrow a research item from a library outside of my town or if the book in question is already in our family library. The letters and diaries of westerners are safe since they don’t contain such nightmarish photos. The only diary that did have disturbing photos was John Rabe’s diary, The Good Man of Nanking; The Diaries of John Rabe. That book I had to bring home because I had to borrow it from the Hawaii State Library in Honolulu. My father also did leave me historical books about China because he wanted me to learn something about my ancestral homeland. Otherwise, I do not want nightmarish photos even lurking in my home.
Rule number two. Take my time. Do other things. Do not rush. Go at my own pace. While it would be nice to have this novel published in time for the 80th anniversary I am not tied to any deadline. No pun intended. A massacre is a gruesome topic to write on so I welcome any distraction. I like to watch T.V., play games, go out with friends and family, walk my Mom’s dog, write poetry, post on my blog, and volunteer in my community. Anything distraction is mentally healthy.
But this is a story that must be told so I soldier on to write this book. Again, pun not intended. As I tell people about my latest project I am surprised how many of my friends know nothing about the Rape of Nanking despite the commercial success of Chang’s book. Therefore I must add my voice to the cause. If I don’t, then I’m not doing my job as a writer.