Cultural Attunement and “Otherness”: A Conversation with Aimee Liu
Best-selling author Aimee Liu‘s exquisite new novel, Glorious Boy, took her years to complete and proves itself well worth the time. Set before and during World War II on India’s remote Andaman Islands, Glorious Boy follows Claire Durant, an aspiring American anthropologist, and her husband, Shep, a British civil surgeon, on their quest to find their glorious boy, Ty, a mute four-year-old who disappears during the family’s chaotic evacuation from the islands prior to their occupation by the Japanese.
Liu’s novel succeeds not just as fine-tuned historical fiction but also as an insightful portrait of individuals determined to understand and embrace the humanity of all. The book is set within the context of the British colonial system’s arrogant dehumanization of anyone perceived as “other.” Publisher’s Weekly writes the following about Glorious Boy: “With nuanced descriptions of diverse characters, and a wrenching portrait of the well-meaning Durants’ limited power, Liu upends the clichés of the white savior narrative.”
I was eager to discuss with Liu Glorious Boy’s examination of racism and its antidotes, how to sustain work on a years-long novel writing process, and the research behind this book’s complex themes.
The Rumpus: I know it took many dedicated years to achieve Glorious Boy’s intricate weave of an intimate family drama with the chaotic historical moment during which that drama unfolds. Where did the original idea come from, and what kept you committed to nurturing it for so long?
Aimee Liu: The core of the story was a dream that provided the “inciting incident,” which now opens the book. In my dream two children, a brown girl and a younger white boy, were hiding from the little boy’s parents during an evacuation. The girl was angry because she knew the parents wouldn’t take her with them. When they emerged, the parents were gone, the streets empty, and smoke was rising over the palm trees in the distance. The girl suddenly realized the gravity of what she’d done, and her guilt and terror woke me up. It was the vividness of the situation and those emotions that kept pulling me back through seventeen long years as I searched for the right historical context for this story.
If the book had arisen from an idea, I probably would have abandoned it at the first roadblock, but because it grew out of my subconscious, I somehow felt both compelled and curious enough to stick with it. I wrote or ghost-wrote six other books during those years, but this story would not let me go.
Rumpus: Your choice to set the novel during World War II on the Andaman Islands, just before the Japanese military took control, brought existing racial and cultural tensions to a fever pitch in the book. Glorious Boy explores racism and the white patriarchy’s treatment of anyone perceived as “other” in a way that echoes the turmoil facing our country today. The novel contains an adept examination of the perception of “otherness” and the racist oppression that usually accompanies it: there is the otherness of the Indian convicts exiled to the British penal colony on the Andaman Islands for opposing the brutality of British colonialism, the otherness of the indigenous Andamanese people to British colonialists and Indian convicts alike, and the otherness of the Indian convicts to the Japanese military. Did you intend to highlight all these racial tensions when you began writing this book?
Liu: The multicultural layering of the Andamans was key to my attraction to this setting. It’s like a microcosm of the ethnic and racial conflicts that still threaten humanity today. I do believe that colonialism is intertwined with slavery as the taproot of racism. And, of course, both these oppressive systems grow complicated when you examine the individuals and relationships that made them and broke them. What fascinated me about the history of racism and colonialism in the Andamans were its many seeming paradoxes.
At first, the ghastly oppression and abuse of Indians by British colonizers seems predictable, but because the prisoners were unified by their common opposition to British rule, the ethnic, caste, and sectarian divisions that bedeviled (and still bedevil) the rest of India melted away. The result, especially after Independence, was a strangely harmonious community of former convicts and their descendants, who chose not to be repatriated but to remain in the Andamans, in part because it was so much more peaceful than the rest of India!
At the same time, both the British and their Indian subjects held the indigenous islanders in contempt because of their black skin and “uncivilized” existence in the forest. Yet the indigenous people played a crucial role in aiding the British during WWII, just as the Japanese were proving that they held brutally racist and colonial views of both the British and the Indians.
The Japanese exploited the “Asia for Asians” rallying cry by paying lip service to the Indian independence movement. They ostensibly turned administration of the islands over to the Indian National Army—but that was before they started rounding up and executing local Indians. As we still see around the world, a police state is the ultimate expression of “othering.”
Rumpus: Glorious Boy offers an alternative to oppression by examining cultural and human attunement as a means of breeding inclusivity. This alternative feels essential, given our ongoing worldwide protests demanding the reversal of systemic racism. Where did this theme of attunement come from?
Liu: Attunement is definitely the primary theme of the novel. To answer your larger question, I’m going to back up a minute to start with the issue of attunement between my central protagonists, an American anthropologist and her British physician husband and their little boy, Ty. Both Claire and Shep, but especially Claire, have difficulty connecting with little Ty. They just can’t get on his wavelength because he experiences the world differently than they do. He’s much more attuned to light and color and sound than he is to people; he’s extremely focused and deliberate, prone to tantrums when interrupted, and he’s a very late talker. Claire feels inadequate and frustrated as a mother, the more so because Naila, the young servant who cares for Ty, is instinctively attuned to him. It’s not a matter of DNA or birthright, yet Claire feels as if the two children belong to a different tribe. Paradoxically, she has more luck connecting with the actual tribe that she’s studying out in the forest. They are completely foreign to her, yet they’re more patient and open to her engagement than her own son is. Claire learns to code switch with the Biya tribe in ways that she just can’t seem to with her own son. This all becomes even more explicit later, when she works with actual wartime codes.
Meanwhile, we have the colonial context mimicking those challenges of familial attunement. The British colonizers used to lament, “We are their mothers and their fathers,” referring to their brown, black, and yellow subjects. Setting aside the patriarchal racism implicit in this remark, it’s worth noting that raising children to be “seen but not heard” was then a British convention, and even children as young as five were routinely sent from the colonies back to boarding school in England. While there were certainly exceptions, to be a British mother or father of that era, either to one’s own offspring or to colonial subjects generally, was viewed as a duty of discipline and direction, not attunement. Colonial “parents” had no obligation to understand the “child’s” perspective, no intention of code switching for any subordinate. This was a recipe for division, resentment, and rebellion.
Rumpus: This novel often circles back to interpersonal relationships, especially Claire’s struggle to understand her glorious boy Ty, whose differences initially so confound her that she allows the young nanny Naila to take the lead in his care. What led you to focus on this intimate, familial context?
Liu: I feel strongly that macro societal issues reflect and stem from micro family issues. This probably has to do with research and writing I’ve done over the years on infant development and psychology. The magic of attunement between parents, especially mothers, and babies fascinates me. We want to believe that all loving parents naturally bond with their newborns, but that’s not always true. Attunement requires close attention and perception of an infant’s unique cues. It starts with the understanding that parent and child are separate and different “others” who need to understand one another. It relies first on parental respect for the baby’s particular temperament. When parental responses are in tune with the child’s emotional needs, their respect is more likely to be returned as the child grows. Attunement isn’t about setting an example for a child to mirror; it’s a reciprocal process like finding a common wavelength or frequency of understanding. When attunement fails, othering festers, both within families and societies.
I would not say that the British colonizers, or white people generally, have made much effort throughout history to become attuned to the needs, feelings, or responses of other races. The disregard for others has been assumed historically as a privilege of dominant power. And that long legacy of arrogance has bred wave after wave of reactive hostility and distrust, including the wave bearing down on America this summer.
Rumpus: Thinking more about Claire and Ty, I was especially fascinated by the way you shaped Claire’s evolution as a mother. Reading your book, I thought of Andrew Solomon’s brilliant nonfiction book Far from the Tree, which examines the relationships of parents to children who are profoundly different from themselves, children who are prodigies or have multiple severe disabilities or whose sexual identity differs from their own. What sparked your interest in the relationship between this mother and child?
Liu: The little boy in my dream was mute. Yet the young girl understood and loved him so jealously that she would not be parted from him. If I were to psychoanalyze that dream, I’d probably find myself back at age three in India with my ayah while my mother was off at work or socializing. My first memories are of New Delhi, where my family lived for two years. I don’t have any specific memories of ayahs, but I do remember hiding in the garden, where I discovered snails and the magic of damp earth and deep shade. My parents were of the generation that believed their duty was to love and “raise” the child, but they knew nothing of attunement. Both were preoccupied with their careers, just as Claire and Shep are in the novel, and I often felt unable to speak up, especially in disagreement. I’ll leave the psychoanalysis there, but that’s the root of the fictional relationship.
What helped it germinate was a book by Thomas Sowell: The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late. Einstein syndrome is a rare but heritable pattern of development that delays speech in some exceedingly bright young children. As Einstein himself was, these children are preoccupied with the physics of the world around them, light, sound, texture, movement. They are unusually focused and stubborn, prone to tantrums when interrupted, and late in toilet training as well as speech. They often will learn to play a musical instrument before they utter their first word. Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann are two noted musicians who were late talkers with this developmental pattern. And while I was writing Glorious Boy, one of my great nephews was showing many of the same signs in his late talking and intellectual development!
As I watched my niece and her husband so patiently work with their little boy, I kept wondering what it must have been like to raise such a child before there were speech therapists or developmental experts. The story of Einstein’s family offered a clue: it was a tempest of frustration on all sides. How much harder it would have been, I thought, if that family had lived on a remote island in the 1930s—and what if someone other than the parents had found a way to communicate with the child? Suddenly I had a familial context to support the narrative in my dream.
Rumpus: Claire and Shep seem quite modern in many ways, yet still are such products of their times and communities. Shep is especially hands-on and “modern” in how he parents Ty, even as he adheres to more traditional British norms, like initially keeping Ty’s ayah, Naila, at a socially “proper” distance. As a result, Claire and Shep feel achingly real and timeless. How did you accomplish this balancing act?
Liu: Two of my other novels are historical and heavily research-based, so I’ve read many first-hand accounts—diaries, memoirs, epistolary collections—by men and women much like Claire and Shep. Margaret Mead’s books, especially her memoir, Blackberry Winter, helped to guide me to Claire’s outlook. So did Rumer Godden’s fabulous memoir of life in India through the war, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep. I think it’s a fault of presentism that we think of earlier generations as fusty and antiquated. The archives of history are loud with the voices of complicated men and women whose attitudes and actions were far ahead of their time.
For example, I recently read a letter written in 1934 by the real life Major Bird, the model for my character Alfred Baird. Major Bird had five children, and I’ve become acquainted with his grandson, who shared this letter, sent from the Andamans to four of Bird’s children in boarding school back in England. He’d composed the letter as a song, with parts for each distant child to sing, jauntily describing a recent theft back home that might have been frightening had their “affectionate daddy” not delivered the news with such fun and “heaps and heaps of love.” Major Bird, like his fictional shadow, fell victim to the worst brutality of the Japanese occupation, and I confess that his letter made me weep. Bird clearly was an exception to the English norms of reticence and haughtiness. He adored his children and also rejected the contempt of many fellow authorities for colonized Indians like the thief of his song, who’d run off with a roast meant for the family’s dinner.
Current generations are not the first to love their children, or chafe against tradition, or yearn for more understanding across racial and cultural divides. One reason I love historical fiction is that it gives us a way to celebrate those individuals, in every culture, who were “modern” in these most human ways.
Rumpus: The Andaman Islands feel like another character in Glorious Boy, particularly during the forest chapters, when I could practically smell the decay and feel the pulse of living organisms writhing beneath Claire’s back when she lay in her tent. How were you able to make the jungle come to life with such visceral reality?
Liu: I traveled to the islands late in 2010. Much of the atmosphere is palpable when you visit Port Blair. The forest is a living presence in every direction. The scale of those old-growth trees is breathtaking, and the heat and humidity are pervasive. The canopy is so high and dense that poachers will cut their loads of timber from around the trunks of trees without being spotted from the air. (This kills the trees, but they die slowly, leaving the poachers plenty of time to escape.)
I also relied on the local field guides, as well as the tome that Claire used as her guide, The Andaman Islanders, written in 1922 by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. In addition, I read as many books as I could find that would take me into similar rainforests: Lily King’s Euphoria, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, of course, and nonfiction such as Yanoáma, an amazing account by Ettore Biocca about a miner’s daughter who was kidnapped by and lived with an Amazonian tribe for more than twenty years. Finally, I must thank my globe-trotting friend Deborah Jones, whose peace-building work took her through many such forests. Deborah helped me understand the particular smells and textures, especially the sponge-like density of the forest floor.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Liu: I have a memoir about my father that’s been off and on the back burner for a dozen years. On his deathbed he asked me to find a box that he said held two million dollars. My search for that box yielded extraordinary insights into his early life and secrets, and the forces that shaped my family and me. It’s a complicated story filled with a great deal of archival material. And no, I won’t tell you what the box did contain!
Photograph of Aimee Liu by Emily C. Petrie.