Aimee talks about the evolution of FLASH HOUSE
When I was very young, my family lived in India. My first conscious memories, in fact, date from New Delhi – the crisp feel of baked grass beneath my feet during the heat of summer, the primary colors of the tents that formed the classrooms of my nursery school, the taste of candied fennel seeds, and the faces of children, so many children - peering, crying, playing, and begging from the fusty arcades of Connaught Circus to the alleys of Chandni Chowk. Although my father was born in Shanghai and my mother in Milwaukee, and I myself had come into the world by way of Connecticut, I was one of those children, and India was the first home of my heart.
India, too, was my mother’s true love. While my father’s work for the United Nations documentary film division kept him traveling throughout Asia, my mother spent her India years working in Delhi with the Indian Government, developing cottage industries. She adored our expatriate life. She loved the everyday surprises, the social whirl, the sense of adventure, her many Indian friends, and the knowledge that her work was making a positive difference to a country in need (cottage industries would become a mainstay of India’s export economy). My father didn’t entirely agree. He hated the heat, didn’t care for the food, and recoiled at the casual disorder of Indian culture. My father preferred China – or would have if the Communists hadn’t taken over his homeland.
Growing up with this quiet divide, I never gave it much thought, but in retrospect I realize that it contributed to my own overlapping loyalties. I am one quarter Chinese, but I also owe an allegiance to India, and although I was born and mostly raised in the U.S., my father’s career with the United Nations put a stamp of internationality on me that makes me more inclusive than exclusive about my cultural identity. As a result, I’ve always been partial to stories and images of people with mixed heritage. And when I began to write fiction, these same stories and images informed my novels.
One image that has captivated me for years is photographer Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of an aquamarine-eyed Afghan girl, which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. Those hypnotic eyes and ruddy skin, the delicate nose and lips, the bittersweet head scarf that might have been a sari, or a chador, or a Christian prayer shawl – all of this suggested a child who was not of one place but of every place, and who belonged not to one race or tribe or nation but to every one of us. Taken at a refugee camp during the period when the United States was actively supplying and training Afghan “freedom fighters” to wage war against the Soviet Union, the portrait seemed also to resonate with the fact of war and yet stand solidly apart from it. The girl’s face, for me, embodied innocence and resilience. She was the perfect inspiration for my fictional character Kamla.
After writing two novels dealing directly and indirectly with the history of my father’s family in China, I promised my mother that the next book would involve India. I knew from the start that Kamla would serve as a witness and also a kind of reality test for my American expatriate characters. Thanks to our years in India, my extended family is filled with actual expats. These lifelong friends worked for the Ford Foundation, the State Department, the New York Times, and a variety of charitable non-governmental agencies. Amused speculation toured the expat community about who was and who was not secretly working for the CIA. This was the fifties, after all, the height of the Cold War. Most of the expats, however, were not spooks but idealists trying to lend India a helping hand. They envisioned global cooperation as the cure for illiteracy, poverty, and hatred. They considered democracy and industrialization to be antidotes to war, and when the Cold War ended, they figured their ideals would get an enormous boost overseas. Instead, events of the past two decades have dismayed them, and many of my parents’ peers died disillusioned. Even – or perhaps especially -- those with the best intentions were incapable of seeing clearly how their actions and attitudes were perceived within their adopted countries.
My mother tells a wonderful anecdote that drives this point home. It involves an American Ambassador’s wife who was aghast on arriving in Delhi to see women crouched on their knees, sweeping the pavement with foot-long brooms. She immediately ordered the manufacture of long-handled brooms to “rescue” her servants from this degrading posture. When the new brooms were delivered, of course, the servants were nonplussed. And within a day or two they had cut down the long handles and were back on their knees. It is not so easy to rescue people from beliefs, customs, and realities that are centuries in the making.
Kamla, I think, might have suggested that the Ambassador’s wife at least stop to ask if her servants wished to be rescued. But then, the American did not speak their language.
As I began to do my background research, I discovered first-hand how easy it is to embrace such simplistic rescue scenarios. Purely by chance, I kept coming across magazine articles about the problem of sexual trafficking in South Asia. Each year hundreds of thousands of girls, some younger than ten, are kidnapped, transported, and sold into Indian brothels. Occasionally, the police and social agencies will raid these brothels to rescue the victims. Like the cavalry’s arrival in American westerns, these raids are sudden and dramatic – and the magazine articles tended to showcase them. Good-hearted American reader that I was, I felt gratified that at least someone was doing something to help these children! My fictional mind already was casting Kamla as one of these innocent victims and my American character as the social worker who would rescue her.
Then I spent a month in India visiting red-light districts and interviewing the real-life social workers and lawyers who work with these girls. Over and over I was informed that the girls live in dread of those raids. Moreover, they do not want to be rescued – not if rescue means being returned to the families and villages that originally sold them to traffickers or to the culture outside the red light district, which views “fallen women” as sub-human. What these girls want and need is not rescue but help that will teach them to read and write and save the little money they make; that will give them access to medical care and protection against sexually transmitted disease; and that will enable them to give their children a different future.
My concept of rescue changed dramatically during my return to India. It became much more complicated than the cavalry model that Americans so automatically embrace. I began to see how often we try to rescue others because we can’t figure out how to rescue ourselves. How easily rescue is confused with love. And how arrogant acts of rescue can seem to those being “saved.” I began to see how the notion of rescue plays in multiple arenas, not just socially and emotionally, but also politically. And I realized how frequently it is used as a tool for manipulation -- even by those who believe themselves to be guided by good intentions. Like so many of my family’s expat friends.
So my theme of rescue was brewing, and I had Kamla as my alter ego. But what was the story? Two incidental remarks set the plot in motion. My father recalled flying in a small plane over the Khyber Pass and parts north. And my mother ventured that if anything had “happened” to my father, she probably would have stayed on in India. From there, my imagination took over. Would it have been so easy to stay on? I wondered. What if, for example, that plane had gone down, and under suspicious circumstances? What if no death could be proven? What if my father’s allegiance to China had drawn him back over the border, and what if the year were 1949, just as the Bamboo Curtain was closing? What would a woman in my mother’s position have done then? She would have had to investigate, and if she were as stubborn and as curious as both my mother and I, she would not have quit until she got her answer. Or made her rescue.
So I began to examine the political realities of Central Asia in 1949. Flash House became a spy novel after I discovered that the CIA really was working in western China at the time to form a Third Force against Communism. The characters Osman and “the Butcher of Turfan” were, in fact, the historical characters the CIA selected to lead this doomed force (foreshadowing the mujaheddin “freedom fighters” of the 1980s in nearby Afghanistan). And Alice James is inspired by a real life adventurer named Barbara Stephens who at age twenty-five in 1947 traveled solo through western China in order to document the atrocities and abuses being committed against the local Muslim population by both Nationalist Chinese (supported by Britain and the U.S.) and Soviet-backed Communists. Stephens was killed when the plane carrying her back across China crashed under suspicious circumstances. Evidence suggests that the Nationalists arranged this method of silencing her.
In 1949, America, too, was seized by fear and paranoia. Government agencies were spying on each other, and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were in full swing. The Communists of 1949 were the equivalent of today’s terrorists, and American patriotism was measured by one’s willingness to demonize Red sympathizers. Outside forces gained political advantage by embracing this paranoia, so the Nationalist-backed China Lobby enthusiastically fingered as “Communist” anyone who opposed Chiang Kai-shek. My father, who was then still a Chinese citizen and a journalist, had to tread lightly to avoid being caught in this net. I didn’t have to stretch my imagination far to picture him in Aidan’s predicament.
What I did not foresee as I began laying out the puzzle of this novel back in 1998 was just how relevant this fifty-year-old history would seem when the book was finally published. I had never heard of Al Qaeda. The warlords were battling for control of Afghanistan, but America paid scant attention. The events of 9/11 still lay in the future, and the U.S. seemed single-mindedly obsessed with sex scandals. The country was not unlike Joanna Shaw in her inability to see the big picture. But the big picture has a way of demanding attention, and our insistence on ignoring it was already costing us long before the terrorist attacks of 2001, before we attacked Afghanistan, and before we declared war on Iraq.
America’s attempts to rescue the world had failed to make the world love us, perhaps because our rescue efforts so often insisted on making Them more like Us. Kamla might have warned us this would lead to trouble.
"A beautiful story beautifully told."
-Robert McKee, author of STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING
Aimee Liu's Flash House races forward into territory that, for most of us, is still almost entirely unknown. The result is an education wrapped in an adventure.
Jack Miles, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Award, author of GOD: A BIOGRAPHY
An extraordinarily thoughtful and engrossing tale of romance and intrigue; of heroic individuals from disparate cultures caught in the unforgiving vise of history. A story from fifty years ago so new and pertinent it could have been written – and lived – yesterday.
Carolyn See, author of THE HANDYMAN and other novels
Reading this book is like going on an adventure full of surprise and delight. Flash House is both beautifully written and emotionally compelling.
Peter Lefcourt, author of THE DREYFUS AFFAIR and ELEVEN KARENS
Liu's latest novel is part love story, part gripping tale of espionage, and part primer on the tangled early years of the cold war. Journalist Aidan Shaw warned his wife, Joanna, not to expect a quiet life with him, but their existence in post partition New Delhi is relatively tranquil until he disappears while on assignment in Srinagar. Joanna refuses to accept official reports that Aidan is dead, and in the company of his best friend, Lawrence, the Shaws' young son, Simon, and Kamla, a 10 year old girl Joanna has rescued from a brothel, she sets out on a trek across the mountains to find him. What she finds instead are secrets and more secrets, for in Central Asia in 1949, everyone is hiding something--beginning with Aidan himself. Unfolding with the mystery of Aidan's disappearance is the haunting story of Kamla, orphaned and abandoned, determined to survive and passionately devoted to Joanna. Richly evocative prose and a memorable cast of characters should win this novel wide readership."
-Meredith Parets, ALA Booklist (2/15)
During a time when Americans are so consumed by the threat of war, Aimee Liu's Flash House offers a brief history lesson that shines light on current global politics. As always, Liu has clearly done her homework, finely tuning her background information while engaging the reader in a suspenseful and detailed work of fiction. Alternating between both first- and third-person narrative styles, Liu gives… depth and complexity to her characters… creates an entertaining, beautifully visual adventure….
Written in the five years that preceded the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Liu has really hit the right mark, giving Americans just what they desire: a hard-boiled historical overview that exposes harrowing political insight. In the end, it's each character's strength, perseverance, sacrifice, chivalry, and undying love that are worthy of celebration in Liu's triumph.
J.W. Hill, HybridMagazine.com
A Poisoned Pen Offbeat Book Club Pick for February 2003…
A sad, beautiful, ultimately tragic … odyssey through the Himalayas and into the heart of Asia. An evocative novel, part love story, part spy in the tradition of the Great Game, replete with rich imagery of various journeys: a wife for her lost mate, a man in crusading for his beliefs or for redemption; a child's search into the mystery of her birth. As with life, what they find is not always what they seek, and what went wrong was "our mutual ineptitude at love"....
Barbara Peters, PoisonedPen.com
Flash House is a glittering jewel of a tale, in a setting of Asia's Cold War. It's all about strong individuals capable of extreme loyalty, but with what the author herself calls 'a mutual ineptitude at love'.
Hilary Williamson, BookLoons.com
From the Author...
They say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but it also can make the heart vengeful and raw -- or generous and strong. Absence is the emotional undertow in Flash House, a novel of adventure and passion centered around four characters who must rely on each other to come to terms with those missing from their lives – or pay the ultimate price. I was inspired to write this novel by the true stories of some remarkable men and women who disappeared while probing the political secrets of Central Asia at the start of the Cold War. What I did not expect was that this same locale – and many of these same secrets– would become front-page news following a terrorist attack on the U. S. in 2001.
I hope you find Flash House as illuminating to read as it was for me to write.
An American wife,
An Australian spy,
A turquoise-eyed girl from the back of beyond…
And a journey into a land of danger and desire
where nothing is what it seems.
“From the beginning, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me, in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I, who was then called Kamla, claimed her even as I hid under the shadow of a bullock cart…bullock cart…”
From acclaimed author Aimee Liu comes an extraordinary novel of love and loyalty, intrigue and survival set against the turbulent backdrop of post-World War II India and China. FLASH HOUSE introduces two singular heroines: a strong-minded American woman and a mesmerizing native girl whose journey together through a mysterious and exotic land will lead them into the heart of danger -- and forever transform both their lives.
On assignment in India with her journalist husband, Joanna Shaw runs a safe haven for girls trafficked into Delhi’s red-light district. It is here, in the dusty, sun-baked streets of the old city, that she discovers the turquoise-eyed Kamla. Joanna vows to rescue Kamla from the brothel – or flash house – where the eleven-year-old child has spent most of her life. But it is Kamla who claims Joanna at first sight, and when Joanna’s husband, Aidan, disappears while pursuing a politically explosive story in the mountains of Kashmir, it is Kamla who must come to Joanna’s emotional rescue.
Although the authorities insist that Aidan’s plane has crashed, Joanna refuses to believe the worst. Aidan is alive, and she resolves to find him at any cost. Accompanied by Kamla and Aidan’s best friend, an enigmatic Aussie named Lawrence Malcolm, she embarks on a dangerous trek across the highest passes of the Himalayas.
For Joanna, the journey to find Aidan is a quest for truth. For Lawrence it is a rescue mission that will lead to Red China – and an agonizing, life-or-death choice that teaches him the meaning of love and betrayal. And for the orphan Kamla, caught between two worlds, it is an odyssey into the tantalizing mystery of her birth.
Weaving the story of all three into the chaos and confusion of Asia’s Cold War, Aimee Liu gives us a spellbinding, multi-layered tale of intrigue and survival in which the ultimate safe haven is an elusive place called home.
Excerpt from FLASH HOUSE
Published by Warner Books, February 2003
Copyright, Aimee Liu 2003
From the beginning, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I do not say this boastfully, but ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves.
At the same time, those who appear the weaklings of this earth may possess strengths that overrule the mighty-- that, indeed, may surpass even their own deepest longings and desires. I have seen this to be the case among women and children of my kind for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Shaw, too, was of my kind, though on the now distant day when I first claimed her I did not know this to be true.
On the contrary, as I watched her making her way down G. B. Road in her stiff yellow dress and broad-brimmed hat with her handsome young Hindu escort I thought this must be some pampered firenghi who possesses no notion of pain. She looked younger than her thirty-four years, with a fire in her eyes that at once invited and warned me away. I was merely one of countless children of the red-light district. I owned nothing, not even my skin, but I knew why this foreign lady had come. The whole street knew. Tongas turned left instead of right at the sight of her. Khas-khas tati dropped over open windows. Smugglers bundled up their wares and trotted out of view. Women drew scarves across their faces, and the street became suddenly lively with dancing bears, monkey wallahs, and the calls of melon and paan vendors. All for the benefit of the foreigner who would come to save us.
My keeper, Indrani, said that in the days of the British her kind were missionaries and bored commissioners' wives. In the past two years since Independence they had been attached to the new Departments of Health and Social Welfare, and usually they were Indian, but they remained the same. Women with hair like dust clouds and radish noses who had never enjoyed the touch of a man – or so Indrani said. Such women in India, it was well known, were so weak that for centuries they had required the almighty power of the Raj to stand guard over their virtue. Now this responsibility had fallen to India's own officials and police. We in the street could not know why these men should protect the dust cloud ladies when they freely preyed on us, but neither did we question such things.
Mrs. Shaw was not ugly as the others I had seen. True, her body held hard juts and corners, and her lips were bare slivers against her teeth, but her eyes were large and filled with gold light, her skin and thick hair all the colors of honey. Her neck was long and slender and her ears shaped like perfect mangoes…
You see, even as early as that first day, I was viewing her in a different fashion. We were strangers, yet any stranger who is drawing such examination becomes something else, doesn't she? A stranger is strange, unknown, unexamined. When we study another we become familiar, and therefore cannot strictly be called strangers. I have often thought that of the thousands who pass in the streets each day, many hundreds may have passed before. Yet even if they pass two, five, twenty times, still they remain strangers except for those few who catch our eye, whose features we note and whose place in the street and day we remember -- these are strangers no more but possessions of the mind. So in this way I, who was then called Kamla, claimed Mrs. Shaw even as I hid from her under the shadow of a bullock cart.