Michael Kaan gained greater perspective on hardship after reading his father’s journals. Composed in English with Chinese marginalia, the disjointed entries chronicled David Kaan’s boyhood struggles, when Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong, and David fled with some family members to rural China.
“He didn’t talk about it that much,” Kaan says to the Straight, from his home in Winnipeg. “I knew that all they had, they had to leave when he was quite young. I didn’t know the details of it except for a few stories here and there. And then, a few years after he died [in 2006], my mother gave me a copy of his memoirs, which he wrote down, I think, in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
It’s these papers that provide the basis of Kaan’s sterling debut novel, The Water Beetles, the story of Chung-Man, youngest son of the Leung clan, who recounts how an affluent life in Hong Kong is replaced with imprisonment by the Japanese military in China during the Second World War. Like David, Chung-Man also leaves Asia afterward and arrives in North America, where he becomes a doctor and raises a family.
According to Kaan, “Even if you don’t think about it this way, you expect to experience some continuity of who you are, that your life will follow some sort of desirable narrative of growing up, getting an education, having a family or not, and then growing old.”
Despite Chung-Man having “done that, there’s this feeling of a rupture in himself because of this trauma. And because he does feel that,” Kaan continues, “part of him is just stuck there, and he can’t get rid of it.”
The incidents described here actually occurred. They’ve “been fictionalized in lots of ways”, Kaan says, noting that a few lines his father wrote appear in the text, “but the meat of it is true.”
Kaan, 48, began writing seriously a handful of years ago, though he considered a literary career in university. (“I walked away from all of that for quite a while and then got back into literature and reading, and just decided one day that I needed to write a book.”) Initially, he attempted a comic novel, “which was very abortive, I think I lasted about 4,000 words”, before finding purchase with more sober material.
In 2014, when he started the novel in secret, the plot was primarily told by an adolescent Chung-Man. At the suggestion of his editor, Kaan later emphasized the sections narrated by the elderly protagonist, which allowed further exploration of fractured identity and memory. “It gave me the chance to have essentially a book told by two narrators, an old man and a young boy. I tried to build in a bit of ambiguity even about which of them is telling the story.”
Reflections on a splintered self recur through the novel. “Sometime in the countryside during those years,” Chung-Man says, “came the moment when I was divided, twinned, and separated by blast waves or the wind from burning fields, or by the sound of boots on dark roads.”
Kaan cut much violence from the manuscript, avoiding portrayals of “war that are just an endless parade of awful things”. It was conveying the era’s despair, rather than its brutality, that presented a challenge. This, he admits, “was really tough.…My dad was in fact 9 when this happened. The boy in the story is 12. It was really eye-opening to write some of those passages one night, and then the next morning you get up and you’re making breakfast for your kids and they’re the same ages, and their biggest problem is that there’s no cereal.”
Offering that his main objective is to engage people (“That feeling of being immersed in a book is very important, I need to be thinking about that as opposed to my opinions on a certain topic”), Kaan has succeeded in producing a work of lasting power. Introduced on these pages is a writer as skilled at crafting prose as he is at revealing the sufferings of war and lapsed time.
“When I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or struggling with writing,” he says, “the question I always ask myself—the number one question—is ‘What is it like to read a great book? What is it like to be totally captivated by a piece of writing?’
“I don’t know how you do that, because it’s such a subjective thing,” he adds. “But I like to have that in mind.”
Michael Kaan will appear alongside fellow authors Lisa See and Carys Davies on Wednesday (April 26) at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.