Special Online Interview with Author Eliot Pattison
Before discussing your latest title The Soul of Fire let me welcome you to this interview and have you tell our readers something about the history of Tibet and the people in order to understand what this novel is about: Would you say that Tibet is a country? Why does China claim or state that Tibet is an integral part of China? Reading about Tibet I learned that the government is In-Exile and maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation. Question: If this is the case then is Beijing’s large scale transfer of Chinese settlers into Tibet a serious violation of the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which prohibits the transfer of civilian population into occupied territory?
Information on the Chinese takeover of Tibet sixty years ago, and the long struggle of the Tibetan people to maintain their freedom and ethnic identity, can be found at the website of the International Campaign for Tibet.
Please give our readers some background about Shan and this series:
This is the 8th installment of the Inspector Shan series, and once again navigates the explosive political and religious landscape of Tibet.
When Shan Tao Yun and his old friend Lokesh are abruptly dragged away by Public Security, he is convinced their secret, often illegal, support of Tibetans struggling with the Chinese occupation of their country has finally brought their ruin. But his fear turns to confusion as he discovers he has been chosen to fill a vacancy on a special international commission investigating Tibetan suicides. Soon he finds that his predecessor was murdered, and when a monk sets himself on fire in front of the commissioners he realizes that the commission is being used to whitewash Tibet’s self-immolation protests as acts of crime and terrorism. Shan faces an impossible dilemma when the Public Security officer running the commission orders the imprisoned Lokesh tortured to coerce Shan’s cooperation. He has no choice but to become part of the hated machine that is devouring Tibet but when he discovers that the most recent immolation was actually another murder, he realizes the commission itself is riddled with crime and intrigue. Everywhere he turns, Shan finds new secrets that seem to lead to the last agonizing chapter of his life.
Another issue is that of human rights which is front and center in The Soul of Fire: Why do we get the impression that the people of Tibet are being denied the right to their own identity, autonomy and being treated as less than human?
It is impossible to write authentically about modern Tibet without reflecting human rights issues, and certainly one of my goals in writing this series is to highlight those issues. Tibet had the most spiritual, the most unwarlike culture in all the world. It was focused on its gods and spiritual development, with extraordinary traditions of art and medicine. But a larger, more advanced, more bellicose country invaded and crushed it. For two generations we have ignored some of the most inhuman behavior in the planet’s history taking place in Tibet. With each of my Shan books I set out to write an engaging mystery but also to illuminate this Tibetan experience.
The book focuses on the self-immolations taking place and the many who feel this is their only escape: Why did you choose to spotlight this and how would you relate these self-immolations as portrayed in the novel to what is happening now in Tibet?
These immolation suicides represent a last, desperate attempt to protest the plight of Tibetans. They do reflect actual events—so far over 135 self -mmolations have been recorded, most in the past four years. The descriptions of self-immolations in my book were painful to write, but the actual factual chronicles are even more disturbing. Yet they cannot be ignored. These suicides are pleas to the conscience of the West. I encourage my readers to build on Soul of the Fire by learning for themselves the facts of the immolations and the criminalization campaign being used to persecute affected families in the chronicles published by the International Campaign for Tibet.
Why does Shan feel such an affinity to the Tibetan people and why will he risk anything to protect them and use his position on the international commission for the good?
Shan was raised in a very traditional, very spiritual household in China, and learned by painful experience not to trust the promises of Party zealots. In his own life he experienced the destruction of his family and all the institutions he revered. His intellect provided him with a successful career but ultimately his conscience and traditional values proved his downfall. When he was exiled to Tibet, these same attributes caused him to bond with the traditional, spiritual Tibetans he met. His devotion to the Tibetans drives him to take life-threatening risks as he searches for the truth on their behalf.
How much of what you wrote is non-fiction and although Shan might be a fictionalized character the events told seem real? Why?
I am often asked if my depictions of the suffering of Tibetans are accurate. Readers sometimes suggest that conditions couldn’t possibly be as severe as I present in my books. Unfortunately, I know my descriptions are authentic, not only because I have witnessed that treatment, but also because I actively read press reports coming out of Tibet, and read all the personal accounts of Tibetan refugees that I can find. I never exaggerate the treatment of Tibetans in my books. Whether it be the forced imposition of Chinese names on Tibetan children, the illegal internment of thousands, the amputation of thumbs to prevent use of rosaries or the wholesale destruction of ancient sacred texts, the aspects described in my books are derived from actual experience. I don’t need to exaggerate anything about the Chinese behavior in Tibet–the reality is wrenching enough.
Tell our readers about the Public Security branch of this government and who runs it? How were the members of the commission chosen and why do you learn that what we see is not really always the honest truth?
For centuries the complex, heavy-handed Chinese government has been a fertile ground for storytelling. Many rich tales rose out of the earlier Chinese dynasties. The modern government is rife with conspiracy and little fiefdoms of power that conflict with each other. Shan has learned to play rivals off each other and use them in his quest. I believe my presentation of these rivalries is quite authentic, and helps highlight the personal crises of many officials as they advance in power. This dynamic has become an element in all my Shan books. There is a terrible price paid by the oppressor for his oppression.
What research into the history did you do before writing this novel?
Setting a novel among such a distant and very different people involves the same challenges as writing historical novels, and also offers the same rich opportunities for a writer. Nonfiction accounts from faraway lands can be sterile and one-dimensional. When done well, novels focused on peoples distant in place and time, can transport the reader much more effectively to the stark realities of those lives, allowing the reader to experience those lands, and the adversity affecting its population, on a personal, visceral level. The challenge is to bring the reader into that foreign culture, or distant time, in subtle ways, building on believable, and engaging, characters. To be successful I have to ease the reader into that world, let them learn about it because they want to join the journey of my characters in pursuing the truth. If readers are not interested in my characters they will tune out the local color and backstory.
What is next for Shan and Lokesh? The ending allows readers to know that there are so many unresolved issues, questions that are not answered and a people still hoping to be treated as humans: So how do you propose to bring Shan back? What new role will he play and will he ever see his son again? Will he ever be free?
Shan and Lokesh have chosen difficult paths for themselves in the land at the roof of the world, essentially living as exiles, avoiding government and largely even commerce. I will keep the backdrops for these stories as current as possible in terms of reflecting actual, recent events, and my characters will continue to find ways to challenge the status quo. Lokesh will still feel the agony of losing his traditional land and Shan will feel more acutely the pain of his son’s imprisonment.