CANADIAN novelist and short story writer Dennis Bock is best known to Chinese for “Going Home Again,” his most recent novel about a single father that has been translated and published in China.
The award-winning author has also written “The Communist’s Daughter,” featuring Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, a household name in China as he came here in 1938, saved many Chinese and died in 1939.
Invited by the Bookworm International Literary Festival, Bock visited China last month, touring seminars and book discussions in Suzhou, Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai, and shared his own family history emigrating from Germany to Canada, his fascination with German film director Leni Riefenstahl and his books that explore “what if” scenarios.
Q: Your parents moved to Canada from Germany, how has your family history influenced you?
A: I think it has really formed me. It helped shape my imagination. When my parents came over to Canada in the 1950s, they brought lots of photographs — all in black and white. As a little boy I used to look through these photos and my parents would tell me their stories from World War II.
So my first experience with that war was from their stories of what they saw as children during the war. It was the first time I imagined being in someone else’s shoes and making new worlds that contained a version of me I had never met before.
Images began to formulate in my mind and I suppose that was the beginning of my interest in history. My parents were once close to going back to Germany, thereby almost raising me as a German kid.
So I began to think of the “what if” scenarios; who I would be if we would have gone back. Who knows what I’d be doing now? It’s fascinating to think about how much the place where you grew up shapes you.
Q: Has it influenced your writing?
A: It certainly has, not only because I grew up in an immigrant house.
I became an expat immigrant myself in my mid- to late 20s, when I was teaching English and writing my short story collection, “Olympia,” in Madrid.
For my first few months, it was a constant struggle to understand basic things. Consequently, I’m very sympathetic to the expat experience. It’s a situation when you find yourself reduced to your elemental core, when you are stripped of your ability to communicate ... and then there’s the solitude that follows. It’s when you’re struggling on your own that you really get to know who you are.
Q: The characters in your books are complex and intriguing, what are your inspirations?
A: After watching a documentary about Leni Riefenstahl, I became fascinated with these types of characters.
In the documentary, Riefenstahl talks about her responsibility and claims she only did her job as an artist; that she was only making beautiful films and wasn’t involved in politics. She said her only motivation was aesthetic beauty.
To me, that means she clearly disassociated herself from any ethical responsibility, when she was obviously responsible for participating in the regime! That’s so fascinating — how you can justify your actions in that way, to remove yourself from your political context so absolutely in order to clear your conscience or give yourself a pass. From my books, you can tell that kind of character appeals to me.
A: How about Bethune? How did you approach this character? In China, he is perceived a hero, what do Canadians think about him?
A: He isn’t as well known to Canadians. Bethune is an iconic figure as well as a historical one. He’s a brilliant, motivated man who changes the world. Since I don’t share his experiences, it was a question of finding where I connect with him and where I could explore him further.
So in a huge character like Bethune, you begin with the icon. Then you start to strip him down to find the humanity within his stature.