Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney

Today I'm delighted to be hosting fellow blogger and writer Sue Guiney with her fascinating new novel set in Cambodia, A Clash of Innocents, which has the great distinction of being chosen as the first publication of new independent publishing house Ward Wood.

Against the backdrop of Cambodia's violent past and the beginnings of its tribunal for 'justice' unfolds the intriguing story of Deborah, the indomitable sixty-year old American (and first-person narrator) who runs a Phnom Penh orphanage, and Amanda, the young woman with a mysterious past who turns up one day to help. It's a story of hidden identities and questioned motives, during which Deborah must struggle with her own demons.

Here's the stunning beginning, with its ironic quoting from a Cambodian Tourist book:

Welcome to Cambodia! We are so glad you are here to learn about our glorious past and experience our remarkable culture. Come see the beauty of our traditional dancers. The comfortable temperature of February is a pleasant time to visit our many temples and our modern capital city. Please let our happy Khmer smiles be your guide. Cambodia From Us to You: A Touristic Handbook, p 8
You live here long enough and you stop taking things for granted. Where I grew up, in suburban Ohio, I could assume one day led to another, one season to the next: you reap in autumn what you sow in spring. People were who they said they were, generally speaking, and if they weren’t you could pretty much avoid them and surround yourself instead with people you could trust.But in Cambodia, you can’t trust anything or anyone. The rice you plant in May won’t necessarily be there in November to harvest. And if it is, it won’t necessarily be yours. A child who’s been put to bed by the caring hands of his mother might never feel that touch again. Actually, it’s not so much that you don’t know who to trust, it’s more that you don’t know what the word trust means. But after all these years in Phnom Penh, I had gotten kind of used to that. Trust. Friend. Murder. Victim. All ideas more like science fiction shape-shifters than real words. You think you have a hold of them, then suddenly they change. It makes for an interesting and challenging life, I’ll tell you that. And after so much time, I can’t really imagine myself living anywhere else.
At the wonderful launch of the book which I attended, Sue made clear that the book had been inspired by her own time in Cambodia, and also that she would be going back there to tour the book. Later I asked her about this last in more detail, and also what had drawn her to write so passionately about the aftermath of war. Here's the answer she sent me:
I’ve raised two boys and I’ve raised them in London, a city which is a little boy’s paradise.There are soldiers and parades and some of the best military museums, and toy soldier museums, anywhere. I couldn’t even count the number of hours I’ve spent at the National Army Museum over the years. So it made sense for me to try to write a book about war, and the war which meant the most to me in my life was the Vietnam War. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I’ve been to Cambodia, and I can say that when I walked out of baggage claim and into the airport of Phnom Penh, complete with Cambodian soldiers and rifles standing guard, I did feel a moment of irrational panic. I grew up seeing too many news programs and Hollywood films about that era. So “A Clash of Innocents” was to be the novel which helped me sort out my feelings not only about war in general, but about that specific war which so coloured my adolescent years. I recognize the dramatic worth of war stories. They are, indeed, perfect for tales of humanity being stretched to its limit. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write a book about the actuality of war, placing my characters in those battles themselves. I don’t believe it’s because I couldn’t imagine the scenes or the dialogue. I think I could have come up with the story and done the research. But instead I realized it wasn’t actually war itself that haunted me enough to spend years of my life writing about it. It was the aftermath of war. It was the question: what do you do when the war is over and you have survived? How do you live your life having witnessed the worst that humanity can do? How do you come to terms with it all and go on? That is really the question that has always haunted me and that‘s ultimately what “A Clash of Innocents” explores – finding a way to survive, despite. For me, that is the more profound and difficult question. My guess is that this new novel of mine will turn out to be just one of several attempts to answer it.

I think all of Cambodia is still struggling to answer that question, and that might be one of the reasons why I fell so in love with that sad yet beautiful country, and why I’m planning to go back. Many people go away, get inspired, and then return home to create. That has certainly happened to me before. But I’ve decided that this time I wanted to take the fruits of that inspiration back to place that caused it. I’m actually planning a trip in early 2011 back to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where I’ll do a series of charity readings for the English-speaking communities there. There are two organizations that I’m talking to about holding events from which the proceeds of books sold can go to their charitable activities. Sure, this gives me a great excuse to go back, and I very much want to. But hopefully, I’ll be able to do a little bit of good as well.
Such energy and commitment! Congratulations to Sue and her publishers. Do buy the book: it's available from Amazon, The Book Depository and good bookshops.

Sue's website is here
Her blog is here
and you can visit her publisher Ward Wood here.


Sue Guiney said...

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for hosting me here, and for giving me the opportunity to put into words this, shall we say, obsession which has haunted me for years. It means a lot for me to be here and count you as my colleague and friend.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sue, I am honoured to have had the opportunity, and also to have you as mine!

Talli Roland said...

What a wonderful excerpt - I'm intrigued!