Bamboo Heart and Bamboo Island – parts one and two of the Bamboo trilogy by Ann Bennett have been quietly admired since they were respectively published. Readers have praised these all-absorbing novels, set against the backdrop of World War II in Southeast Asia, and Bamboo Heart went on to win “Best Fiction published in Asia, 2015” Asian Books Blog (Singapore). At Monsoon, publisher Phil Tatham describes the moment he started reading the books: “I started reading an unedited manuscript of Bamboo Heart, the first in the WWII trilogy set in Southeast Asia, by first-time author Ann Bennett, on a flight from Singapore to Beijing International Book Fair and I had finished it and made the decision to offer the author a print and ebook deal by the time we landed in China. Ann Bennett is a wonderful writer and in Bamboo Heart she perfectly captures both the pitiful atmosphere of WWII prisoner-of-war camps on the Death Railway as well as the heart-wrenching feelings of a daughter researching her father’s military past.” Since then, Monsoon has successfully sold audio rights in Bamboo Heart, which will be released on CD and as a downloadable audiobook in early 2017. At Monsoon we are very proud to publish first time authors, such as Ann and wanted to know a little more about her writing process and the personal history inspiring her books.
1) Can you tell the Monsoon readers the background behind yours books?
The idea for a trilogy about the Second World War in SE Asia came from researching my father’s wartime experiences. He was a soldier in the Indian Army in the Malaya campaign and was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore. He worked on the Thai-Burma railway, suffering disease and starvation, and survived the sinking of a hell-ship, the Hofuku Maru, off the Philippines.
Bamboo Heart first came to life when I discovered his ‘Liberation Questionnaire’ in the National Archives at Kew in London. Repatriated POWs had to complete questionnaires for Military Intelligence in 1946. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it, written in pencil in his own flowing handwriting, it answered so many questions I would have liked to ask him. The discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to him during the war, and from the moment I read his questionnaire, I knew I had to write about it to try to bring the story of prisoners of war to life.
My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in South East Asia than I’d expected. I’d not previously appreciated how civilians suffered, about starvation and massacres, about bravery and sacrifice. I was inspired to explore the war from other angles and through other people’s stories.
So I wrote Bamboo Island, the story of an ordinary English woman, the wife of a rubber planter, and Bamboo Road, which explores the war through the eyes of a young Thai woman, a member of the Thai resistance. Through these characters I wanted to show how the lives of everyone in the region were dramatically changed when war engulfed South East Asia.
2) How did you research for the books? Did you visit any key landmarks featured?
Since my first trip in 1985 from Bangkok to Bali, I’ve travelled a lot in South East Asia, particularly in Thailand. I suppose all my trips have fed into my writing in some way. I’ve been to Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai several times. In 2010 I visited the sites of some of the camps where Dad had been imprisoned, with my eldest son. That trip was organised by the Thai-Burma Railway Centre at Kanchanabuuri. Chungkai camp is the setting for the prison camp scenes in Bamboo Heart, and also features in Bamboo Road. We walked through the railway cutting there, where you can see the marks of the prisoners’ tools on the rocks.
Dad’s Liberation Questionnaire, his Japanese record card and army files were the starting point for my research. I also read as many books about WW2 in South East Asia, the Malaya campaign and the fall of Singapore as I could. I visited the Imperial War Museum reading room and read several first-hand accounts by POWs. Online communities also helped tremendously, in particular the Far East Prisoner of War Community, the Children of the Far East Prisoner of War and the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society.
Penang features in both Bamboo Heart and Bamboo Island. I love Georgetown with its atmospheric old buildings, and the beauty of the island’s interior. I first went there in 1985 and again more recently, travelling once again on the train from Bangkok to Butterworth, as Laura does in Bamboo Heart. The journey has hardly changed since my first trip. I haven’t been to Singapore since the eighties, but would love to visit again one day. I visited Kuala Lumpur though, (where some scenes in Bamboo Island take place), whilst writing the trilogy.
Old cine film footage, now online, is a fantastic source of information about what those cities were like in the 1930s and during the war. So if I can’t get to a place, I try to find out as much about it as I can online, including even looking at Google maps, street view!
3) Do you have a favourite character or scene from either book and if so, why?
All the lead characters in my books are my favourites; Tom in Bamboo Heart, Juliet in Bamboo Island and Sirinya in Bamboo Road. I had to identify closely with each of them and be with them through difficult times in order to write from their point of view. Tom is I suppose my number one because out of the three of them he has the biggest struggle and the most to overcome. There are lots of favourite scenes of mine, but I don’t want to give away too much! I really enjoy the challenge of evoking a time and place, and I’m very happy with the opening scene in Chapter 1 of Bamboo Island. Juliet, a virtual recluse, is sitting on the veranda of her crumbling mansion on a rubber plantation, nursing her wartime memories, when out of the corner of her eye she sees movement on the drive, and realises a stranger is approaching.
4) What is the most important factor from your books that you hope your readers will take away with them?
I hope readers will be drawn in by the characters and their journeys, and will enjoy the books, even though they deal with gruelling subject matter. I wanted to tell stories of hope and survival as well as of brutality and suffering.
The dreadful events of the war in SE Asia shouldn’t be forgotten and does seem to have been neglected by fiction writers. There have been countless novels about WW2, but they are mainly set in Europe. People know about the Death Railway from Bridge on the River Kwai, (which is very misleading), but also mainly from non-fiction – such as the Railway Man and other first-hand accounts, for example the Forgotten Highlander which are fantastic testaments. I think fictional accounts can also convey historical events powerfully. For example Birdsong taught me more about the trenches than countless documentaries about the WW1 because it enables you experience it and be there with the central character. That’s what I am trying to achieve with my books, although I can’t claim they are comparable!
5) Bamboo Road is released in February 2017; can you give us a hint of what is to come?
Bamboo Road is the story of Sirinya, a young Thai woman, who together with her family are members of the Thai underground when the Japanese invade the country. They risk their lives to help prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. The events of the war years have repercussions for decades to come. The book tells Sirinya’s wartime story and how in the 1970s she returns to Kanchanaburi after a long absence abroad, to settle old scores from the war years.