Carole Wilkinson is an award-winning author of books for children, and is perhaps best known for her acclaimed Dragonkeeper series. The fourth book in the series, Blood Brothers, has recently been released by Walker Books, and as part of her blog tour to promote the book, Carole was kind enough to visit RIASS to share her thoughts on writing about a foreign culture.
This is the final stop in my blog tour. Thanks to Read in a single sitting for hosting it, and for suggesting a challenging topic — writing outside one’s culture.
A common piece of advice for new writers is “write about what you know”. I ignored that advice completely.
I have written novels set in China, Egypt, and the Middle East. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps writing stories set in other places and in the past is my way of armchair travelling.
My Dragonkeeper series is set in ancient China. I have been to China more than once, but that gave me an insight into modern China. To imagine ancient China I had to do some research. Fortunately, that’s the part of writing I love most. Finding out detail about the landscape, the buildings and the way of life in Han Dynasty China, 2000 years ago was challenging enough. But for the recently released fourth book in the series, Blood Brothers, it was even more difficult. This book is set in a time of chaos and warfare known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. Facts about that period are thin on the ground, the few books that have been written about the period (I’m talking about English language resources. There could be stacks of books written in Chinese.) focus on the political situation and the wars. Information about how ordinary people managed to get by was even thinner. I gathered together what information I could glean, and did what all authors do — I used my imagination.
But when it comes to the people in my book, that’s a different matter again. There are no guidelines to what people were like in China thousands of years ago. I’m on my own there. I have to imagine what it would have been like to be living at that time in China, just as I have to imagine what it’s like to be a 15-year-old boy… or a 1037-year-old dragon.
I am conscious that I am writing about someone else’s culture, but my books are not like contemporary stories where there are people from different cultures interacting. I don’t write “issues” books, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t address certain issues as they arise within the story.
In the Han Dynasty, China was a monoculture. In the first two books of the Dragonkeeper trilogy, every single character is Chinese. In the third book, Dragon Moon, I introduce the “barbarians”. “Barbarians” is what English-speaking historians call a collection of tribes that lived on China’s borders. The ancient Chinese didn’t like them. They built the Great Wall to keep them out. The people who Ping and Kai come across are from a nomadic tribe who ride and breed horses. The Chinese called them Xiong Nu, which means “fierce slaves”. But these particular barbarians save Ping and Kai from their (Chinese) enemies, and treat them well. My young dragon, Kai, decides that the barbarians deserve a better name and he calls them Ma Ren or Horse People. The Xiong Nu in turn have their own prejudices about dragons. Their tales depict dragons as cruel, vicious beasts, and though their leader is hospitable to Kai, the rest of his people are suspicious of the strange creature. Ping, an ex-slave who was not treated well by her masters, has no prejudices. She takes everyone — her countrymen, the Xiong Nu and dragons — as she finds them.
In Blood Brothers, the political landscape has changed dramatically. The Chinese government has fallen and the barbarians are in control. The people of northern China have to deal with being ruled by invaders.
I have received emails from young Australian readers of Chinese descent who have told me that my books have helped them understand their culture. That is a big responsibility! The Dragonkeeper series has been published in Japan and Indonesia, but not in China, so no one there has read my books. I don’t know how Chinese people would react to my depiction of ancientChina and its people. I don’t know if they would be offended by the way this foreigner has depicted their country and mined their history. Perhaps one day my books will be published in China— and then I’ll find out.
Carole Wilkinson is an award-winning and much loved author of books for children. She has a long-standing fascination with Dragons and is interested in the history of everything. Though Carole has written over 30 books, she did not write her first book until she was nearly 40. Before that she had worked as a laboratory assistant and as a film and television writer and editor.
Visit Carol Wilkinson’s website | Facebook | Twitter
The blurb for Blood Brothers:
The year is 325. The powerful Han Dynasty is a distant memory and tribes of barbarian soldiers fight over what was once the Empire. It is a dangerous time. Kai is 465 years old – a teenager in dragon years. He is searching for the person predestined to be his dragonkeeper. Kai’s search has led him to a Buddhist novice named Tao. But Tao is certain he is not the one; he has no interest in caring for a difficult dragon. He believes his path lies in another direction. But Tao must learn to listen to the voice within himself and that no journey ever reveals its true purpose until it is over.
Download a chapter sample from Blood Brothers
The previous Dragon Keeper books:
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