A Victorian author has given a voice to powerful Asian women, telling stories that need to be told, using exquisite writing that brings alive every sense for the reader. Novelist Robert Barclay, who “writes better than he lives” spent much of his adult life in and around Asia.
Where did Barclay draw his inspiration for his works?
Robert Barclay lived for some years in China before moving back to Australia and realising his desire to tell important stories he felt should be heard, sharing themes that had universal interest: “strong, vulnerable women fighting personal and society’s battles, child trafficking, the rise of China, women’s ascendancy, environmental destruction, misplaced values.”
The first book, The Diary of Katy Yehonala has been nominated for both the 2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. The novel introduces Katy Yehonala, descendant of the Dowager Empress Cixi, and born into the violence of the Chinese Revolution and its aftermath. The story follows her development as a young woman learning about love and life in England, then later in Australia with her husband.
The romantic keys of a piano accompany her narrative from her increasingly-famous daughter, Clara, a youthful piano virtuoso known universally as the Jade Princess.
The sequel, and second in the series of four, describes how Katy follows her murdered husband’s steps to Cambodia where his charity operated, taking daughter Clara, to answer questions in his unfinished manuscript. Who is the young village girl, Chavy, trafficked for sex, why are Cambodia’s political corruption and human trafficking trade so dangerous to foreign nationals and what are the father-complexes she and her daughter both share?
“For this series, I have invented three women symbolising the transition of Chinese history. So, for example, Katy’s mother represents the traditional China before Mao and the disciplines of Confucian piety, Katy herself lives through the Cultural Revolution, born into one world and then living through another which replaced the old traditions,” Mr Barclay said.
“Clara represents the New China, sassy and well-educated, talented and becoming centre-stage in the world yet, like all Chinese, having 5000 years of demureness built-in,” he added.
Why is literature a societal need?
According to Mr Barclay, telling stories matters. “We live in a world where the distractions of technology for technology’s sake dominate and diminish our lives,” Mr Barclay said.
“But stories enrich the world. It is possible to change the world, one word at a time, and the stories I am telling need to be told. What is curious to me is the degree to which characters in so many stories are representations of the writer, whether the retelling of personal experiences under various disguises, and that also includes genders, or representations of unfulfilled dreams. I found writing is the literary version of the psychoanalyst’s couch.”
Mr Barclay founded a charity called The Sunlight Foundation to assist with the plight of any children affected by sex trafficking. The inspiration for his both the charity and novels came about from seeing first-hand the war-ravaged villages of Vietnam and Cambodia and the children affected during the Vietnam War, where he received two commendations for bravery.
“I see examples like this all the time in my writing. I discovered I’m better at writing than living. Writing is a nice way to create characters to live your life for you, doing the things you wish you had done, or dealing with situations differently. It’s like a second chance at life!”