Nonfiction — print. Random House, 1951. 338 pgs. Purchased.
Before embarking on any trip — around the world or within the United States — I always look to see if James A. Michener wrote about the particular place I’m set to visit. I find his multi-generational, fictional stories make the nonfictional history of a particular geography accessible and intriguing in a way that guidebooks cannot. As I will be traveling throughout southeast Asia in April, I looked into Michener’s back catalog hoping to find a book set in one of the four countries I will be visiting.
Unfortunately, although three of the first four fictional novels Michener wrote were set in the Pacific, none of them focused upon the lives of people living in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, or Hong Kong. Fortunately, Michener wrote a nonfiction account of his own travels throughout Asia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, detailing the cultures and lives of locals in the countries of Japan, Korea, Formosa (present day Taiwan), Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Siam (present day Thailand), Indochina (present day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam), Burma (present day Myanmar), Pakistan, and India.
“You will find little colorful dialect-English in this book. Innumerable Asians speak perfect English. Those who talked to me through an interpreter spoke grammatically in their own tongues. It is a serious mistake to imagine that all aliens talk hilarious pidgin, and even when they do so they are not being ridiculous, for they are trying to convey an idea, and it is ideas we are after, not cheap giggles.” (pg. 10)
Given the book was published in 1951, Michener’s observations run the risk of being far too dated to be relevant to travels and interactions undertaken today. However, the reason why Michener wrote the book echos sentiments expressed about this region of the world (at least, pre-2016 presidential election in America): Americans need to understand Asia because this is where the bulk of the world’s population live and, therefore, the bulk of influence to shape the future.
In the introduction, Michener explains how he felt ashamed that he had removed a short story from The Tales of the South Pacific about a young solider who felt the people and the countries of Asia needed to be taken seriously after World War II. The solider had “gone Asiatic”, believing that these countries and America’s relationship with them would determine the United States’ destiny. Yet Michener had cut the story from his manuscript because none of this editors or reviewers found it humorous or interesting. And so he set out to rectify that mistake by traveling throughout the region, by trying to understand the people who live there so as to offer observations to Americans at home who need to shift their focus from Europe to the far more populous and economically changing Asia. Similar to former President Obama’s decision to “pivot towards Asia”, no?
“We’ve got to give up the old ideas. What should take their place? Humility. The honest-to-God acknowledgement of the fact that all men are brothers. An acceptance of the idea that there is ‘no way to handle the Asian’. The Asian is a full-grown man with all of a man’s aspirations and potentials. If we could honestly accept such a program we might some day get back into Asia.” (pg. 118)
A chapter is dedicated to each country visited, with a short series of observations tying together the four or five interviews Michener recaps in each chapter. No advocate for communism, Michener spends the bulk of the book chapter explaining how or why communism may take root in different parts of Asia. To him, the region is a test of how truly committed Americans are to their ideals of democracy, self-determination, and government by the people.
His view is that far too many Americans wish the Dutch were back in control in Indonesia and fail to understand that revolt — revolt from colonialism, revolt from structures that keep India’s land in the hands of a few — is American. That our willingness to support old, restrictive governmental systems makes American claims of democracy and freedom for man hypocritical and the Soviet claims of freedom from capitalism appealing.
“No matter how tarnished the phrase agrarian reformers, it is the one scientific phrase to identify what is necessary. There must be a new system of land ownership, a new system of taxation, a new system of agriculture, a new system of exchange and new governmental agencies to support and supervise these innovations…We must not, as a nation, blind ourselves to the inevitability of these reforms. If we do not sponsor them, Russia will. What is worse, if we brand every young man who calls for agrarian reform a communist — and most of them aren’t that at the beginning — they will have no option but to become so.” (pg. 208)
Reading this book nearly 70 years after publication makes it is impossible to avoid the lens of 20/20 hindsight, of course. Michener insists that “most of his followers would have been led away from Ho Chi Minh had there been legitimate systems of reform to which they could have rallied. Now it seems too late” (pg. 208). Too late indeed as America would go to war in Vietnam four years after publication to “stop communism” after spending years trying to help the French retain their colonial power in the country. Clearly, the lessons Michener attempts to espouse were not taken to heart (or read by the right people).
But I found this hindsight particularly strong as I read the interview Michener conducted with people in Formosa (present day Taiwan). The interviewees were admit that their government would take back mainland China in less than five years. That if only the Americans would provide military support, those on Taiwan would be welcomed as liberators from the communist regime.
Three years post-publication, the First Taiwan Strait Crisis occurred when U.S. President Eisenhower lifted the blockade on the island at the behest of anticommunist voices in America who wanted to give Taiwan’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek, the opportunity to liberate China (or invade, depending upon perspective). Which is almost exactly what the voices in Michener’s book wanted. From the vantage point of 2018, however, we know this did not work for Taiwan and that the United States would choose the economic benefits of a communist yet heavily populated country over Taiwan.
Two other aspects of Michener’s book that stuck with me were (1) the common belief among his interviewees (pg. 326) that America lunches Negros, despises people of color, and persecutes liberals and (2) his view that Australia is America’s fifty-first state given how we behaved towards the country during World War II (a behavior I’m not all that familiar with) and our similar founding narratives of wild west and civilizing the natives. I would have liked to have a lengthy conversation with Michener about that second point.
On the first, though, I found myself wondering at the conclusion of the book if we as a country are capable of addressing the concerns raised in the first point. We certainly couldn’t in 1951. A today? Well, #BlackLivesMatter, the rush to close our borders, and Hillary Clinton’s emails certainly don’t repute the points raised nearly seventy years ago. So, perhaps, Michener’s book isn’t as out of date as one might expect.
As for whether or not Michener managed to amplify my excitement about traveling to southeast Asia with this book, I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions from his description of the second stop on my trip:
“Siam is the joyous land. Bangkok is the Paris of Asia. Never in my life have I left a land with more regret.” (pg. 190)
Note: The Voice of Asia has since gone out of print, and the availability and pricing of the book varies depending on where you look. Amazon has copies for anywhere from $3.50 to $33.
I also like to read books set in or about the country I’m travelling to, but had never thought of Michiner.
Graeme Green’s The Quiet American is a good choice for Vietnam. But the one I took with me was this one – http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/the-frangipani-hotel-by-violet.html?m=1
I look forward to hearing more about your upcoming travels.
Thanks for the recommendations, Brona! I don’t think I’ll be able to get to either of them before my trip, but it is always fun to read about the places you’ve been (and how different your experience as a tourist was).