Who is Charles Foran? From our talk this spring at his office on Yonge Street just south of St Clair, I learned that this prolific award-winning writer is passionate about Canadian culture and literature. Both Torontonian and Montrealer, he grew up Catholic during the cultural project of nationalism and Trudeau’s multiculturalism. Foran did his graduate degree in Celtic Literature in Dublin and now teaches a course on Irish Literature in the Celtic Studies program at St Mike’s, University of Toronto. Many of his books come from his time away.
Of his travels abroad he says, “Those early experiences of the great vast world and bottomless variety of human society, for me it was stimulation, a non-stop education and thrill.”
I see a pattern to his career: Foran is attracted to the cusp, to the energy of change. He went to Belfast during the troubles, in August 1979 when he was 18; moved to Hong Kong with his family the year that the British were leaving; and with his most recent novel, Planet Lolita, he immersed himself in the “new paradigm” of the digital age.
Here is Charlie talking about the influence of his daughters and the digital on Planet Lolita:
“Raising two girls inside this new paradigm, and realizing that their sense of themselves as citizens, as private/public selves, has been shaped by the digital, made me want to embed the book in their brave new world. Planet Lolita is almost in ‘real time,’ while also exploring the oldest, most enduring of complexities – the family. As a voice, my fifteen year old narrator, Xixi or Sarah, is some combination of my two daughters, with a necessarily sassy, exaggerated anime or manga heroine-in-peril tone. That interesting but slightly unsettling girl-woman mix. The action in the novel is triggered by her posting on her Facebook page a photo of a young woman she’s met on a beach in Hong Kong – and then it all spirals out of control.
The novel was borne of our family experiences living in Hong Kong, but is situated in preoccupations of mine that date back to my early twenties. As I age, I find this more and more the case; for writers, settings truly are just the portals into deeper concerns. Around and around the block we go with our questions that can’t be answered, our anxieties that won’t go away.”
Foran and his family lived in Hong Kong for a total of three years between 1997-2003. Hong Kong was not Foran’s first stay in Asia. When he was 28, he and his wife Mary, then living outside New York City, moved to China to teach at the Beijing Second Foreign Languages University. “That was pure youthful whim. We wanted an adventure. This was in May 1988.” Then in 1997 he and his family (two girls) moved to Hong Kong rather than a mainland city. “Hong Kong was more feasible for people like us, and also quite welcoming. July 1997 marked the ‘return’ of Hong Kong to China, and I wanted to be in the city for the first year. It turned out to be a non-event, and Beijing’s cautious, smart handling of the situation proved prescient of a new kind of thinking about economic reforms (vs political ones).” Four years later they were back. “The kids were happy to return to Hong Kong in 2001. We always presented our time abroad as a grand family adventure, which it was.”
And what was he doing in Hong Kong the second time?
“While we were living there I was writing a novel set in 18th Century Ireland, which I found very odd. I couldn’t evoke any of the requisite smells and sounds. Hong Kong will never be confused with Ireland in terms of the landscape or climate. And the novel I was writing, Carolan’s Farewell, was deliberately sensually immersive because my main character was a blind musician, meaning he was especially attuned to the aural, and olfactory, worlds. Working on the book in our apartment in Hong Kong, I remember thinking – it’s 100 degrees out and everything smells like dried fish and diesel. We lived on the backchannel of Hong Kong Island and my days were punctuated with ships coming in and out of Aberdeen harbour. So that was the book that I actually wrote while we were in Asia. But Planet Lolita, as well as being a kind of thematic sequal to an earlier novel of mine, House on Fire (2001), was always sort of kicking around in my head.”
Foran is the first to admit he is not a tech person – doesn’t use Facebook, only just started tweeting [(at)312Foran]. So to write a novel about a teen’s use of social media required help.
“I received, gratefully and with all humility, a lot of council and advice on how to make this work. A series of young women, some friends of our daughters, some writers and editors, guided me through how the digital narrative would unfold. And then in Part Ⅱ, I was pushing the story ahead – Xixi flees to Bangkok with her father – which I originally intended to do by accelerating Xixi’s voice, going deeper into her mind. But then I resolved to head in the very opposite direction narratively – to tell a brief part of the story exclusively through social media. You only glimpse and hear the characters through the tweets, blogs, texts of mostly strangers.”
“In Part Ⅰ, I embedded text messages to look like a play script. But I wanted Part Ⅱ, The Big Mango (Westerners’ nickname for Bangkok), to have a whole other feeling, a non-literary feeling, a digital feeling. Hence those texts and Facebook chats, blogs and online newspapers, even the gobbledygook when people leave a public computer terminal. Getting that right nearly delayed the book.”
“I incorporate digital technology in the novel because it is relevant to the story, and to its concerns. Planet Lolita asks questions about surveillance in the digital age, and worries over our diminished appreciation of notions of privacy, of the boundaries between the private citizen and the public state. I wished the form of the novel to be in the content, in effect, and I have always believed that genuinely ‘new’ stories required genuinely new ways of telling. Part Ⅱ, I grant, is a bit of a blunt instrument, aspiring to demonstrate, or maybe, intimate, how we are all intruding upon each other, all transgressing and interfering and even infiltrating, via the technology we are embracing with such uncritical glee.”
At this point we murmured nostalgically about the silence of Victorian sitting rooms where people read, or read aloud, or played piano by candle or gas light. When people had more patience for the printed word. Think of how difficult it is to get away from clicking on to the next thing, and whether this impatience is carried to our reading experience. Foran agreed.
“I’m impatient with things, I judge books quicker than I used to, I don’t allow writers to wash over me. Now you feel like you’re competing with faster forms. Words can only get so fast, I think. Words just keep wanting to slow down, lay themselves out gently.”
You can find more of Charlie Foran’s words on his website: I highly recommend the essay, “Celluloid Wars,” on film and Vietnam, and his introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Last House of Ulster.
“The fairly glib and self-satisfied arguments about the net liberating us from the tyranny of the single narrative have apparently gone away. Readers, it turns out, want the tyranny of the single narrative. They enjoy that authorial authority. I know I do, both as reader and writer.” -Charles Foran