Archive: Interview with Ian Buruma



From Asia Literary Review No. 12, Summer 2009

Interview by Ben Naparstek



A PROLIFIC writer of history, reportage and cultural commentary on Asia and Europe, Ian Buruma is renowned for his quiet force and levelheaded analysis in a time of clamorous sound-bite punditry. In 2008, Foreign Policy/Prospect named him one of the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals. Awarded the Erasmus Prize for his ‘especially important contribution to culture, society or social science in Europe’, the jury praised him as a ‘new cosmopolitan’. 

In his first book, Behind the Mask (1983), Buruma explored the Japanese underworld of transvestites, massage parlours and yakuza. His most recent, The China Lover (2008), is a novel based on the life of Japanese screen star Ri Koran – also known as the actress, journalist and politician Yoshiko Yamaguchi – whose early career in the late 1930s was intertwined with Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and who later took in Hollywood and embraced the likes of Idi Amin and Kim Il-sung. In between, Buruma wrote The Missionary and the Libertine (1996), in which he examines the stereotype of liberated sexuality the West traditionally applies to the Orient, and The Wages of Guilt (1995), which compares German and Japanese memories of their military pasts, arguing that Germans have faced up to their wartime atrocities while the Japanese remain in denial. 

Born in The Hague in 1951, Buruma was raised in a post-war bilingual household in a Holland where the British were seen as saviours – experiences contributing to Voltaire’s Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe (1999). In Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (2006), he examines how the post-war consensus in the Netherlands on multiculturalism, liberal immigration policies and generous welfare services bred a culture of complacency and denial that made it powerless to engage with its new Muslim minority; in a masterful combination of penetrating analysis and gripping narrative, he investigates the causes of Islamic fundamentalism with meticulous sobriety. 

In Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (2001), he looked at China through the eyes of its dissenters, both the exiled and those working quietly from within.  

Now based in New York City, he holds a professorship at Bard College. A contributor for more than two decades to The New York Review of Books, Buruma is tipped to replace editor and co-founder Robert Silvers, who turns eighty in December. 

The following is based on a series of interviews with Buruma, the first in New York in November 2008, and his comments at the Beijing Literary Festival in March 2009. 

Ben Naparstek

Ian Buruma ... 


... on becoming a writer. 


I didn’t dream of being a writer at an early age. I was a very late starter. I studied Chinese, not knowing what I was going to do. At the time it was still the Cultural Revolution and very much the Maoist atmosphere. You couldn’t go to China freely, though you could go in a highly organised way. But I was never really a Maoist, or interested in Communist China as such. It didn’t appeal to me. When I was a student I saw a lot of Japanese films and theatre and I went to Japan on a film-school scholarship. I was really most interested in films and photography and made some documentary films and worked as a photographer. Then I realised I didn’t have the patience to be a film-maker. I don’t have the patience to wait until budgets come together, and so on and so forth. I started writing film reviews for The Japan Times and general pieces about life in Japan for a Dutch paper. I found writing more congenial. I was already in my late twenties by then. I started writing more and more and things took off from there. 


... on the different challenges of fiction and non-fiction. 


Fiction is much harder. It comes out of a different place. When you write an essay or non-fiction book, you have to have a thesis and something of an argument and it has to have a certain logic. That’s the kiss of death for a novel. You don’t write a novel as a thesis. You have to use a different part of your brain. But the main difference, apart from it being harder for me, is that you use your own experiences and memories in a different way. As you write, memories come up and you find a place for them. That doesn’t mean you simply recall them and put them in the story, but they affect the story in an odd way. For me that’s one of the most interesting things about writing fiction. 

What interested me in the Yoshiko Yamaguchi story was not so much digging up all the facts I could possibly find that weren’t already on the record, but to get inside the heads of people who were alive in those days. You can imagine an inner life, not only hers but the people who knew her. You can’t do that if you write a non-fiction book, because then you have to stick to facts that you can document. 

I first met her when she was a politician – I was living in Hong Kong, writing, so this would have been around 1987, and did a piece on her for Interview magazine in New York. I didn’t get an overwhelming impression of her at the time. The biggest impression came really when I first saw her films, in the 1970s, and the wartime films. That made a big impression on me. She’s given many, many interviews and she’s very polished and she looks like a former actress and doesn’t tell you anything that would be particularly surprising. There’s a musical about her life and there are manga, and a TV soap opera and several memoirs and several movies. She’s a legend. 

... on what he likes most about writing.
I think it’s the process of conceiving of a book or a long article in your head, to think of a structure and how to do it. I don’t mind the writing process itself particularly either. A lot of people hate it and agonise over it – I quite enjoy it.
     It took me a long time to work out the structure of The China Lover. What interested me was not just [Yamaguchi] and her story, but how people fantasised about her and how that blended with all kinds of political and historical fantasies.
     The most difficult part was the pre-war and wartime events, the real historical part, because the great danger with writing any historical novel is that it turns into docu-drama and there’s too much historical detail, too much research. You have to cut down on that a lot. That was more difficult than just imagining people from a different culture. It’s about getting into the mind of a non-western person. I think it has a lot of similarities with my first novel. In that, I used a fictionalised form of my own autobiography. The China Lover is a fictionalised memoir of this real person. I’m interested in life stories and how people make sense of their lives and how they tell their story. 

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