Empty envelopes; READ 1 AUTHOR'S NOTES Francesca Rhydderch writes about her book e Rice Paper Diaries in our series of essays by authors shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year award.
In December 1941 this school became a bloody battleeld until the British surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day. Hordes of captured civilians were brought from Victoria on the other side of Hong Kong Island to this inhospitable, mosquito-infested square of land.
Terried Chinese labourers were deployed to put up a barbed-wire fence. e apartments and teaching blocks had been wrecked internally during the ghting, leaving no proper sanitation or drinking water. e place was strewn with decomposing bodies.
Among the crowd of prisoners herded into the makeshift compound that day were my great-aunt Menna Jones and her husband Captain Cosmo Jones, who had been working for the Chinese Maritime Customs when Hong Kong fell. ey had hardly any luggage, no food, no means of contacting the outside world and no idea of what lay in store for them. Menna was just 26 years old.
Of the 3,500 internees housed in Stanley Camp, only 121 died during the period of their internment from January 1942 to August 1945. Compared with the death toll in other Japanese PoW camps in the Far East, this was an unusually low gure. It seems from historical accounts that the presence of women and children in Stanley contributed to a sense of normality that must have been lacking in the single-sex encampments deep in the jungles of the Far East.
An informal school was established to educate the children and the tennis courts were dug over to grow vegetables. A particular success seems to have been the setting-up of a hospital to dispense medicine and care to sick internees. Disease was never far from people's minds, especially on the poor rations they were given.
A famous photograph of one of the internees shows a severely underweight woman with her hair done in a Victory Roll, holding a bowl of rice and cup of stew to the camera - not her own portion, but rations for ve people. She is smiling because it is August 1945 - the prisoners have just been liberated and will soon be sent home.
It took a long time for the good news to reach some of the more remote PoW camps. Cosmo, who had by this time been transferred to a camp somewhere in Japan, only discovered that the Japanese had nally been defeated when a stone was thrown over the barbed wire, landing directly at his feet. He picked it up and unwrapped the piece of paper that had been tied round it with string. Inside ran a handwritten message: 'War is over.' ' Both Cosmo and Menna came home safely to New Quay, but they never lived together again and soon divorced. It's impossible to know what damage was done to their relationship by their drawn-out incarceration and subsequent enforced separation, or whether they were never meant for each other in therst place. In any case, they both entered into happy, fullling second marriages.
When I knew Menna she was in her sixties and seventies: still beautiful, with dark hair that was perfectly set, huge grey eyes, a wide smile and painted nails. She hardly ever said a word about her internment, not to anyone.
Despite my interest in Menna's remarkable story, it was never my intention to write her biography. e image uppermost in my mind when I got started on a novel very loosely inspired by Menna's experiences was that of an envelope franked Hong Kong, one of many I found among her papers after her death in 1996. ey were empty, every single one of them. She was an avid stamp collector, and although she evidently destroyed letters that she felt were private, she kept the envelopes for their attractive, gilded stamps.
Those empty envelopes were what inspired me to start writing fiction in the first place. The first discovery I made was that the gaps left by family secrets can be the most fertile territory for the imagination. All those uncorroborated facts and unknown states of mind are the spaces where fiction is made.
When I finished a first draft of The Rice Paper Diaries, just before I travelled to Hong Kong on the trail of Menna and Cosmo, I blessed my ignorance. Novels have their own internal emotional logic, which is more important than any exact replica of the past.
History books tell us why, when and how wars happened: what a novel can do is imagine how it felt to be there.
The Rice Paper Diaries is published by Seren, PS8.99