Writing this book opened a doorway for me into my family’s past, to a room full of anecdotes and stories that I’d never heard before. I thought I knew my history; we’re a family of talkers after all. But there was so much more I discovered through my research, it’s been an absolute joy of a process.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with my ailing grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. Visiting her in the nursing home where she spent her final years, I would sit and talk to her, sometimes the conversations made sense; more often she was lost in another time and place where I could not join her. She often talked about swimming in the reeds and calling a cheeky boy out of the water. I watched her face light up and saw the shadow of that young, strong woman I’d heard about as she pointed and laughed at the boy in her mind’s eye. I’ve always wondered what those memories meant. She died when I was 13 and I never did find out. But her past, forever lost, continued to intrigue me.
What I do know is that my grandparents lived in Shanghai in the 1920s. My grandfather navigated boats along the Yangtze River for a petroleum company. He would be absent for weeks at a time, leaving my grandmother in their home in the International Settlement. They had married after a short romance aboard the ship they both took from Australia to Hong Kong. My grandmother, an independently-minded woman for her day, dramatically rode a motorbike from her small country town in northern NSW, to Sydney where she boarded the boat for Hong Kong and adventure. My grandfather stepped in as her protector from the unwanted advances of other men on the ship and they fell in love. I grew up hearing these stories, but I wanted more.
Needless to say, my time has not been otherwise idly spent. Just like my grandmother, I left my hometown of Sydney to explore the world, settling in London for 10 years where I trained and worked as a journalist for The Financial Times Group and the BBC. I returned to Australia when my son was a toddler, as a single mother in need of the support of my family and the sunshine for my son. I picked up my career with News Limited and the SBS before remarrying and having my two beautiful daughters, whose arrival gave me the chance to break from work and write.
I’m a single mother again; my grandmother’s independent streak runs strong it seems. My son is a grown man, living back in London where he was born and I’m raising two girls as best I can.
I decided that the lost memory my grandmother unwittingly shared with me in the nursing home all those years ago, was a Shanghai memory. The story I chose to write was always going to be an exploration of that fascinating family kernel.
My grandmother is the inspiration for The Shanghai Wife, which is a book of fiction, born of an unforgettable memory.