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Justin Hill


Justin Hill

When I look at the facts of my life it seems that I have always been travelling.

I was born in the Bahamas in 1971, crossed the Atlantic in the QEII, went to Florida, and Atlanta. But that was all before I was three years old, when my family settled back in their native Yorkshire. And there I grew up, with no memory of having travelled than anyone else.

What separated me from my classmates was the fact that they had all been born in the local hospital, I was born in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. When we were asked to write stories on the places we were born, I sat and wrote stories about a place that was no more real than the name. When my classmates asked me if I could speak Bahamian I said yes of course—and spoke a few lines of gibberish.

Yorkshire is famous for three things: pudding, economy and direct talking. The last of the three is certainly something that comes across in my writing. I'm not a writer who elaborates his writing with unnecessary flourishes; nor am I a writer who reaches for a thesaurus when a simple word will do.

I did the usual round of school, senior school, university (Durham—England's third oldest)—where I studied English Language and Medieval Literature. The Literature part I enjoyed, and the social linguistics and pragmatics were fascinating. I think the time I spent recording people speaking, and then transcribing it word by word, and timing and annotating the duration of each pause—has given me a well-trained ear for writing dialogue. Pragmatics (the way language is used as a tool) was fascinating, the rest left me cold. I couldn't understand how people had dedicated their lives to studying Universal Grammar, Phonology, Phonetics, the History of Periphrastic "Do". The attempt to turn language into an equation revolted me.

There are two degrees at university worth getting: a First and a Third. Both require hard work: one to succeed, the other to not get thrown out. It wasn't a complete surprise when I left university with a Third Class degree. It is a writer's degree.

I did a number of jobs to pay off my university debts: postman, furniture delivery man, security guard—where I was always given the most dangerous jobs because of my size—and hospital kitchen cleaner. Then, when I was 21, I left on a flight to China: taking up a post in remote small town Shanxi.

The time there gave me two things: time to work at my writing—and experiences I could write about. It also gave me a fantastic opportunity to travel through the remoter parts of this fascinating country—and as my Mandarin improved—an increasingly rewarding experience.

The aid agency I was working for had a sound principal: that when a foreigner did the same job they earn the same wage as the locals. This meant I would visit large towns and gaze longingly at the baked beans tins I couldn't afford. It also meant I lived the world looking up at the rich West; as most people in the world live their lives doing.

After three years in China I travelled home via the Silk Route, and found a publisher for my first book A Bend in the Yellow River: an account of my time in China. I left the country again before it was published: this time for Eritrea to take up a teaching post in a small town there. When I was there I wrote an account of the Eritrean struggle in Ciao Asmara. I was in Eritrea for two years: my time cut short when Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war: and I was evacuated as the Ethiopian air force started bombing the airport. It was on the plane out that I had the idea to write a novel.

I was suddenly landed back in the UK, and managed to get a job in Shaoyang, China—starting 3 weeks later. I spent the year slowly crystallising ideas for the novel which I returned to a cottage in northern Britain, and wrote my first novel: The Drink and Dream Teahouse

. I wanted to write a book that would sum up everything I thought and felt about modern China. There were so many books about the Cultural Revolution, "misery books" about the sufferings of that time—I was determined to set The Drink and Dream Teahouse

 in contemporary China. It is a China where the factories are closing, and people are being rammed into the modern age—and like everyone else in the world they are trying to come to terms and make sense of the changes in their lives.

The inspiration for my book came just a week before I left to come home. When the summer was settling in, one of the older members of the college where I taught, died. A marquee was set up; the mourners came out, at night the karaoke singers sang through the night, and it rained: heavy monsoon rain. I travelled back along the Trans-Siberian Railway and kept that scene in my mind: a factory closes, a man dies and then it starts raining.

Justin Hill