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Interview with Chantal Jauvin

Chantal Jauvin takes time out from cycling in Sardinia and Sicily to discuss the publication in French of The Boy With A Bamboo Heart. We’ve to discuss the translation of the book but I’m curious to know how she came to write the remarkable biography of a life so far removed from her own.  What is the source of this connection between an attorney born in Ottawa, Canada and her subject, an orphaned child soldier-turned-philanthropist in Bangkok?

Meeting Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs

What inspired a Canadian lawyer to document the life of Dr Amporn Wathanavongs? How did the two meet?

“It was serendipity,” she tells me. “I was travelling to Thailand with my fiancé, now my husband. Though I had worked throughout Asia I had actually never been to Thailand. My husband had known Dr. Amporn for a number of years and he had already been sponsoring children at Fordec.” For those of you who don’t know, Fordec is the children’s charity founded by Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs, the subject of Jauvin’s biography.

“So on our travels to Thailand we stopped in at the Fordec school and I had the opportunity to meet some of the children. Two little girls asked to take us for a walk outside of the school premises to show us their homes. It was just an extraordinary day, it was one of those brilliant sunny warm days in Bangkok. The girls were dressed in their uniforms clean as can be.”

Jauvin recalled how the girls led her along like the Pied Piper through a shanty town. “They were essentially living on heaps of trash and garbage and yet they were so proud to go to school. The importance of the school was just glaring.”

It was back at the school that she met Dr. Amporn for the first time.

“He started telling me about the school and his own background. The more he talked, the more it became clear that his story was remarkable. Over lunch, he eventually started to ask me what I did. I explained that I was an attorney and he just outright asked me ‘Would you like to write my life story?’ And in a moment of enthusiasm I said ‘Yes, of course!”

Uncharted Territory

Jauvin started interviewing Dr. Amporn in 2010. It would take another 5 years for the book to reach the shelves.

“It was a long process of research. I was not familiar with Thailand and Dr. Amporn had this tremendous journey. I had to learn a lot about Thailand, about Thai culture, about where he lived, so I travelled back to Thailand two years into writing the book to visit the villages and the places he had studied.”

She wrote the book in the third person but met a significant setback when a New York editor asserted the story needed to be told through a first person narrative.

“I thought, ‘No of course it can’t be’ but it was a gnawing thought that perhaps she was right and so I rewrote the first two chapters.” She then sought guidance from a writers’ critique group in Philadelphia which prompted her to start again.

Beginning Again

“That set off a whole new set of interviews with Dr. Amporn because writing from the first person, trying to find his voice and learning more deeply his thoughts and his emotions throughout his journey became almost like writing a second book. And it was only in that second process that I became aware that he had been a boy soldier. He had not revealed that in the first round of interviews,” she said.

Thus it was only when Dr. Amporn shared a story of how Dr Amporn had been wounded whilst fighting in Cambodia that she became privy to the darkest period of his life.

“I don’t think he was hiding it. I just believe, very strongly, that he didn’t believe that it was relevant to his journey and he still bares great shame for those years. I think it took a lot of courage on his part, a lot of trust building in our relationship for him to be willing to talk about it but also for me to listen more deeply and realise that there was a gap in the story.”

“When he eventually left the jungle destitute, no family, no prospects, illiterate, and now with the shame and guilt of having killed in the jungle, he saw no hope for his future and so suicide seemed the only answer.”

Gaining Dr Amporn’s trust wasn’t the only issue she had to contend with. When she was writing the book she was diagnosed with cancer. “It it took me a little while to find my way back to the paper and my clarity of mind to be able to write again.”

Working towards a French edition

Jauvin translated The Boy with a Bamboo Heart into French herself which is no easy feat. She said she’s excited at the prospect of its publication.

“The reason I’m so excited about it being translated in French, and hopefully it’ll be translated into other languages, is that there are two really strong connections to French speaking countries. The first is Father Boningue  who was a very important mentor and spiritual leader for Dr. Amporn.”

Father Boningue was a French Jesuit missionary who helped Dr Amporn to found the Credit Unions of Thailand.

“I’m hoping the French edition will help highlight the importance of Father Boningue’s work. So that is the first obvious connection to the French language.”

The second connection is more personal for Jauvin as she is a French Canadian.

“The publication of a French edition in Canada is a subject close to my heart. Dr Amporn’s favourite book was The Poor Man’s Prayer: The Story of Credit Union Beginnings by George Boyle which is the story of the Caisse Populaire Desjardins movement in Canada…which were started in Quebec.”

boy-with-bamboo-heart-french-edition-frontChallenges of Translation

Did she find translating the book difficult?

“One of the first challenges, or decision points, concerned which variation of French to use. It had to be decided whether to follow French from Canada or French from France. I opted for a European French.”

Was it an enjoyable process?

“It was, I did enjoy it. It’s my first book and so it’s very difficult for me to know how to compare it to different projects but the experience of translating my own work versus somebody else’s work was really challenging because I was being critical of the writing as I was translating,” she laughed.

Was she tempted to change anything, to edit it, or did she stay faithful to the original work?

“I stayed very faithful because I do believe that it’s a translation and I shouldn’t start rewriting it and so I did stay very faithful to it. And it was a real challenge. I did enjoy the process, it gave me the opportunity to experience Dr. Amporn’s life again and it just reitterated my commitment to having his work and his story known and available to as many readers as possible. And so it reignited my energy and it reignited my interest to provocate his work.”

What now

It has taken a great deal of commitment and dedication to get The Boy with a Bamboo Heart this far. Is Jauvin ready to devote herself fully to another project?

“I have started plans to work on another book. I have a working title. It’s called Love Without Martinis, Stories of Couples in’s non-fiction again, and it is based on interviews with couples who are working through sobriety and their journey through alcoholism.” Jauvin strongly believes that voice needs to be given to all the couples who are working through sobriety and creating stronger and healthier relationships. “We need a more open and realistic dialogue about the specific challenges that sobriety and recovery bring into love relationships.” Jauvin identifies a recurring theme in her writing, “trying to give a voice to people and their stories that are inspirational to others.”

Has it been difficult to find people to interview?

“I have been looking for people for a while that are willing…because as you can imagine it’s a very sensitive topic. There is a lot of belief in anonymity but in the US now there is a new movement to giving voices and faces to people in recovery, in sobriety. In that spirit, Patrick J. Kennedy, Former Congressman, for example, has been very active in this movement. However there’s still a lot of stigma attached”

Jauvin hopes to begin interviewing process soon so she can start the new year by putting pen to paper. She tells me that the first book chose her and that she also feels this book has chosen her. She laughed “perhaps by the time I get to my third book I’ll be choosing it!” Long may it continue. Perhaps the best stories choose their authors.

Posted by John on 25th October 2016