Notes on an ending, Elspeth Sandys

Novelist and memoirist Elspeth Sandys reflects on the need and use of endnotes

We are all familiar with the conversation about the relation between fiction and non-fiction. “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography. I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction,” Philip Roth famously complained. I suspect his complaint will continue to be heard until there are no more writers and no more books, since the only thing critics seem able to agree on is that the border between fiction and non-fiction is, to use Andrew O’Hagan’s word, “unstable”. Any attempt to erect a wall between the two is doomed to fail.

We know fiction and non-fiction are not the same thing, but what are the differences? Can they be quantified, or are they as unstable, as porous, as O’Hagan claims? Into which category, for example, do we put poetry? Where do the “novels” of W G Sebald lie? And how do we categorise the voluminous outpourings of Karl Ove Knausgaard? There are as many answers to these questions as there are people answering them. So I ask myself, when does a work that everyone agrees is non-fiction, become something that requires endnotes. This, too, is a question for which there are multiple answers. Should I, for instance, be providing endnotes now for my quotations from Roth and O’Hagan? If the point of endnotes is to prove I’m not making things up (ie writing fiction), then the answer to that question has to be yes. 

But then, but then … some things, surely, have to be taken on trust. The author has to be allowed to exercise her authority. Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (end note needed), has to be allowed to apply, some of the time at least, in non-fiction as well as fiction. When what is being written in a non-fiction work has been imagined, does the author have to supply an end note for the source of that imagining? You see where I’m headed. A text so meticulously annotated could end up drowned in numbers. 

For the last two and a half years, I have been working on a book about my cousin Rewi Alley and his life in China, covering the years of the Japanese war, the civil war, the communist victory, the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, and the introduction of capitalism following the downfall of the Gang of Four. At the outset, I described the book I wanted to write to my publisher as “a family memoir”. I had already published two personal memoirs – no endnotes required – and regarded this new book as belonging to the same genus. Endnotes to me spelled academia. I was not and never have been an academic writer.  

So, having secured a warm expression of interest from my publisher, I set off on my China marathon, begging and borrowing as many research books as I could, since there was to be no advance, frequenting libraries and second-hand bookshops, reading everything I could lay my hands on about my cousin and the country that became his second home. I read with a fiction-writer’s eye. I was looking for facts, certainly, but more than that I was looking for story: motivations, relationships, conflicts, emotions, the smell, feel and taste of a life lived through tumultuous times in a country as mysterious to me as the moon. 

In 2017, I travelled to China with other members of the Alley family at the invitation of the Chinese government. Alley’s arrival in China 90 years previously was being celebrated throughout the country. Nine is a special number in Chinese lore, hence the invitation then and not 10 years later. As we hurtled from one place to another, a journey of over 6000 kilometres, I took copious notes in small notebooks. I had no system, no pre-conceived plan, I simply recorded everything that interested me, trusting that I’d be able to make sense of my scribblings when I got home. Some of the things I took down were quotations, but in my pre-end note innocence it never occurred to me to check where those came from. Some of what I wrote down turned out to be illegible. Writing while navigating a vertiginous mountain pass in our “Alley Whanau” bus, or listening to endless speeches praising the “Great Fighter for Internationalism”, the “Old Comrade and Loyal Friend of China”, the “Sky-high Tree” (endnotes needed), was not easy, though the real problem was, and always has been, my impossible handwriting. 

Back in New Zealand, I carried on with my research, aware by this time of the impossibly huge task I had set myself. I knew what the Chinese thought about such enterprises: “A person goes to China for a week and writes a book. A person goes to China for a year and writes an article. A person goes to China for two years and stays silent” (apocryphal so no end note needed). But I told myself I wasn’t writing a textbook, nor was I claiming to be any kind of expert, I was simply writing a “family memoir”. When I did come to put words on paper (so to speak), my first chapter was based on a memory from my childhood. What could be more “family memoir” than that? Chapter two involved an investigation into the background of the Alley family (once described by an acute observer as a “bunch of integrated misfits”: apocryphal again). Only then did I launch into Rewi’s life, interspersing his story with the story of our travels in China. 

A year and a half later, I had a manuscript to show my publisher. She was pleased. An editor was hired. Everyone was happy. Then came the question that threw me into confusion: “Where are the endnotes?” Endnotes? I’d never heard of them. Footnotes. I knew about those. I’d last had to supply them when I wrote my MA thesis in the late 1960s. 

All I could think about were the haphazard nature of my note-taking, the careless way in which I’d written down the things that interested me in my reading, the shame that would be mine if I misquoted from the files generously supplied by MFAT and NZSIS. The latter, a small light in my darkness, had actually copied the files relating to my cousin and let me take them home. There were redactions, but nothing of value, so far as I could see, had been blacked out. So at least I could give accurate information about anything quoted from NZSIS files. Everything else was a mess: illegible notes from books whose titles and authors I had written down, but not the chapter and page numbers from where my quotes were taken. In some cases, I hadn’t even written down the name of the publisher. Adding to my sense of the impossibility of the task in front of me was the fact that a good many of the books I’d consulted had been borrowed and returned.

My publisher was sympathetic, but firm. Fiction or non-fiction, a quotation has always to be acknowledged. Surely I knew that? Well, I did, of course, at some level, but somehow the information hadn’t filtered up to my conscious mind. My book had morphed from being a “family memoir” into a strange hybrid that was both travelogue and a history of China from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day. However personal my take on those China years, it didn’t change the fact that what I’d written was history. And I’d quoted everyone from Mao Zedong to President Truman. So I bit the bullet. Borrowed back the returned volumes. Took myself off to the National Library and Archives New Zealand to trawl again through the material that had done so much to shape my book. 

Any work that claims to interpret a life or a particular period in history must – if it is to be taken seriously – rely on primary sources. The reader has a right to know what and where those primary sources are, just as she has a right to know where already published information has come from. I know these things now. I accept them. But my next book will be fiction. 

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley will appear from Otago University Press later this year.

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