Arts & Culture

Alexandre Trudeau’s memoir – a barbarian lost in the “biggest human story”

Alexandre Trudeau – yes that one, younger brother to the Prime Minister – is publishing his first book on September 13 and will be in Ottawa for a Literary Lunch with the Ottawa International Writers Festival on the day of publication. Barbarian Lost is a memoir about his travels in China, recounted from more than a dozen visits to the country from 2006 onwards. Ottawa Magazine caught up with Trudeau to ask a few questions about Barbarian Lost.


Did you intend to write a primer on China for the lay reader?

Yes! That’s exactly what I wanted to do, really. I was hoping that anybody could follow me along. As a documentary filmmaker, I was hoping that this could be the literary equivalent, so that the reader travels alongside, learning as the traveller learns. My aims were twofold: firstly, that anyone could read it and that it would not be just a book for experts; secondly, that readers would feel as if they had travelled with me.

You have written some very poetic descriptions. Was it hard for you to translate your filmmaker’s eye to the written page, or did this in fact make it easier for you?

Slightly surprisingly, it came naturally to write. For a long time as a filmmaker, I have wished to be rid of the alienating presence of the camera and all the pieces of equipment and people that come with it, to allow me to look like a tourist or a passerby. Largely because, so often, the best moments happen when you’ve packed the camera away and people have let down their guard. Without the camera, it came very naturally to me to include the sensorial and visual feelings into my writing so that it is almost filmic. It is important to feel where you are before you start talking to someone.

Despite interviewing numerous minor dissenters, you appear to have successfully presented an apolitical portrait of the country that does not shy away from some of the more ugly parts. Do you know yet how the book has been received in China?

No, I don’t and I do worry about that. I worry about the politics. But politics are just a small, small part of the story. People in Canada see China through an overly political prism, and people jump to the conclusion that it must be an unhappy place. On the contrary, China is not this at all. Politics in China is for those very few people in China who do politics. For most people, they view their current government as just another dynasty. Vivienne, my guide, was a dissenter, so to speak, so she led me to people who also wanted more. China is a country that is evolving, changing, and awakening on so many levels. And yes, there is the start of a political awakening, but I never wanted to make this the theme of the book.


After your travels in China – more profound and more intimate than most westerners will ever experience – do you still find yourself wanting to learn more, to travel more?

I could have been writing this book forever. The more you know about China, the less you know. I wanted to give a sense of the depth of the place, rather than knowledge of lots of different pieces and places, so the approach remains fragmentary. You can’t get a hold of China. It’s the biggest human story you can follow.

I’m still an outsider there – a Barbarian – but what China has given me is a perspective on the West. From China, it’s much easier to understand the West. I now look at our own freedoms with a little more circumspection and consider some of the irresponsible nature of some of the freedoms we enjoy. I think China has a lot to say, especially Old China.

For a reader whose interest in China has been piqued by Barbarian Lost, what would you suggest reading next?

I think Jonathan Spence’s book, The Search for Modern China, would be a good choice. But also one of his earlier books, The Death of Woman Wang, because it gives such a microcosmic perspective of China. And read some early Chinese literature because it’s so weird, so different.

Barbarian Lost, by Alexandre Trudeau, is on sale as of September 13. He’ll be in Ottawa that same day as part of a lunch hosted by Ottawa International Writer’s Festival