Why I Wrote This Memoir
by James McMullan
I once found, deep within a closet, a long-forgotten box with the letters my mother and father had written to each other during World War II, while my father was in the army. I hoped they were a key to what had happened during that time because my mother and I had moved around so much, my memory of those years was a confused muddle.
Reading and thinking about the letters was like time travel. For the weeks that I was going through them, I felt as if I were back in China, India, and Canada. I remembered the sights, sounds, and smells of Cheefoo; being caned for losing my umbrella in the boarding school in Darjeeling; seeing a killer whale off Salt Spring Island. I began to recognize and accept how much my boyhood self is a huge part of who I am today, and how much his anxieties and enthusiasms are the underground river always bubbling up in the tone of what I draw and paint.
I wanted to tell the story of my beginnings in China and my experiences during the war—to see it as a history with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I wrote about the moments in my wartime life in a straightforward way, trusting that the art would express more of the emotions that I felt at the time.
When I am working well, a painting will tell me what it needs next. I have never felt this sense of discovering things as I paint more strongly than I did when doing the illustrations for Leaving China. The images seemed to arise out of my subconscious, in some ways echoing the Chinese scroll paintings in our Cheefoo house, but evolving into a style I had never used before. It turned out that the box of letters was like a magic lantern; the genie inside inspired me to see how much my past was the most powerful fuel for my art.