About the book
His father dead, approaching forty, Jeff Mott is drifting across China, because he wants to learn the language. The Chinese agree that his Mandarin is pretty good, but only want to speak English with him. He starts teaching in a small town north of Beijing, and meets a young woman, Wang Bian Fu, and falls in love; however, as they get to know each other, Bian Fu’s family life and emotions seem increasingly more complex and disturbing—there is more to her than he can handle, he senses, something hidden. Their relationship becomes dominated by the walls and back alleys of Beijing, where they find humiliations, surprising differences, and barriers. They become engaged.
In the midst of this, he also mixes with other expatriates where he teaches, and comes to find that there are many ways of being the foreigner in China, the outsider, not all of them savoury. As he teaches his students English, his students teach him that there is much more to being Chinese than language. Classroom spies, things you don’t say, peasants, villages. Above all, there are manners and rules. He begins to miss his young daughter, Melissa.
And then he learns the truth about his Chinese fiancée, a truth concealed behind her considerable deception.
Jeff, his heart divided, has to make a choice, and flies back to Canada, promising to return. Bian Fu promises to solve the barriers to their marriage “in a Chinese way.”
Separated, the lovers continue to plan, through their heated and awkward, long-distance telephone calls, and through the Chinese characters, the ancient poems and proverbs, mangled in Jeff’s fumbling words. As they head towards marriage, Jeff wonders, is it Bian Fu that he loves? or China? or is it that he has imagined both of them as he wishes, not as they are? As Confucius says near the end of the novel, “It is not that I do not love you, it is just that your house is so far away.”
Poignant and ironic, and searchingly funny, It is Just That Your House is So Far Away delivers a Beijing love story and a vision of 1990s China on the edge of globalism.
About the author
Steve Noyes has published six books of poetry and fiction, in voices as various as Omar Khayyam, basketball star Allen Iverson, a Chaucer professor, and a 9th century Chinese bureaucrat's. Al Purdy said after reading his first book, “Noyes is a damn good poet.”
In Ghost Country, Steve also explored the distances to China; in Morbidity and Ornament, he mixed his formal, tight poems in Chinese with his manic narrative English poems about the prairies, anxiety dreams, Islamic themes, and animals. It is Just That Your House is So Far Away is his first novel.
Raised in Winnipeg, and a graduate of UBC's MFA Writing program and Carleton's journalism school, Noyes has published more than 100 poems, stories and book reviews. His writing appears regularly in such magazines and newspapers as The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Event, The Globe and Mail, Queen's Quarterly, and the Vancouver Sun. He has won writing grants from the BC Arts Council and the Canada Council. He has also worked as Foreign Expert, policy analyst, parking-lot attendant, printing press grunt, disabilities advocate, sessional lecturer, correspondence writer, plywood mill labourer, and editor.
Over the past decade, Noyes has worked and studied in Beijing, Shanghai, Taibei, Qingdao, and a little town north of Beijing. He has travelled extensively across China. He studied Mandarin at Fudan University in Shanghai, and holds an International Mandarin Proficiency Certificate. He is married to the poet Catherine Greenwood, and currently makes his home in Victoria, where he is puzzling out another novel and working for the BC Ministry of Health.
The road beside the canal was absolutely black as he pedalled slowly, fatigued, towards Kick Fish county, when he felt Bian Fu's arm slip around his waist and her head rest between his shoulder blades.
This was his woman. They were on their way home.
Everyone was sleeping in the house when he dropped her off.
On the way out of Kick Fish he had to piss, but when he came out of the public outhouse at the end of the alley there were two bright lights hovering , which lowered, and a male voice said, “Shei ya?”
Well, who was he?
He touched his nose, “Wo?”
They were two policemen, an older, stout one, frowning, and a younger, slim one, smiling. “Who are you?”, Stout repeated.
“I work at Jian Hua University. I am a Canadian.”
“Do you have your passport?”
“What are you doing here so late at night?”
“I was accompanying my friend home from the bar.”
“Boyfriend or girlfriend?”
They were clearly at a new level here. He hesitated, and they saw him hesitate. He didn't want Bian Fu involved in this; but he was out of his depth. With his limited Chinese he could hardly lie to them convincingly. And why should he lie to the police? Which was, come to think of it, a distinctly un-Chinese thought.
“Let's go see her,” Slim said.
“You must get off your bicycle,” said Stout.
As they walked back through Kick Fish, Slim was convivial, “You're not from Quebec are you?”
“I knew some Canadians from Quebec once.”
They got to the door.
“Shei ya?” he heard Bian Fu's voice.
“It's me, and a couple of friends.”
Bian Fu didn't blink on seeing the two cops. They started a conversation in Chinese, and he could make out New Year's Eve, near Beida, my friend, bicycle. It all sounded quite reasonable.
Then they were going inside the Wang household. Thank God her mother's not here, Jeff thought. The uncle sat up under his covers, his eyes wide. Chen Jie slunk out from the big bedroom.
“And who are you,” Slim asked Bian Fu.
“I live here, this is my mother's place.”
Jeff felt cold all over. He was an ID card, a lousy hukou, away from going to jail. The policemen were obviously suspicious, perhaps thinking Bian Fu was a prostitute. They asked her where her mother was, why were they out so late ?
“New Year's is a very important festival to Western people,” said Bian Fu.
Jeff offered Slim a cigarette.
Chen Jie cringed with her blankets wrapped tight round her.
“Let's see your ID,” said Stout.
Jeff's eyes focussed on nothing. Wang Bian Fu. Place of Registration: Hebei County. Marital Status: Married. Husband's Name: Han Han Han.
She went back in the bedroom and returned with her student card. Slim barely looked at it.
“Let's go, there's nothing here,” he said.
“You – we'll escort you out of the neighbourhood,” said Stout. He waved his torch.
“Talk to you tomorrow,” Jeff said.
“Zai jian,” said Bian Fu.
“You know,” said Stout, wheeling around and addressing them all, “a number of people have been killed in this neighbourhood lately. Everything we have done we have done for your safety.”
“For our safety,” they all repeated.
They took him to the highroad and told him to be careful. And that his Chinese was very good.
“Imagine Romeo and Juliet in mainland China with upset families, divergent cultures, public disapproval and a suspicious government — a complicated mess for two ardent lovers...What makes this novel special is that it goes past the Romeo and Juliet theme…” >>
— Winnipeg Free Press
“A bittersweet song to Beijing, to the Chinese language, to the Chinese, It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away is foremost a lovers' tune, tender and sad. Steve Noyes knows China and knows the human heart, and…” >>
— Charles Foran
“Even if he takes a little while to get there, the payoff at the end is greater for the time it took. The China Noyes builds is rife with details that roar off the page and revisiting the same interactions…” >>
— Broken Pencil
“I arrived in Canada from China in 1955 as a five-year-old. Fifty years later when I returned to China for the first time, it was as someone with no memory of her homeland; it was as someone raised in the…” >>
— Judy Fong Bates Literary Review of Canada
“The book moves quickly beyond stereotypes to describe a complex intercultural relationship, illustrating the difficulty of connecting across cultures and continents, while painting a vibrant pciture of a foreigner's life in China....
Noyes is a poet, and some…” >>
— Emily Walz Cha Magazine