It was one of those chance-propelled moments that could have slipped away—but didn’t. I was in the fabulous Yu Garden in Shanghai overlooking the famous Jiu Qu Bridge, which makes nine zig zag turns to ward off evil spirits. I overheard a tour guide mention the famous nineteenth century Chinese courtesan who traveled to Europe as the concubine of a diplomat. The guide spoke no more than three sentences about Sai Jinhua—but I was immediately fascinated. I said to my one-in-a-million husband, “If I were going to write a book—which I am not—this would be the story I would like to tell.” And he turned to me and said, “Well, why don’t you?”
What was it that drew you to the courtesan’s story?
I was young when my family moved to the other side of the world, to Singapore, which was and still is a fascinating place of many cultures. It was a busy and quintessentially Asian city of tremendous population density, where life unfolded in the streets and in the markets and in sights, sounds, and smells that seeped through the open windows of colonial era buildings. It was exotic and loud and pungent and delicious with its Chinese, Malay, and Indian denizens and their wonderful cultures. Arriving there gave me the thrill of my life. It was also hugely alienating. People everywhere—all with faces not like mine.
So standing at the edge of the Jiu Qu Bridge, I remembered all of this. And I wondered—what was it like for a young woman, over a century ago, to leave her home in China and go to a place where people all had faces not like hers?
Most debut authors have a background in writing, whether they were a journalist, a blogger, or completed an MFA in creative writing. But you didn’t follow any of those traditional paths. How did you approach writing your first book?
I began with research. Lots of it. I am a neat-freak, but we lived for years with stacks of books on the dining room table, on the chairs, lining the walls. I read everything I could find about Sai Jinhua. I read about the politics of the period, about brothels and prostitution, about the Boxer Rebellion, about Chinese dress, story-telling, and the tradition of binding women’s feet. I read as many firsthand accounts dating to the time as I could. People who had lived through the Boxer Rebellion. People who lived in Peking at the turn of the last century and wrote about it. People who loved China and the Chinese and people who were contemptuous of them. I studied old photographs and maps. Traveled to Suzhou. Read Edmund Backhouse’s pornographic memoir. Dragged my husband to the Sex Museum in Tong Li. While visiting my son in Suzhou, I found Hong Jun’s house entirely by accident.
So this was the research, which was ongoing until the very end. Then there was the matter of learning how to write fiction. I had never written anything more evocative than a college term paper, and it dawned on me that I had no idea how to write a novel. So I attended writing workshops and joined several writers’ critique groups. I was fortunate in finding people who were supportive and patient and creative, who knew how to write, were willing to share—and most important of all, who asked great questions. I learned a lot from each and every one of them.
In the end, much before I was ready, I was lucky enough to have a writer friend who encouraged me to push my deeply flawed manuscript out the door, and to have guardian angels to help me find an agent who believed that the novel had a right to life. Without them, the book would still be a work in progress. I would be writing and rewriting–with stacks of books on my dining room table.
You did very in-depth research to prepare for writing The Courtesan—were there any interesting anecdotes or facts that didn’t make it into the novel? What was the most helpful historical resource?
Oh yes. Boatloads of material did not make the cut, not because it wasn’t interesting stuff, but because no one would read a two thousand page novel that rambles through the lives of dozens of people. The missionaries of the time had fascinating stories, as did the Chinese imperial eunuchs, the brilliant English con man, Edmund Backhouse, the much-maligned Chinese empress dowager, the fragile Austrian empress, Sisi, and Waldersee’s manipulative American wife, Marie. In the context of this novel, I could only place hints about these people’s stories. I would have loved to do more. Other writers have and will.
As for Jinhua, the evolution of her legend was something that had no real place in the novel but is a tantalizing story unto itself. In the beginning, I could well imagine that she propagated the tales of her own romances with first the diplomat, Hong Jun, and then Waldersee, as well as her (heroic) role in the aftermath of the Boxer War. These stories would certainly have served the interests of her professional endeavors as a courtesan/madam, and they took hold with several writers in China, first as a romantic poem and later as a series of allegorical narratives with diverse social and political implications. China was negotiating its way to the end of the decadent imperial era and the turbulent founding of the Republic of China, and it was a time of introspection among many Chinese intellectuals. There were, therefore, renderings of Jinhua’s life that highlighted the depravity of late Qing society, as well as China’s humiliation at the hands of the West. Jinhua was portrayed in some literary treatments of this era as an unscrupulous, promiscuous figure and her husband, Hong Jun, as an ineffectual and unenlightened bureaucrat. Later came the devastating war with Japan, and the standoff between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists, and the treatment of Jinhua’s story dating to the 1930’s recast her as a patriot and heroine who intervened with her lover, Waldersee, to stop the rape and pillage of China by the occupying forces after the Boxer War. She became a heroic figure, and this treatment was used in oblique criticism of the Chinese Nationalist government’s impotence in defending China against the Japanese. Later still, during the Cultural Revolution, she was posthumously criticized for her treasonous “collaboration” with Waldersee and his cohorts.
So the story of Sai Jinhua has evolved through literature in fascinating ways. As for the most helpful resource, one of my earliest sources was Sterling Seagrave’s book, Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. Seagrave’s work undertakes to vindicate the awful reputation of the empress Cixi and sheds a great deal of light on the latter decades of the Qing dynasty as well as China’s interactions with the outside world. This book, more than any other, set the historical and political stage for my novel and for Jinhua’s life in its larger context.
At its heart, The Courtesan is both a personal and a political novel—did you consciously set out to tell a political tale? How does the dynamic between East and West in the novel relate to our world today?
I began with a profound interest in Jinhua’s life and her experiences traversing the cultural boundaries between East and West at a time when East and West were largely unfamiliar, each with the other. I wanted to explore in a fictional way and a long ago context what I had experienced myself in moving to Asia from the West. So the novel began as a personal story for me, the story of a woman’s life—and yet as I learned more about Jinhua, who she was and why her story is told today, the political context was, and is, an inextricable part of what needed to be in the novel. Without it, she would be just another woman who made a living in the sex trade and was forgotten.
I think that the dynamic between East and West that I have tried to illuminate (largely from the Chinese point of view) is a significant piece of the transition to the globalized world we live in, one in which China is a player with which to be reckoned. We in the West tend to think of China primarily in terms of the dual narrative of economic might and political repression, and the age of imperialism as it relates to China is pretty remote to the western world view of today. Several of the events referenced in the novel, however, are very much a part of China’s own narrative regarding its history. They are part and parcel of what is known as “the hundred years of national humiliation,” which began with the First Opium War and ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. These hundred years, during which the Middle Kingdom was more or less continuously under siege from an assortment of European nations, America, and Japan, have not been forgotten in China. They are a part of the backdrop to what one might call China’s “official nationalism”.
Sai Jinhua has been portrayed as both a villain and a heroine throughout history. Do you find her to be an ultimately sympathetic character?
I really do need to distinguish here between Sai Jinhua, the historical figure, and “my” Sai Jinhua, and I would have to confess that it took me a while to develop sympathy for her as a character. In the early days of writing I found her to be a hard and opportunistic woman, which I suspect she ultimately was. But as I worked to give her a story she became a quite different person. She became vulnerable. I fell in love with the notion of a child, then woman, injured, traumatized, telling herself stories for comfort, trying to believe in them as truth. It is something we all do in one way or another—and the line between what is real and what is not is blurred by the way in which our minds work. This happens to Jinhua, and she harms both herself and others by her inability to see beyond her own stories, which makes her very human. At the end of the novel she does earn a form of redemption—one that is not actually true to the trajectory of her life, but one that seemed very right as I wrote her story. Readers should be reminded that this is her story as it might have been and not as it was.
A major theme in The Courtesan is the importance of female friendship—Sai Jinhua and Suyin’s special connection serves as a life-sustaining force for both of them. Where did you find the inspiration to write about this friendship?
Actually, my early vision for the story was a validation of the love affair between Sai Jinhua and Count Alfred von Waldersee. Suyin began as a transitional character who wasn’t meant to have much significance beyond the early brothel scenes. In my first draft, when Jinhua arrived at the Palais Kinsky I found myself (and her) needing Suyin’s wisdom and friendship, and at the same time I felt a growing sense of disbelief that the love affair with Waldersee had ever happened. Jinhua, after all, was so very young—thirteen years old when she traveled to Europe, and Waldersee would at the time have been fifty-five years old. The gulf between them would have been enormous in many other respects, and I found myself believing that the affair was an infatuation on Jinhua’s part—the fantasy of an impressionable and traumatized child who looked to stories to sustain herself and very much wanted and needed an idealized hero, a Kavalier. It was at this point that I also realized that the person she really loved and needed was Suyin, who was wise, and damaged, and nurturing, and who loved Jinhua—and that Jinhua herself would not come to know this until it was much too late. (To be truthful, an earlier draft of the novel set forth a happy ending, in which Jinhua and Suyin returned together to Suzhou with the little boy—and lived happily ever after—but that, of course, was not the right ending for my version of their story.)
The inspiration for Jinhua’s relationship with Suyin came partly in a spontaneous way from listening to my characters, and from thinking about what was real and abiding in their lives. And then, of course, I found the resonance in my own life—in my relationship with my sister—and in observing friendships between women and seeing how they evolve and deepen as we get older. I have seen this with my mother and her friends. I have seen it with my own.
You have lived in Asia and speak several languages. How did this impact your writing and the language in The Courtesan?
Actually I dabble in more languages than I speak—but I will say that I found the various languages that make shadow appearances in the book a marvelous tool to evoke the ways in which the various cultures are different and yet the same. Borrowing idioms from the Chinese and German languages gave me fresh and authentic ways to talk about what my characters observed and felt. To talk about a moment in time being as brief as the time it takes to drink a sip of tea gives so much cultural context. And where a Chinese might call someone “as thin as a scallion”, an Austrian would say “hauchdünn”, which means as thin as a breath. What the British call “the black sheep of the family”, the Chinese call “the harmful horse of the herd”. It is wonderful stuff. It made my material so much richer—and it was all so much fun to think about.
As a debut novelist, how did you find the publishing process? Any surprises?
I would have to say that I have found the experience to date both fascinating and very rewarding, and of course, there is a great deal still to come. The thing that perhaps has surprised me the most is the level of commitment to the effort of producing the novel in terms of editorial input, attention to story, willingness to share and listen and discuss. I was astounded at how carefully my agent, editors, and copy-editors read the manuscript—how diligent the copy-editors in particular were in fact-checking the smallest of details and helping me make sure that all was right. I would say unequivocally, The Courtesan is a much better book in every way for having been through this process, for having been in the hands of people who love books in a truly professional way.
In answering this question, I must also make reference to the astounding commitment of my U.S. and Canadian publishers to the creation of a cover for my book, one that works beautifully on all levels. The image of Sai Jinhua on the cover is actually a commissioned oil painting by the artist Sara Scribner titled “A Solitary Moment”. I love the painting and am in awe of what my publishers have done to represent my novel!