Q & A ABOUT PEONY IN LOVE
Q: How do you compare Peony in Love to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?
A: I think of Peony in Love as a kind of reverse mirror image of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Snow Flower takes place in rural Chinese villages in the 19th century and was about poor, uneducated, bound-footed women, who lived in seclusion and longed to be heard. Peony in Love takes place in a thriving city in the 17th century. These women are from wealthy families and highly, highly educated. They have bound feet, but they don’t live in seclusion. Like the nu shu writers, they also long to be heard. Peony in Love is based on the true story of three women who were married to the same man – one right after the other – who together wrote the first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world. These women were part of a larger phenomenon. In the 17th century, there were more women writers in China who were being published than altogether in the rest of the world at that time. And while there were hardly any women being published in the rest of the world back then, there were thousands of women being published in China.
Q: What was the impetus for this book and how did the plot occur to you?
A: I first heard about the lovesick maidens when I was researching a piece for Vogue on the Lincoln Center production of the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” In the past, women and girls in China weren’t allowed to see the opera, but they could read it. When girls read it, they caught cases of lovesickness, wasted away, and died, just like the main character in the opera. That stuck with me long after I’d finished the article. Then, when I was doing research for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I kept coming across the story of the three wives and how they were part of this larger phenomenon. I kept thinking, How could there have been that many women writers and I didn’t know about them…and why don’t we all know about them? This seemed to me to be one of those pieces of women’s history that had been lost, forgotten, or covered up. As for the second part of your question, the plot was easy: I followed what happened to the three wives in real life. My major inspiration and change was that Peony, the first wife, would be a ghost who would come back to earth to finish the project. Naturally, that changed the story quite a bit!
Q: How much research did Peony in Love need? Did you make another trip to China or was information about the historical period readily available?
A: I’m a research fiend. I love it. I read everything I could on the three wives and I spoke with the top scholars in the field of Chinese women’s history. One of the neat things that happened was that one of the scholars sent me a photo copy of a 17th-century edition of The Three Wives’ Commentary that’s owned by a private collector. (We may not have heard about the book in this country, but it remained in print in China for about 300 years. Not too shabby.) I also searched for and found first-person accounts of what happened during the Manchu invasion of Yangzhou. These were true stories of terrible suffering, but I used them to tell what happened to Peony’s mother and her family, because the little details that are found in the truth are so much more wrenching and terrifying than anything I could make up. I dug and dug and dug to find spells, traditions, and remedies that were accurate to that time and place in China. A whole separate part of my research had to do with ghosts and the need for sons, which are closely related. And of course, I went to China. I went to every location that I wrote about. Even today Hangzhou is considered China’s most romantic city. So while this trip wasn’t as hard or as dramatic as some I’ve done for my other books, I know I couldn’t have written the novel if I hadn’t spent time in Hangzhou and it’s environs.
Q: After her death, Peony returns to earth as a "hungry ghost." Is this venture into the supernatural and the mystic afterlife new territory for you?
A: Yes!!! But here’s the thing: spirits in the Chinese afterworld – whether beloved ancestors or ghosts – have the same wants, needs, and desires as living people. They need clothes, food, a place to live. They have emotions. Most important, in the Chinese tradition, spirits, ancestors, and even demons are very much a part of everyday life. This is why ancestor worship is so important. So for me the challenge was to create a believable situation (to Western readers, especially) for Peony. She can float, change form, and do many things that living people can’t do, but she is also inhibited – as all Chinese ghosts are – by things like corners, mirrors, and fern fronds. In other words, she inhabits a very real parallel world to the living world; both have their own rules of what can and can’t be done.
Q: What will intrigue readers about Peony? What will they learn compared to the information about the secret language in Snow Flower and about the intimate bonds between women in that society? Do you think that these two books somehow tell a larger story?
A: This is a three-part answer. First, I hope readers will have the same feeling I did when I first encountered the three wives and all the women writers in 17th-century China: Who knew? And wow, isn’t that amazing? So often we hear about women in the past that there were no women writers, no women artists, no women chefs, etc. But of course there were! But their stories, as I said earlier, have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up.
Second, I think – hope – readers will connect to Peony and the ways she experiences the different aspects of love. A single emotional thread ties Peony to her mother and her grandmother. Mother love is something that all women experience – either receiving or getting it (or not giving or getting it). In addition to the relationships Peony has with her mother and grandmother, she also experiences romantic love, sexual love, sacrificing love, duty love, and finally mother love as a mother of sorts to the third wife. Even though she dies at age sixteen, by the end of the novel she’s experienced and explored what women hope to have in their lifetimes. In the way that readers thought about their own friendships when they read Snow Flower, I hope they’ll think about the ways they’ve given and received love when they read Peony.
Finally, I’d say, yes, I think the two books do tell part of a larger story about women and our lost history. Women today are very lucky, but we’ve only been able to get to where we are because of all the suffering, failures, tragedies, and triumphs of the women who came before us. We should rejoice in what they did. At the same time, I don’t think our lives are so removed from theirs. We – and I’m speaking here of men and women – still long – need – to be heard. Peony is about what one person will endure to be heard.
Q: All your novels so far are set wholly or partly in China. Did the background you discovered in writing On Gold Mountain inspire you to focus on this aspect of your genetic inheritance in your fiction?
A: I think you can see from my other answers that I’m intrigued by lost stories and lost history. This was true with my own family and with Chinese-American history, so yes, I’d say that my desire to find lost stories very much comes from writing On Gold Mountain. I mean, how crazy is it to look into your family history and find a great-grandfather who got his start in this country by manufacturing crotchless underwear for brothels? So much of what my family did was either borderline illegal or full on out there illegal. At the same time, history was happening all around them. History was happening to them. I thought it would be pretty interesting to tell the story of the Chinese in America through the eyes of my family. (When you think about it, you can read all kinds of serious books about the Holocaust, but the one that’s most moving was written by a little girl in hiding. History happened to that one person and her family.) Anyway, I’ve stayed with this idea of history happening to individual people with all of my novels.
But something else also happened as a result of writing On Gold Mountain. I hadn’t really thought too much about my identity. Who does, after all? All of a sudden people asked me – and still do – what are you, Chinese or American? I know that because of how I look, I will always be seen as a bit of an outsider in Chinatown, but to me it’s home. It’s what I know. The same can be said for when I go to China. To me, it’s just a bigger Chinatown – very familiar and comfortable, but again, because of how I look I’ll always be seen as an outsider. Then when I’m out in the larger white community in the United States, I look like I belong but sometimes I don’t feel like I belong. That world often seems strange and very foreign to me. So in writing these books I’m also trying to figure out who I am. How and where do I fit in? Here, there, nowhere?