by Terry Hong
Ever since she was a child, Janie Chang was steeped in family tales she inherited from her parents about the generations that came before. For decades, she remained the family’s repository until, at age 53, she presented the world with her debut novel, Three Souls, in early 2014. Chang remade her literary inheritance into nearly 500 pages permeated with love and longing, independence and entrapment, revolution and pettiness, promises and betrayal. As the story begins, Song Leiyin, Chang’s protagonist, is still very much a young woman, no longer alive in the “real world”—but neither has she made the expected journey to the afterlife. To do so, she will need to rely on her three souls—the delicate yin, the impatient yang, and the watchful hun—to lead the way. “You must understand the damage you did,” her souls admonish and warn her. “Then you must make amends to balance the ledger. Only then can we ascend together to the true afterlife.”
The Taiwanese-born, ancestrally Chinese, globally-raised, Vancouver-based Chang returns to what she knows—family legends interwoven with the supernatural—in her new novel, Dragon Springs Road, which was published on both sides of the Canadian/United States border in early January. Set in the outskirts of early 20th-century Shanghai, a young mixed-race child comes of age in an era of political, social, and economic turmoil in China. Jialing and her mother share a quiet life in a corner of a large family compound, their near-idyllic existence interrupted only by the visits of Noble Uncle from the main house.
One day, without warning, Jialing’s mother disappears. Jialing is just seven. Being abandoned is terrifying, but even more tragically, Jialing will never be able to escape who she is merely by accident of her birth, a zachong—a derogatory term for a mixed-race child, one of China’s most reviled societal rejects. Her prospects are limited: to enter a brothel or work in a factory. Her only protection is Fox, a centuries-old being, not of this world, who moves freely between animal and human forms.
When a new family moves into the estate, the matriarch grandmother decides to keep Jialing as an unpaid bondservant. Most of the Yang family, including some of the hired staff, treat Jialing with open contempt, but she finds nurturing sisterhood with the Yangs’ oldest daughter, Anjuin. As Jialing grows into a capable young woman, she’s afforded the one thing even privileged Anjuin is denied: while Anjuin’s life turns further inward as she is groomed to be a wife and mother, through serendipitous events Jialing is granted the freedom of an education. The outside world, however, is hardly welcoming, and her survival is never guaranteed.
Terry Hong: You come from a family of storytellers, and you’ve even devoted a part of your personal website to your family’s many colorful stories. Given such a history—and since this is Bloom—why did you take so long to start writing some of these stories? What did you have to do before you finally admitted to yourself that you’re truly a storyteller, too?
Janie Chang: I’ve always wanted to be an author. But I also wanted to earn a living! More seriously, I think that women tend to put their dreams on the back burner. Everyone and everything else comes first, don’t you find? Life just got to the point where I knew that if I didn’t make a serious effort, I would end up 95 years old, sitting in my rocking chair, and filled with regrets. Plus, it gets to be soul-destroying when you suppress a part of you that needs acknowledgement.
TH: Speaking of souls … I just found out Stepmother in Three Souls is Anjuin from Dragon Springs Road! But Anjuin is never named in Three Souls, is she? If I hadn’t read every page of Dragon, including the additional reading guide, book club questions, and contextual background, I don’t think I would have known. Besides the fact that she’s the daughter of a cloth merchant who never expected to marry in Souls, did you leave other clues? Are readers supposed to know that Dragon is partly Anjuin’s story before she became Stepmother?
JC: The fact that Anjuin is Stepmother really isn’t meant to be blindingly obvious. The two novels are stand-alone, with that one thread in common.
TH: I love when characters appear in other titles that seem unrelated. Does Dragon have other overlapping characters from Souls? Will your next novel have overlaps?
JC: There aren’t any other characters in common between the two novels. In my third novel however … that’s all I can say right now. Terry, stop asking questions that force me to be coy!
TH: Okay, okay! So you’ve published two historical novels. What draws you to the stories from the past? And when family lore can’t give you enough details, how do you research to make sure the history is accurate?
JC: While Dragon Spring Road contains scenes and incidents that use family stories, the core of the story and the main character have nothing to do with family history. There are, however, scenes that make use of tidbits from the family stories, which I feel add richness and authenticity to DSR. As for research, in Three Souls I felt quite confident about the interpersonal dynamics because [my characters] belonged to an era and class of family I knew well from my parents’ stories. With DSR, I had to do a lot of research about the political history of an earlier time, the end of the Qing dynasty and the rocky start of the Republic. The most difficult was digging for information about Eurasian orphans of the era—they were “unwanted and unacknowledged” and there wasn’t much documentation. It was only after I looked into the memoirs of women missionaries from that era and the journals that various missions published that I was able to validate my impressions about the harsh life Eurasians faced.
Generally I begin research with online searches to see how far I can get for free—and my copy editors have said that Wikipedia is not admissible as a source, so I look for additional validating references. Quite often the searches bring up titles of books that contain relevant information, and if they look useful, I will buy them. I’ve spent a fortune on reference books. I also look for Chinese movies from that era and novels or short stories by Chinese writers (translated into English).
TH: Both novels also have important elements of the supernatural. Where did that interest develop? Do you believe in ghosts, animal spirits, magic portals, or afterlives?
JC: Many of our family stories feature the supernatural. For example, according to family legend, my seven-times-great-grandfather stepped through a doorway into the land of immortals. So we have an ancestor who is an immortal and who looks out for us. Ghosts and spirits just seem to wander into my stories. But you know, it was a time when people simply believed in the supernatural so it felt natural to bring a Fox spirit into the story.
TH: In addition to the historical and supernatural themes, we’re also seeing a narrative focus highlighting the fate of women—the price of educating women, the value (or lack thereof) of girls and women, what happens to women without men, what happens to women who get stuck with the wrong men. What draws you to these subjects?
JC: What a difference two generations make. In Three Souls, I was moved to write about my grandmother, who was highly intelligent but not allowed to attend university or have a career. In contrast, my parents absolutely expected all of us to graduate from university. Whenever I thought about my grandmother, it just seemed so unfair and so sad. There but for an accident of birth, that could’ve been me. That’s what I hope readers can experience when they are immersed in a historical novel, to feel the injustice of a less enlightened era.
Dragon Springs Road’s themes are about identity and “otherness.” The story brings up racism, child labor, infanticide, and the way children and women are treated as chattels. Some readers will just read through these scenes and deplore how terrible things were back then. But I hope that others will make the effort to learn more about these issues and realize they still exist in our modern world, outside North America.
TH: Liu Sanmu’s initial motivation in helping Jialing has to do with following a human interest story to cover in his paper, but he decides not to publish the story because it lacks a happy ending. Happy endings are rare for many of the characters in both your titles. How did you decide who would get what fate?
JC: It was a turbulent and brutal time. Millions died from disease, starvation, war, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact that anyone survived or found love is already pretty good. And you know what? Authors love their characters. We don’t WANT them to suffer, we want them to live happily ever after. But for the sake of suspense, for the sake of conflict, we have to put them through terrible situations, especially the central character.
TH: Living a life of in-between looms large in your fiction. In Souls, the main character Leiyin hovers between this world and another. In Dragon, Jialing is of mixed race and her co-protagonist Fox is also mixed in that she lives in between the animal and human worlds. What is it about that in-between that interests you?
JC: That’s a very perceptive question. Perhaps because as an immigrant and person of color, I have lived through episodes of feeling in-between. This was particularly acute when I was a teenager, because my parents were rather traditional and worried that I would lose all respect for Chinese values. At the same time, they wanted me to do well in the mainstream Canadian world. There was a literary event where someone asked whether I felt Canadian or Chinese and this question astonished me. It was as though I was being asked to choose a single identity. It seems to me that in this global economy, where there’s so much mobility and migration, that there must be many people like me who are products of multiple cultures—able to understand both but not really one or the other.
TH: Speaking of multiple cultures, you’ve lived all over the world—the Philippines, Thailand, Iran, New Zealand, and now Vancouver for many years. Both your books are set in China, where you’ve never actually lived. Besides your family’s ancestry, why China?
JC: The main reason is that my family stories offer so much material and I haven’t worked through them yet! Plus, when you plot novels, you want conflict. The first 50 years of the 20th century were relentlessly traumatic for China so this backdrop heightens the sense of oppression.
TH: From limited experience, Canada seems to be less—for lack of a better word—ghettoizing of their citizens of color. For example, you seem to be mostly referred to as a Canadian writer, rather than, say, a woman Canadian writer of Chinese descent. Is Canada that inclusive?
JC: You’re right when it comes to inclusiveness. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms legally protects all citizens, regardless of race or country of origin, the right to retain their cultural identity. Multiculturalism became official policy in 1971 and we’ve had 40 years now to work through the kinks and practical application of that policy, and it’s part of who we are. So sure, we refer to an Indo-Canadian community or a Chinese-Canadian community, but without any implication that this makes anyone less “Canadian.” Whatever that means. But we can’t be smug about it. It’s not perfect, nothing is. You don’t eradicate sexism or racism just because it’s law. It takes generations of change and it takes education.
I think one of the reasons I end up highlighting social injustices against women so much is because I never want to forget how hard things were for the generations that came before us, and how bad it could get if our society slipped backwards if we aren’t vigilant.
TH: What did you learn from writing Souls that helped you in writing Dragon?
JC: I had some excellent editors. The editing process was a great experience. I really took to heart the comment that ‘less is more.’ So much so that this time one of them remarked that there were spots where more would’ve been better.
TH: What wisdom from your inaugural tour are you taking along on your current tour for Dragon? What’s the most important message you’d like to share with your readers now?
JC: This time around, I know that there is very little an author can do to move the dial on book sales. Not in a significant way. You cover the bases and do your social media, make your appearances, but you can’t worry whether you’re doing enough. The most important thing you can do is to write that next book and make it the best it can be.
For readers, I would just ask them to open up their reading choices and consider books by a more diverse range of authors. For example, FOLD [Canada’s Festival of Literary Diversity] has set a reading challenge for 2017 with a checklist of criteria such as: book by a poet of color, or book that’s an Amnesty International Book Club selection. Few of us can afford to travel to learn about different cultures, but it’s a very small investment to dive into a book.