“What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing writing about the Ming founding?”
A California-based literary agent once asked me this after I proposed a novel about the story of the fourteenth-century Ming Dynasty founder, Zhu Yuanzhang.
How to reply?
I mentioned that I’m not actually Jewish, but I knew that was not the point of the question. The agent was trying to tell me that he thought it strange to hear the idea for such a book coming from someone who is not Chinese.
Structuring a novel is a murky process, but one moment stands out in my mind as key to both my novel, The Lacquered Talisman, and its cover, which was created by my son.
I was sitting on the floor of a bookstore in Boston, flipping through art books about China, when suddenly it hit me: What I needed for my main character was a talisman. And this talisman would be a seal chop. The Lacquered Talisman is about the Zhu family, whose youngest son founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. I needed a tangible item that could symbolize family for my protagonist. Thus the talisman. Continue reading →
Here’s a five-star review of my debut novel published August 12, 2020 on IndieReader.com, a website devoted to self, hybrid and small press published authors:
THE LACQUERED TALISMAN leads readers from the marriage of the first Ming Emperor’s parents, through his young life, and his years of devotion as a Buddhist monk, to the beginnings of the rebellion that would overturn a dynasty and set him on the throne of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
The city leader was concerned that all the businesses in his town were shuttered. People were afraid to go out. He asked the central government for tax relief, and then embarked on a major project to get people shopping again.
Sound familiar? The concerns are the same type that officials today are dealing with in the face of COVID-19, but the city leader I am referring to is Xin Qiji 辛弃疾, one the Song Dynasty’s military prefects in Chuzhou 滁州, a city across the Yangtze River from Nanjing in China’s heartland. And the danger Xin Qiji faced in the 12th Century was not a pandemic, it was the Jin cavalry poised for yet another invasion from the north. Xin Qiji’s signature solution was also not something mayors or governors in the U.S. are currently considering: he built a soaring pavilion, the tallest structure in Chuzhou, located in today’s Anhui Province.
“Literary types love towers, this has been true since ancient times,” wrote Qian Niansun 钱念孙 in a recent travel book about Anhui. “Most climb or build them either to visit scenic spots or wax poetic, but Xin Qiji established Pillow Pavilion 奠枕楼 in Chuzhou for quite another reason…Pillow Pavilion was actually an 800-year-old ‘Call to Commerce Tower.’” Continue reading →
If not for the plague, China wouldn’t have a Ming Dynasty.
This startling thought has been on my mind as I sit at home in quarantine, enduring the epidemic of my era: COVID19.
Of course, if the Ming had not been founded in 1368, some other dynasty would have followed Kublai Khan’s Mongol Yuan. Perhaps the salt smuggler Zhang Shicheng would have prevailed with his Great Zhou Dynasty based in the city of Hangzhou (which the Ming founder squashed in 1367). My point is that the plague is what propelled the Ming founder onto the path that led to the founding. It is the single incident that pushed him off his expected trajectory of farming alongside his brothers in the fields along the Huai River. Zhu Yuanzhang was the youngest of four sons. If not for the plague, he would never have left his large family, which needed him in the fields. He death would have been unremarkable and we would know nothing about him. Continue reading →
It took the founder of China’s Ming Dynasty ten years to get his life story published – as a text carved into a stone tablet still standing in northern Anhui Province.
It took another 639 years to get that story translated into English – as a PDF on my blog.
The original text was finalized back in 1378 when the carving was complete and the tablet was placed on the back of a huge stone turtle. The English final draft will probably never stop getting tweaked, most recently today, when I took the suggestion of a student at UC, San Diego and revised the concluding line. That’s the nature of translation: an imperfect but necessary process that can always be improved.
I am starting to feel like a case study in how not to time your book release.
First, I stretched out the manuscript editing process so that my debut novel release date planned for late 2019 was postponed to February 1, 2020. It’s a nice date, except that my publisher is located in China, with a printing press in Hong Kong that closed down right about then to combat COVID-19.
Next, I held off on book promotion in the U.S., where I live, to allow time for getting the book printed. “Let’s give it six weeks,” I decided. That timed my first mid-March book promotion gig for the exact moment when things started to shut down around me in Wisconsin. Continue reading →
According to my publisher, my first novel is now waiting in some printing queue in China, one small item lost in the general shutdown resulting from the coronavirus. Ironically, “The Lacquered Talisman” focuses on how the Zhu family dealt with the contagion of their era: the plague. When the day comes that I am able to hold a copy of my book in my own hands, I will feel a measure of relief that the current contagion is subsiding. Until then, my thoughts are with all those in China dealing with this crisis.
Here is how Zhu Yuanzhang wrote about the impact of contagion on his family: Continue reading →