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Novel 'Four Treasures of the Sky' depicts the human toll of the Chinese Exclusion Act

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Daiyu is a Chinese girl who's kidnapped from her homeland and taken to late 1800s America, when anti-Asian sentiment is surging throughout the Western frontier. We learn about her and the ghosts she carries with her in "Four Treasures Of The Sky," a surreal and sprawling story spanning two continents. It's historical fiction that lays bare the human tragedy behind the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It's also Jenny Tinghui Zhang's debut novel. She joins us now. Welcome.

JENNY TINGHUI ZHANG: Hi Ayesha. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Thank you for being here. The main character and, really, the beating heart of this story is Daiyu. Daiyu is named after this seemingly mythical character, Lin Daiyu, who has a tragic story. And from the beginning, Daiyu has this very complicated relationship with that name. Can you talk about that?

ZHANG: Yes, so Lin Daiyu is a character that comes from this novel called "Dream Of The Red Chamber" - "Honglou Meng" in Chinese. It is a real book. It is one of China's four great classic novels. So in my novel, Daiyu is named after this character that comes from this famous novel. And this character, Lin Daiyu - she is a poet. She's the best poet of her time, you could argue. She's also very sensitive, and she has a tragic life in that she's an orphan. Her parents die when she's very young, and she falls in love with her cousin, who ends up marrying a different cousin under false pretenses because he believes that this other cousin is actually Lin Daiyu when it's not. And so when Lin Daiyu learns of this, she dies. So my character, Daiyu, is so aware of the fact that this character she's named after has such a tragic life and a tragic end.

RASCOE: Yeah.

ZHANG: And the core question for her from the beginning is, is everything bad that happens to me in my life because of the fact that I'm named after this very tragic character? And if that's the case, how can I escape the confines of my name? How can I become more and become my own person?

RASCOE: Yeah, and it's really - it seemed like, you know, this idea of, how much of your life is fate? And how much is it that you own and that you make it - of it what you can?

ZHANG: Yeah, absolutely. You know, throughout the book, I start many sections with - this is the story of...

RASCOE: Yes.

ZHANG: ...Dot, dot, dot. And that kind of repeats throughout. So I think a large part of this story is about, you know, how do we create our own stories?

RASCOE: In this story, you have a ghost form of Lin Daiyu. So this is the character from the famous stories. She appears in your story as a ghost. Like, how do you want the reader to interpret Lin Daiyu the spirit?

ZHANG: Yeah, so a little backstory on that. I never thought that she would actually appear in kind of the form that she does. But when Daiyu was, I think, in one of the scenes where she's in that room after she's been kidnapped and it's dark - and I was just thinking, she's about to go on this very long and very difficult journey. I don't think she can make it without some sort of companion. Whether it's real or imagined, she needs kind of something to hold her down and to be with her along the way. So that was where this kind of spirit or ghost of Lin Daiyu came to be. But at the same time, I think she represents a very childish part of Daiyu that she is also seeking to grow apart from and evolve from.

RASCOE: In this story, Daiyu takes on many identities, including disguising herself as a man at one point. And you have this section about what it means to be a man that I would love for you to read.

ZHANG: (Reading) But being a man demands more. For the ruse to work, the transformation must take place under the skin, in all the corners of myself that I have not yet even come to understand. What does it mean to be a man? My experiences then told me everything. It was a matter of believing oneself invincible and strong and owed everything.

RASCOE: When I read that, I said, that is a word. Like, that...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: That is a word about men and a certain form of manhood, right? Like, I felt like Daiyu really had - I feel like she got men's number with that. (Laughter). How did you come to that? Because there is this thing of your strength; you're strong; you feel no pain. None of that is true. Men feel pain and all these things.

ZHANG: Yeah.

RASCOE: But there's this idea that men shouldn't and that they should go around the world, really, as if they're invincible. And they're not, right?

ZHANG: Right, right. Physically - and I guess you could say emotionally - no one, no one is.

RASCOE: No, no.

ZHANG: Wouldn't it be nice if we were? But we are not.

RASCOE: It would. It would be amazing. But it is not. And so it's unfortunate.

ZHANG: It is - I think it's the saddest realization when you discover that there is, like, harm and evil in the world. And I think her experiences up to that point lead her to this realization. And maybe, sometimes, it's the wrong realization, but it is the conclusion she reaches that she can't trust men. And in order to be able to even survive and exist, she kind of has to become a man because that's what the time and the environment and the people demand of her.

RASCOE: Your book is set against the backdrop of another moment when this country saw a great deal of anti-Asian racism. And there is a lot of rising anti-Asian sentiment and violence happening right now. You recently published an essay in The Cut magazine about how that makes you worry for your parents. And I guess I just - I wonder, what does that feel like releasing your book in this moment when so many people don't even know about the atrocities that happened to the Chinese back then, and then you're still dealing with violence today?

ZHANG: I've heard a lot of people describe the book as timely and, like, now, more than ever - that sort of phrasing. You know, I don't look at that as a good thing. It's unfortunate that it's timely. It's unfortunate that it is still relevant. When I was writing this book, it was when COVID first hit. And, you know, we had phrasing of kung flu and Chinese virus. And I remember I was writing part three during this time and writing, you know, all the names that Chinese people were being called, all the attitudes towards them. And it just - it didn't even feel like I was writing about history. It just felt like so present day and in the moment. And I know this book is historical fiction, but when I look at it, it's not history, and it doesn't feel like fiction. It is very much our reality right now and for a long time before right now.

RASCOE: That's Jenny Tinghui Zhang. Her book is called "Four Treasures Of The Sky." Thanks so much.

ZHANG: Thank you, Ayesha. This was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.