Friday, February 15, 2019

Interview with Yangsze Choo

In October 2013, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Yangsze Choo about her debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Set among the Chinese community of what was then called Malaya, in the early 1890s, the novel tells the story of Pan Li Lan, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a merchant family fallen on hard times. Desperate to repair his fortunes, Li Lan’s father contracts his daughter to the son of a wealthy local family. Sounds good, but there’s a catch: Pan Li Lan is a ghost bride, married to a dead man. Only a risky and difficult journey through the afterlife can free her from this unwanted bond.

I loved the first book, so when I saw on GoodReads that Yangsze had a new novel due out February 12, 2019, I contacted her right away. Because my podcast schedule had no space in it, Gabrielle Mathieu took over the audio interview about The Night Tiger for New Books in Fantasy, and we cross-posted it to New Books in Historical Fiction. But Yangsze also graciously agreed to answer written questions for this blog.

Yangsze, welcome! I so look forward to finding out more about how The Night Tiger came into being. Your first novel, The Ghost Bride, was also set among the Chinese community of Malaysia. What brings you back to this setting, if about fifty years later, for The Night Tiger?


I find it hard to write about places I’ve never been to, perhaps because a novel is like the unfurling of a dream and the reader has to inhabit this world with you. A jarring note causes this dream state to break up and dissolve. The experience of being transported involves intangibles like the color of the sky, the smell of the rain. When I wrote The Ghost Bride, I set it in Melaka, where my uncle used to live. For my second book, I knew I wanted to write about the Kinta Valley, which is further north. 


The area around Ipoh in this book is where I spent many childhood visits. It’s where my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up. In fact, my grandfather lived in a long, dark Chinese shophouse very much like the one described in The Night Tiger. You can still see many examples not only in Malaysia but wherever the overseas Chinese diaspora migrated, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and older parts of Hong Kong and Macau. I’ve always been interested in old houses because they retain a visceral sense of history and of stories waiting to be told.

Besides old Chinese shophouses, I’m also fascinated by the gracious colonial bungalows, with high ceilings and breezy verandas, left behind by the British. Many have been neglected or torn down, but quite a few have been beautifully restored and turned into hotels or restaurants. Nowadays, almost nobody can afford that sort of lifestyle, which requires a large staff of servants to maintain both the household and the grounds. The lives of those local servants and what they might have seen and thought (an alternate, mirror world to the sort of colonial novel that one tends to read about Southeast Asia—shades of Somerset Maugham!) was another inspiration for The Night Tiger.

The Night Tiger is told from two points of view: Ji Lin speaks in the first person but the past tense, whereas Ren’s story is told in third person present tense. Both of them are vital to the novel, but do you see one as more your main protagonist than the other, and if so which? What can you tell us in a few sentences about him or her?


Ooh! That’s a hard one. I didn’t set out to write a story from two points of view, but I quickly realized it would be hard to cover all the plot twists from one viewpoint. The decision to use third person present tense and first person past tense was fairly deliberate, as I wanted to make both narratives feel close to the reader. You could say that Ji Lin’s narrative is more dominant because it’s in first person. However, I also tried to give Ren’s narrative the quality of vivid honesty that you feel from a child. I actually quite enjoyed Ren’s point of view, in which the reader, as an adult, has the sense that Ren is coming to the wrong conclusions. For example, when Ren tells himself that his master, a British surgeon named William Acton, is “so sane, so reasonable,” the reader, of course, knows that William is actually falling apart.

What we experience through Ren’s eyes and his dreams is also very vivid. A reader told me that he felt the scenes of the railway stations were strangely true. I was happy to hear that, because that’s what I was going for—that feeling when you dream that the dreams are sharper and more meaningful than the real world.

To me, both Ren and Ji Lin are important. And perhaps that’s the point of the book—that all the characters are inextricably entwined together.

The title refers to a local belief in were-tigers, part of a broader category of spirit or sacred animals. What is that belief, and how does it work itself into your novel?


I’ve always been interested in shape-changers and the question of what distinguishes man from beasts. Every culture has its were-creatures. In Europe it is primarily the wolf. In Asia, it’s the tiger or the fox. I find it interesting that it is usually a predator that is said to disguise itself. One doesn’t hear many tales of a were-rabbit, for example.

Shape-shifting is both mysterious and terrifying—the notion that someone isn’t really human at all and is thus no longer subject to the rules and conventions of our civilization. The European werewolf is generally regarded in a negative or fearsome light. In Asia, however, the tiger is revered and sometimes the subject of ancestor worship. Some parts of Indonesia believed that the souls of relatives could pass into a tiger. There’s also the whole notion of keramat or sacred animals, which are said to be guardian spirits.

When I was writing the book, I thought about the contrast between the European idea of a were-creature and the Asian ones, and how in some cases, the were-tiger is not a man but a beast that wears a human skin. That’s such an interesting and creepy thought, which ties in with the whole “who are you?” question that we struggle with.

Ji (Wisdom) and Ren (Benevolence) bear the names of two of the five Confucian virtues. The others—Yi (Righteousness), Shin (Fidelity), and the mysterious Li (Order)—also appear in the novel. Leaving aside Li, whose identity would be a spoiler, who are these characters and why did you decide to use this principle to organize your novel?


You know, I’ve wondered about that myself! I started writing this book the way I started my first novel, with a scene that appeared in my mind. In this case, it was a dying old man who’s asking his eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy, Ren, to do something quite gruesome and sad. Gruesome because it involves recovering severed body parts, and sad because it is a terrible thing to ask of a child. And yet there’s nobility and honor in it. He asks Ren to do it because he thinks he’s saving society; he also believes the boy is capable of the task. So you have all these contradictory emotions together in one place, which is where I think it is best to start a story.

When I began writing this book, I really had no idea how it was going to turn out. I kept writing because I wanted to unravel the mystery. As other characters began to appear, their names actually reminded me of the five Confucian virtues. From there, I somehow got involved with were-tigers and was reminded of the five fingers of a hand, which in many ways is a symbol of our humanity. From cave paintings to space exploration, the expression of our civilization is the outstretched hand, which encompasses both the ability to build and write (plus an opposable thumb).

So I suppose the long answer is that the story grew organically from the Confucian virtues, in a way which often surprised and delighted me. I hope that readers will feel the same way too.

Are you already working on another novel?


Yes, I consider myself a slow writer because it takes time for a story to percolate through, but I’m currently working on my third novel. A lot of the time spent on it is actually trying to inhabit the world of the novel in my head. Only when I feel quite sure about where things are do I start writing. It’s like a mental map. I feel that if you don’t really understand where the book is set, then you can’t take the reader with you. Everything feels vague and out of focus. But when things work out, and the world starts to come together, it’s very exciting!

Thanks so much for answering my questions!



Yangsze Choo is a Malaysian writer of Chinese descent. Her first novel, The Ghost Bride, appeared in 2013 and was a NYTimes bestseller. The Night Tiger is hot off the press as of February 12, 2019.
 

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find out more about her and her books at her website.

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