In the beginning, there was Afong Moy.
She came to America as a teenager in 1834 and was, as far as history tells us, the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Little is known about her life beyond what news reports and second-hand accounts tell us – that she was displayed as a curiosity, that she met President Andrew Jackson at the White House, and that she likely died in poverty.
This is where the imagination of author Jamie Ford comes in. Melding his decadeslong interest in Afong Moy and her story with his interest in generational trauma, his latest book, “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” weaves an unforgettable story of one family over eight generations told through the stories of Afong’s female descendants.
“I found out about Afong in the ’90s in an article for Asian American Heritage Month,” Ford said by phone from his home in Great Falls, Montana. “She’d been in the back of my brain for decades. I’d wanted to write about her, but I couldn’t find a redemptive ending to her story, since her story most likely ended in tragedy.
“Once I went down the rabbit hole of epigenetics, I realized I could give her fictional descendants, I could give her a voice that way and I could redeem her that way. Instead of being this lost soul abandoned in New Jersey who no one has ever heard of again, she becomes the matriarch of a line of very interesting, independent women. To me, that’s the way to redeem her story.”
Epigenetics is the study of how human behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. Ford had read about an experiment at Emory University in which mice were conditioned to fear a certain smell – they were exposed to a scent at the same time they received a mild electric shock. Their offspring in turn displayed similar fear responses when exposed to the same scent. While this study dates back to 2013, it’s a question that has been studied for years. Babies born blind, for instance, can be observed making similar facial expressions as their parents – reactions to a loud noise, or joy or surprise – even though they’ve never seen those expressions to mimic.
“It was a phenomenon that Darwin actually wrote about,” Ford said. “People have been trying to figure out what’s been going on for a very long time.”
Ford’s intricate story jumps back and forth in time, and is primarily focused on Dorothy Moy and her daughter, Annabel, who live in 2045 Seattle. Dorothy is the former Washington poet laureate whose precarious mental health has threatened her career and, perhaps, her life with her daughter. In desperation, she seeks out an experimental treatment that lets her to connect with her female ancestors in a way that allows her to heal herself.
Along the way she experiences the lives of Afong, who gave birth to a son, and his daughter, Lai King, who fled San Francisco for China at the turn of the 20th century after an outbreak of bubonic plague. Lai King’s daughter, Faye, worked as a nurse with the Flying Tigers in China during World War II. Her daughter, Zoe, attended an elite boarding school in England. She gave birth to a son, who in turn gave birth to Greta, a star programmer for a tech startup in Seattle in the mid-2010s. Greta is Dorothy’s mother, who died when Dorothy was a teenager.
It’s a bit of a different feel for a Jamie Ford novel. Ford’s previous books all were strictly historical fiction. “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” told the story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl in Seattle who become friends just before Japanese Americans are sent to internment camps during World War II. “Songs of Willow Frost” was set in Depression-era Seattle, while “Love and Other Consolation Prizes” took place at the turn of the 20th century.
Time jumping isn’t new for a Ford novel – his stories often switched between the past and the present. But jumping forward into time and delving into more speculative fiction?
“It was wonderful and terrifying,” he said. “You know, I inadvertently created a box of expectations for myself with readers, with my publisher. I was climbing out of the box and running down the street to a different destination, and I wasn’t sure if I’d find an audience for this book.
“I switched publishers for this book, from Random House to Simon and Schuster. I’m as insecure as anybody, but it was nice to be scared. Having the book do so well is especially rewarding because I really felt like I was working without a net.”
Before Dorothy begins her treatment, she already has experiences that she can’t explain. As a child she had extensively drawn pictures of a boy on a boat and another boy riding a sky tiger, and would experience moments of disassociation. As Annabel begins making the same drawings and have the same intense bouts of “daydreaming,” Dorothy realizes she has to get to the root of the problem.
It’s a story that is heartbreaking and enthralling, enraging and ultimately hopeful. These six women all go through terrible things in their lives, passing a history of trauma on down the branches of the family tree. And while there are parts of the story that may leave some readers wanting to hurl their book across the room in anger, Ford said with a laugh, “It could have been so much worse.”
“A few of the characters, I went further with them,” he said. “This is why my editor is magnificent in just holding me back. She literally said, ‘Jamie, we need to make sure the readers survives the journey,’ because I was killing the reader along the way.
“I often worry that the story is not going to be emotional enough or painful enough. Because I’m so close to it, I really push it and I often push it too far. I really feel as a writer I have to be an angry god, and that I have to throw nails in the path of my characters, and I’m either torturing my characters or I’m giving them comfort and relief. And anything in between I tend to leave out because it’s kind of boring. I think of it as banking and spending emotional currency with the reader. I make deposits and deposits and deposits, and hopefully there’s an emotional payoff in the end.”
Tracking six characters – seven with Annabel – over different time periods certainly posed its challenges, Ford said. He creating what he dubbed his “wall of madness” to keep track of everyone’s storylines and make sure everything lined up.
“I would do things where I needed Dorothy’s story to rise above everything. There’s a page count and Dorothy had to have more pages than anybody else, and the rest I tried to balance out so there was an even tempo,” he said. “It does look like the wall of QAnon conspiracy theorist.”
Ford is no stranger to public acclaim and the New York Times bestseller list. His first novel, 2009’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” was a huge success and stayed on the Times’ list for two years. “Afong Moy,” meanwhile, hit No. 10 on the Times’ Hardcover Fiction list last month.
The attention around “Afong Moy” has ratcheted up considerably, thanks to Jenna Bush Hager. Hager, a co-host of “Today” and the daughter of former President George W. Bush, picked “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” for the August read for her Read with Jenna Book Club.
“Jenna choosing it, it’s a funny thing. I think authors can win huge literary awards and have huge bestsellers, but when people see their work on television, there’s a certain cultural gravitas that comes with that, for better or worse,” Ford said. “And so, not just Jenna choosing it for the ‘Today’ show, but Jenna’s production company optioned it for a series. Average people on the street may not recognize a certainly literary award, but if you say, ‘Oh, it’s on Netflix,’ suddenly they see you in a different light.
“Also, being on national television. It’s great to get regional press, but when you walk out onto the ‘Today’ show set, it’s such a ubiquitous show, so many people, relatives and others I haven’t talked to in forever, they all saw it. It connects me with a lot of people, and that’s a lot of fun.
“I think the book itself has reached a different audience,” Ford said. “A younger audience, and Jenna is definitely part of that younger audience, which is pretty remarkable.”