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NW Passages: Author Jamie Ford’s new book honors first Chinese woman to step foot in America

Sept. 14, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 15, 2022 at 1:01 p.m.

Certain things get passed down through generations. It might be language, a way of thinking, or in Jamie Ford’s case, art.

The author of “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” grew up with his dad slipping into the garage he turned into a studio to create art.

Now, Ford’s sons are musicians and one of his daughters is a tattoo artist. It’s safe to say art is generational for the Ford family, he said at the Northwest Passages book club event Wednesday evening.

“I saw just where our heads and our hearts were at,” he said of contemplating his family of artists while writing “Afong Moy.”

That concept is something Ford explores in his new book, in part rewriting his own family history through Afong Moy and the family he imagined for her.

While the novel is fiction, Afong Moy was a real woman, who came to America as a teen in 1834, and is believed to be the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Little is known about her life, and she likely died in poverty.

Ford grew interested in Moy in the 1990s after he found an article about her, written for Asian American Heritage Month. That interest grew, and he began to imagine how Moy’s life could have been different.

“The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” weaves together the story of Moy’s imaginary female descendants over eight generations.

Ford is well known for his historical fiction novels: “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” which made itself home on the New York Times Best Seller list for two years, “Songs of Willow Frost,” and “Love and other Consolation Prizes.”

“Afong Moy” has also been a success. It was the August book of the month for co-host of “Today” and daughter of former President George W. Bush, Jenna Bush Hager’s, book club.

Ford recently appeared on the Today show, which felt like a “rockstar moment.”

“It was surreal,” he said. “I just tried to step back and enjoy the moment.”

The moment was made even more impactful after Ford’s difficult road to publishing the novel.

Partway through writing the book, he showed a draft to his editor at Random House. The editor wasn’t thrilled with Ford’s foray into futuristic fiction. Ford acknowledges he was known for historical fiction but hoped to break out of the box he had been put in.

“I had a choice,” Ford said. “Do I throw this away and write something that fits in the box or do I leave?”

Ford decided to leave, but it was scary and made him unsure what to make of the book once it was published by Simon and Schuster.

Bush Hager choosing the book for her book club and other celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker sharing their love for the novel has been hugely encouraging, he said.

“Afong Moy” explores the very relatable feeling of the unconscious ways mothers, daughters and granddaughters are similar, traits passed down to one another.

“Everyone in here, you have that moment where you’re like ‘Oh I’m my mother,’ ” Ford said, drawing laughs from the audience.

The audience also burst into laughter when Ford was asked by Spokesman-Review news editor Carolyn Lamberson when he would show Spokane some love.

In “Afong Moy,” Spokane boasts white nationalists, wildfires and the world’s worst mother in law.

Including Spokane in the book, Ford said, was in part an ode to Washington State and his love for the Inland Northwest but also a surrogate for some of the places in his home state of Montana that he wanted to write about.

Ford finished out the evening by offering the audience book recommendations including “What My Bones Know,” by Stephanie Foo and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney.

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