Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Q&A with Janie Chang


Photo by Ayelet Tsabari



Janie Chang is the author of the new historical novel The Porcelain Moon. Her other novels include The Library of Legends. She lives in British Columbia, Canada.


Q: What inspired you to focus in your new novel on Chinese workers in France during World War I, and how did you research The Porcelain Moon?


A: In 2017, I came across an article about the city of Liverpool raising a monument to recognize the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps during the First World War. It was astonishing. I had no idea of any such episode in WWI.


After some initial online research, it became clear that without the 140,000 Chinese labourers who reinforced British and French work forces, it would’ve been difficult to keep the machinery of war running.


It was equally clear that for the most part, the Chinese were treated very badly, despite how necessary they were, and then swept under the carpet of history even though they had been the largest and longest-serving contingent of foreign workers in Europe. So you could say I was motivated to write this story as a way of honouring their sacrifices and also to gain some recognition for those men.


As for research, I had originally planned on traveling to Europe to visit the town of Noyelles-sur-Mer in France, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium, and the Imperial War Museums in the UK – but along came Covid.


Fortunately there are some very good digitized resources as well as academic papers and reference books on the topic. I was also lucky to connect with experts who were kind enough to reply to my queries, most significantly Dr. Dominiek Dendooven, curator at In Flanders Fields Museum, and Gregory James, author of The Chinese Labour Corps (1916 – 1920).


Q: The writer Weina Dai Randel said of the book, “Chang's masterfully crafted novel challenges our views of the traditional images of the Chinese, our beliefs about identity, and ultimately, the western opinions that have defined the WWI narrative.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m glad Weina brought up these points. WWI novels and films tend to glorify military exploits. I wanted to offer a WWI narrative that drew attention to another reason the Allies won the war: they were able to reinforce civilian and military infrastructures with foreign workers.


While the Allies brought in workers from many countries, this novel focuses on the Chinese who bolstered British and French work forces so that the front lines could keep fighting.


Q: How did you create your characters Pauline and Camille, and how would you describe the dynamic between them?


A: For Camille, the idea behind her character and circumstances came from accounts of Frenchwomen who struck up romances with Chinese workers. I read about a young woman whose reason for wanting to marry a Chinese worker was that because unlike the Frenchmen she knew, he did not drink, gamble away his wages, or beat women, and out of this came the idea of a woman in an abusive marriage.


Pauline was someone who had experienced a different culture, freedom of movement, and a foreign education. She had come to realize she would not be successful meeting the expectations of a traditional Chinese society. In this respect, there’s more than a little of me in Pauline.


There’s a lot of reluctance on Pauline’s part when it comes to her relationship with Camille. It begins innocently enough with Camille’s kindness in taking Pauline home with her. But Pauline’s initial friendliness swings to mistrust and resentment, even fear, when she realizes how she and Camille are connected, how this forces her to help Camille. Finally they realize they must trust each other totally in order to make a terrible decision.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Yes, not exactly HOW, but that element of a terrible, life-or-death decision was something I’ve wanted to incorporate into a novel for some time. You can’t force a plot element to happen unless the characters and external events make it feasible, and The Porcelain Moon offered the right opportunity.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m working with my friend Kate Quinn on a round of edits for The Phoenix Crown, the novel we are co-authoring, which is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s a fairly intense process because our publisher wants to release it in September of 2023.


Then I’m doing a bit of travel with my husband – I began working on The Phoenix Crown almost as soon as The Porcelain Moon was put to bed, so I promised him we’d have a long vacation together once this was all over.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Yes! Don’t tell my husband but I can’t wait to get going on my next solo novel, The Fourth Princess, which is a Gothic novel set in prewar Shanghai. After two novels set during the World Wars and one set during an earthquake, I want to work on something fun to write and fun to read.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janie Chang.

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