Monday, November 27, 2023

Q&A with Gail Tsukiyama



Gail Tsukiyama is the author of the new novel The Brightest Star. It focuses on the life of actress Anna May Wong. Tsukiyama's other books include the novel Women of the Silk. She lives in California.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel about actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961)?


A: In many ways, The Brightest Star and Anna May Wong comes full circle for me. I was intent on becoming a filmmaker when I was young. I spent much of my childhood watching movies, hoping one day to make my own films.


It wasn’t until I started taking film courses at SF State University that I realized what I really loved was telling stories, and not the technical aspects of film making. I quickly moved over to the writing department.


So, while the idea of writing about a movie actress may have stemmed from those early filmmaking dreams, the motivating reason I was drawn to Anna May Wong was when I began watching the limited series Killing Eve in 2018.


It was a British spy thriller that followed Eve Polastri, who was played by Asian-Canadian actor Sandra Oh, as a British intelligence investigator tasked with capturing psychopathic assassin Villanelle.


I was both intrigued and delighted that they’d chosen an Asian woman actress to play the lead role of Eve. It was a role that would have usually been given to a British white actress, but they’d chosen an Asian-Canadian. It finally felt like a step in the right direction.


It also had me curious as to who was the first Asian-American actress to make a big impact in Hollywood.


I already knew of Anna May Wong from having watched Shanghai Express during my youthful aspirations of wanting to be a filmmaker.


I also felt the door was inching open for Asian-American actors, so I wanted to go back to the beginning, only to find out it was Anna May Wong who made the biggest impact on the early days of Hollywood. And still, so many people didn’t know who she was.


I really wanted readers to know how Anna May Wong had fought to be a Hollywood star during a time when anti-miscegenation laws, the Hays Code, and racism was part of her everyday life. She could never be a leading lady because she could never kiss the white leading man.


She spent three years in Europe making movies and doing theater because she was tired of having to die at the end of every film in Hollywood. And still she braved on.


I was also interested in what kind of life she lived outside of what we’d seen in the movies, where she had no choice but to accept movie roles that perpetuated the very same stereotypes she fought against. At the same time, her father forbade her becoming an actress. How did she persevere?


Anna May Wong’s courage and persistence in her fight against racism, Hollywood dictates, her father’s prejudice against her acting career, as well as China’s constant accusations of her shaming the motherland became a constant thorn in her side.


The Brightest Star chronicles Anna May Wong’s survival through not only the injustices of being an Asian-American woman in Hollywood, but also her ongoing struggle for approval from both her father and her ancestral homeland of China.


Anna May never felt Chinese enough in China and never American enough in America, a burden she carried throughout her life.


Her life story is not only about Anna May Wong and early Hollywood, but also the complexities of family and ambition and survival within a culture of racism. And yet, against all odds, she continued to pave the way for Asian-American actors today.


In a world where anti-Asian hate has been on the rise, I can’t think of a better time for her story to be told. 


Q: The writer Marie Benedict said of the book, “In the riveting pages of The Brightest Star, Gail Tsukiyama once again invites her readers into an intriguing historical realm that remains in the shadows but should be widely known.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m happy that Marie caught the fact that I love to write about people, places, and issues that have been kept in the shadows historically.


For me as a writer, a story always begins with a seed of curiosity that leads me to choose a subject to write about.


Early in my writing career, I was fascinated by subcultures, groups that lived aside from the general society, whether it be a sisterhood in China in Women of the Silk, or a young man whose illness sends him away from family and friends to Japan in The Samurai’s Garden, or moving through the sumo culture in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.


I’m fascinated by the shadow worlds of those who find a way to persevere and survive against all odds. And in the same context, I wanted Anna May Wong’s story to step out of the shadows and be widely known.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: During my research I read many interviews and quotes by Anna May Wong. One in particular left a big impression as to who she was and how she viewed the spectrum of her life and career.


It gives a good explanation of why I had chosen The Brightest Star as the novel’s title, along with the realization of how difficult it was to stay on top, and yet, for a short time in her life she was the brightest star.


      “Success is not a jewel that you can purchase and keep for your entire life. On the contrary, the brightest star can fall down at any time for short-lived reasons and can miserably fade away into the dust.”

                                      -Anna May Wong


Q: How did you research Anna May Wong's life, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?


A: I read everything I could find on Anna May Wong, from articles to the few biographies written on her at the time, to tracking down her archived letters to close friends.


She made close to 60 films in her 40-year career that crossed over from silent films to the talkies, and which included The Toll of the Sea, The Thief of Bagdad, and Shanghai Express.


Still, what really surprised me was how much her talents went beyond acting. She never finished high school yet was a great businesswoman who kept her name and studio photos in movie magazines.


She starred in numerous theater productions in the U.S. and Europe in which she sang and danced, and was also known as a fashion icon and for her dinner parties where she showcased her Chinese cuisine.


Anna May was also a great reader who wrote articles and essays, spoke several different languages, and filmed and documented her own trip to China, which was later shown on the television series Bold Journey. She was quite the renaissance woman.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m just beginning research on a new novel set in Japan, which I don’t feel settled enough to talk about yet. I do hope to carry on with my ongoing themes of family, love, sacrifice, nature, and beauty.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m also happily continuing to work on my nonprofit WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water, which provides books and literacy materials in English and local languages, supports schools, mobile and stationary libraries, and finances clean water and sanitation projects for children and communities in extreme need in the developing world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gail Tsukiyama.

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