Jamie Ford, author of the bestseller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, tackles intergenerational trauma in his latest book The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. In particular, he takes transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and applies it to the life of the titular character, who was the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States in 1834. Known by the moniker “The Chinese Lady,” she rose to fame for 17 years as an entertainer—an object to be gawked at to satiate American curiosity and as a marketing tool to help sell Chinese goods. Records of her disappear after 1850, though speculations of what happened to her did not: some surmise she went on tour in Europe while others think she returned to China.
Epigenetics is a field of study that examines how behaviors and environment changes the expression of genes without altering DNA. In this case, Ford examines how trauma may have affected Moy, causing reiterations of her trauma to appear and persist through six generations of female descendants starting from Lai King Moy (around 1892) to Dorothy Moy and Annabel (2045). Ford tells the stories of these women in a nonlinear format, jumping from year to year and backwards and forwards, leaving the reader to siphon out how remnants of past traumas are expressed in the women’s lives and to figure out how they are connected to each other. Ford keeps possible timeline confusion to a minimum by focusing on one year out of their lives.
The narratives of the women Ford covers are Afong Moy (1836), who is under the care of the Hanningtons, a couple who pranced from city to city, booking shows to exhibit their living piece of the Orient; Lai King Moy (1892), a girl who experiences great loss to the Great Mortality (otherwise known as the bubonic plague) during the outbreak that happened in San Francisco’s Chinatown; Fei-jin “Faye” Moy (1942), a nurse who joins the American Volunteer Group during World War II and meets a pilot who seems to be mysteriously connected to her; Zoe Moy (1927), a teen attending a progressive school in England who harbors a crush on her favorite teacher; Margaret “Greta” Moy (2014), an ambitious woman in Seattle whose dating app attains great success; and Dorothy Moy (2045), a Seattlelite who has achieved great success as a poet.
The main protagonist appears to be Dorothy, the link to all these women. Twenty-three years into the future, Seattle is thrust into the throes of climate change, wracked by typhoons and heavy rain. Stuck in an unhappy relationship to an insecure and unsupportive man, her situation is made worse by her mental illness, which makes it difficult for her to stay employed.
The only light in her life is her daughter Annabel. Concerned her daughter is in danger of ending up like her and determined not to repeat the same mistakes as her mother, Dorothy seeks treatment from Epigenesis, a clinic that operates under the radar using experimental methods. These treatments allow her to gain access to the memories of the aforementioned women, giving her answers to the hallucinations and disassociation she experiences. Through the treatments and the love of her daughter, she finds the strength to seek a resolution that brings the past generations of women’s lives, which spans over two centuries, full circle.
Though Dorothy’s solution may seem cheesy or oversimplified to some, Ford’s stories of each woman shows a keen understanding of the history, the systemic injustices incurred on Asian women, and the misogyny experienced by them. This book is a mix of historical and speculative fiction, and covers a large swath of history—a significant departure from his past books but still a promising selection for book clubs, discussion groups, and classes. Though some stories may feel lacking in some respects, the book will certainly make any reader feel like a time traveler as they step into each story.
Jamie Ford will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. This event will be hosted in partnership with the Wing Luke Museum.