A rape. A war. A society where women are bought and sold but no one can speak of shame. Shanghai 1937. The courtesan culture. Violence throbs at the heart of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.
Song Anyi is on the road to Shanghai and freedom when she is raped and left for dead. The silence and shame that mark her courageous survival drive her to escalating self-harm and prostitution. From opium dens to high-class brothels, Anyi dances on the edge of destruction while China and Japan go to war. Hers is the voice of every woman who fights for independence against overwhelming odds.
The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is one of four interlocking novels set between 1929 and 1954, The Shanghai Quartet, which span a tumultuous time in Chinese history.
The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Shanghai Quartet 1) – Karen Kao
Published by Linen Press in paperback and ebook on 1 April 2017
- Hi, Ms. Karen, Rafael here from The Royal Polar Bear Reads and here’s my first question to you. As basic as it sounds, Who or What is your inspiration for your book The Dancing Girl and the Turtle?
Hello, Rafael! Thanks for having me on The Royal Polar Bear Reads. Believe it or not, my inspiration comes from boring family meals. Remember when you were a kid and forced to sit at the table while the adults talked about the old country? In my case, that was Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s, where my father grew up. The food we ate, the clothes my mother wore, even the music we heard: it all harked back to that earlier time.
- The setting of your book is in the past, what made you decide that you are going to write a historical fiction book and was it always the genre you wanted to write when you were planning to publish The Dancing Girl and the Turtle?
My worst subject in school was history. Dry, lots of names and dates when what interests me is how people actually lived and died. I like historical nonfiction like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series that put you in that place and time.
I had to do quite a lot of research to re-create Shanghai in the 1930s, using all sorts of resources from academic research, eyewitness accounts, contemporary fiction to my own family’s archives. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to get it right. Especially since I’m using the geopolitical situation in China as a counterpoint to my narrative themes. For The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, the main historical markers are the First and Second Sino-Japanese Wars, opium and the Unequal Treaties as well as the coming of WWII.
- From the summary alone there are already sensitive themes and trigger warning. Self-harm, sexual violence, and death are mentioned. What are your opinions on this subjects and what do you think is the relevance or the impact of those subjects on your book?
My novel is about repression. That can be a state of denial imposed by outside forces, like a government or a culture. It can be an unspoken rule within a family. Or it can be induced by trauma as in the case of Anyi in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Some readers have already remarked that Anyi could be a metaphor for China during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War with the Rape of Nanking coming up only a few months after The Dancing Girl and the Turtle closes.
- If you are going to date someone, fictional or not, dead or alive, who would it be and what are you going to do on your date?
Happily married as I am, I should probably stick with a fictional date. I like old school detectives like Maigret or Morse or Vera Stanhope, men and women who see the very worst of human nature and yet get up every morning and try to do good.
- What was the hardest part of writing your book? Plotting the scenes? Acquiring the voice of the character? The writing style?
There are two kinds of writers out there: people who plot and people who write by the seat of their pants. I belong in the latter category. I don’t know any other way to write than to start and find out where I end up. Throw away and repeat.
- Was it your dream to become a writer or did the writer career choose you?
When I was still in college, my dream was to be a poet. My father thought this was a spectacularly bad idea. He talked me into going to law school instead. After practicing law for almost 30 years (and enjoying almost every bit of it), I needed a change although it took me a long time to admit that writing was what I longed to do.
- If you are going to give your 10-year-old self an advice, what would it be?
Save your manuscripts! You never know where a good idea might pop up. And anyway, they’re always good for a laugh.
- Describe your book, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, in few words!
Old Shanghai on the brink of war
- Your bio states that you are a lawyer and now you are a writer, was it difficult to change career paths or you are balancing both at the same time? If you are not a writer today nor a lawyer in the past, what career path you will be having now and why?
I’m a full-time writer now. That means working on my second novel Peace Court, set in Shanghai 1954, my blog at inkstonepress.com and reading reading reading. If I had the talent to do it, I’d be a professional chef.
- What was your favorite quote or scene in your book and why?
My favorite scene is the last one but I won’t quote it here since that would be a plot spoiler. There are of course lines that I love for the image they conjure up but I think I’m most proud of worming myself into the mind of my bad guy, Tanizaki, a Japanese spy. Here’s a scene on his birthday. To celebrate, Tanizaki allows his men to hold a wrestling match.
“Neither wrestler wore a shirt. Their chests were speckled by the shadow of the mulberry tree. Skin that had once been slick with chicken fat now bore a crust of salt and blood.
The taller one lunged. He missed and crashed into the wooden fence that did not even shudder, tall and stout as it was. It had been built to keep the Chinese out, allowing in only the coolies needed for the heavy labor.
The crowd jeered as the big man slumped to the ground, his legs spread wide. His smaller, more agile, opponent disappeared into the crowd only to return running at full speed. He leaped, twisting his body in the air so that both feet landed squarely on the chest of his foe. A loud crack was followed by a simple sigh from the now broken body of the fighter. The crowd cheered wildly while the coolies ran up to drag away the loser’s body.”
ABOUT THE BLOG TOUR
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the US in the 1950s. Her debut novel has been praised by critics from London to Hong Kong for its accurate portrayal of the oppression experienced by women in 1930s Shanghai.
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