It’s often interesting to see what motivated an author to craft a particular story. Especially when the push to create something powerful comes from empathy for the powerless. Like Sabaa Tahir who says her own experience of growing up as a kid who didn’t fit in and then reading about various stories of some absolutely voiceless people when she worked as a copy editor for Washington Post’s international desk, inspired her to finally write An Ember in the Ashes. So it’s no surprise to find —through the book’s author note— that Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky came into existence after her father requested her to write a story based on what he had come across: a marker, while visiting a site in Idaho, referencing to an incident of 1885 when five Chinese people were hanged by vigilantes.
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The raw intention that must have fuelled Zhang when first drafting this novel is evident from a plot that doesn’t hold back on what can happen —must have happened and is still happening— to those who are destined to or want their stories to span two continents, two directions: the East and the West. It’s a historical fiction that draws on the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was founded on anti-Asian sentiments in America. But there’s a sense of urgency in this fiction that reads real and the historical context that unfortunately holds true even in present times.
“When I am kidnapped, it does not happen in an alleyway. It does not happen in the middle of the night. It does not happen when I am alone.” From the very first line, Zhang warns you that the story isn’t one you would expect, especially if you wish for it to abide by what you must have already read with respect to the plot’s events. Daiyu, a thirteen-year-old girl, was born in a Chinese village where she had a place and its people to call home: her grandmother taught her patience while learning to care for the living things in her garden; her mother taught her how to be good with hands while she made tapestries; and her smart father taught her to work with her mind. But this family also gave her the name of a tragic heroine. From the story of Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China’s four great classic novels, Lin Daiyu is a poet who fell in love with a boy above her in the pyramid of social hierarchy. When the boy’s family disapproves of the match and disguises another girl as their son’s one true love on his wedding day, Lin Daiyu falls terribly ill and dies.
Daiyu frequently wonders throughout the story if she would succumb to the misfortune of the character she is named after, and constantly tries to run away from the destiny attached to this name. Every adversity in her life is blamed on the fate her name holds. Like the first domino falling, her parents disappear and her grandmother warns her that the same people who captured her parents would come for her too —urging her to run away to the city.
The city teaches her she can’t be a girl anymore if she wishes to survive. So with a jacket and shaved head, she becomes Feng. Sweeping steps outside the calligraphy school, she discovers her interest in the art form and the father-like Master Wang teaches her how to write. Zhang’s research shines through these pages of momentary happiness in our protagonist’s life as a lyrical meditation on the language and its beautiful strokes can be witnessed. The idea of how one’s first language shapes them is unmissable.
Another domino subsequently falls when Daiyu is kidnapped at the fish market by a dangerous Chinese gang. A year locked in a dark room, forced to learn English, Daiyu traces Chinese characters with her fingers in hope for familiarity, home, and roots —recounting the significance of each stroke in a character. Shipped to America to be sold to a brothel, Daiyu’s destiny is once again indisputable and devastating. It is here that the ‘timely’ historical fiction interspersed with Chinese mythology makes space for magical realism when Daiyu’s namesake appears as a ghost. The spirit acts as a materialisation of what our heroine believed was only her, of what she believed was now only hers to suffer through: the cruel fate married to this name. The teenage Daiyu’s trauma finds a release in the times she summons the ghost.
The United States teaches Daiyu that here, she doesn’t need to disguise herself as a boy to be safe, because it is just as dangerous for Chinese men as it is for Chinese women. But that bit of her identity isn’t changeable; it can’t be taken off like a jacket. She realises the injustices are different on this other side of the world but aren’t any less brutal. Like the very many starts to Daiyu’s story— the author subtly begins a lot of sections with the phrase, “This is the story of…” —through the course of this journey, another blank page is drawn to start over when she escapes to Idaho. In this mining town, she creates a new life disguised as a man.
Four Treasures of the Sky isn’t easy to read but it’s easy to comprehend as one meant to be difficult. It explores the exploitation, fetishization, segregation, and blatant racism faced by the Chinese in a land they come to with hope or are dragged to with abuse. At the core of it all, this debut is dark and tragic. It’s not one you can escape through. It’s one your emotions will force you to hold on to as Zhang’s poetic prose unravels a story of reclamation—even though there’s no justice, no closure, no happiness at the end. Though, there is a reminder and an encouragement throughout.
Four Treasures of the Sky, Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Flatiron Books, April 2022
Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.