One book leads to another… last November Lin Man-chiu and I were invited to talk about The Ventriloquist’s Daughter at an event at the LSE. The chair of the event, Prof Fang-long Shih, suggested that the story might be linked with ghost brides (on which she is an expert). Lin Man-chiu rejected this idea, but the discussion stuck in my mind, and when I saw Yangsze Choo’s novel The Ghost Bride, I was intrigued. Amy Matthewson devoured The Ventriloquist’s Daughter and Yangsze Choo’s two books The Ghost Bride (2013) and The Night Tiger (2019) in quick succession, and was thrilled when Yangsze Choo 朱洋熹 agreed to an interview. They discussed both of her books, but agreed that while The Ghost Bride is suitable (albeit scary) for young adults, The Night Tiger is more of an adult read. We are very grateful to Yangsze and Amy for this interview! – Helen
Author Yangsze Choo burst onto our bookworm radar with the release of The Ghost Bride in 2013. The book won numerous accolades, including the New York Times bestseller list, Oprah.com’s Book of the Week, and Barnes & Noble Fall 2013 Discover Great New Writers selection. It is currently in production as a Netflix Original series. In 2019, Choo released her second novel, The Night Tiger, which made both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists, and was also Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for April 2019. Both books delve into the supernatural and tackle the complexities of forbidden love. Choo brings the reader right into the pulsing daily life of historical Malaya as she describes its diverse cultures, customs, and mouth-watering cuisine in deliciously vivid detail. Choo kindly consented to do a phone interview, offering insight and comments into the main themes of her two successful novels.
AM: First, I would like to say congratulations on The Night Tiger hitting number 5 on the NYT audio bestseller list. You must be very excited.
YC: Yes, thank you! I was lucky enough to be the voice for the audio book. Normally they hire voice actors to read books because they tend to do a better job, but I asked if I could audition for the part, as there are some Malay and Chinese words in the book and I wanted to make sure that they were pronounced right for listeners.
AM: If you had to describe your books in 3 adjectives, what would they be and why?
YC: Hmmm… let me think. Soul-searching would be one; the human quest for identity. Tasty, I think would be another adjective. And wonder. A sense of wonder.
AM: I think ‘tasty’ is a perfect adjective to describe the books! I remember being constantly hungry reading The Ghost Bride. Especially your description of the assortment of meals for sale in the market alley where Li Lan’s spirit followed Old Wong: glossy prawns, noodles, crispy begedil, satay and stingray rubbed with chilli paste… yum!
A central theme in both novels is the supernatural. Can you tell us more about your interest in this topic? And perhaps tell us how you distinguish between the supernatural and religious beliefs?
YC: I’ve always been interested in the idea of parallel or a mirror worlds, and the human capacity for holding contradictory beliefs. The question of what reality you see, and how it affects your understanding of the world, is always in flux. The Ghost Bride is split between the worlds of the living and the dead, and The Night Tiger also explores parallel worlds of servants and masters, foreigners and locals, men and women, science and mysticism. There’s also the theme of twins and doppelgängers as well, and the question of what happens when you truly see yourself. Are you, as in the legend of the doppelgänger, doomed to die—or is that the death of the ego?
Going back to the supernatural and religiosity, these two are combined with our everyday lives. For Chinese, that’s commonly seen in the use of numbers because numbers are homophones and everyday conversation can be layered with the supernatural. In the West, I have friends who will say that their favourite basketball team won because they remembered to wear their lucky blue socks! It’s the same impulse.
AM: I’m intrigued by this idea of homophonous numbers. Could you give some examples?
YC: The number 4 sounds like “death” in Chinese, so any numbers with four in them are usually considered bad luck. Similarly the number 3 sounds like “life”, while 8 is a homophone for “fortune”. That’s why you’ll see the popularity of number combinations like 3388 or 888. There are many more combinations you can make (e.g. 168 sounds like “fortune all the way along the road”), which is why whenever people get phone numbers or addresses, they instinctively check them to see whether they have lucky connotations. Certain numbers are in high demand and are sometimes auctioned off, e.g. car license plates.
AM: In The Ghost Bride, the two women Li Lan and Ji Lin have similar romantic interests. Their romances are also unusual and go against the socially accepted norms. Could you elaborate on the idea behind the themes of forbidden love in both novels?
YC: Haha! Interestingly, there wasn’t much romance in The Ghost Bride initially, but my editor and agent both suggested exploring it more, which I think was a good suggestion. It turned out to be an element that readers really enjoyed.
When I’m writing, I usually let the characters decide where the story is going, in the sense that after a while they start acting and deciding things on their own, as though they have become real people. That’s the beauty of fiction, I think—that after a while all these imaginary characters from Elizabeth Bennett to Harry Potter become people that we actually know and can talk about with readers across continents and time. It’s a great gift.
And so for both The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger, I felt like the protagonists had begun to decide for themselves, even if those choices were sometimes deeply inconvenient and came at a steep cost. But perhaps that is where the dramatic tension lies. When I’m stuck, I often ask myself “what would be the most interesting/inconvenient thing to happen now?”. Sometimes it’s good, or bad, or ambiguous – but it should always be interesting!
Perhaps that’s the other thing about novels: they are a heightened reflection of reality, like a dream or the mirror worlds we talked about earlier. I imagine that each person has a slightly different movie version of a novel playing in their heads, with different actors, different music, different set designs and colour tones.
AM: Within the first few minutes of The National Critics Choice interview, you mentioned how you believe that the reason there are so many women in Chinese ghost stories is because there is a subconscious recognition that hauntings were one of the only ways women could get back at everyone. I found this observation really interesting. Certainly Ji Lin felt this inequality. How do you reconcile this tension between situating women within their own historical circumstances yet still keeping them relatable to modern readers?
YC: That’s a really good question. I think you have to stay true to the time period as this is an alternate reality that has to be sustained. To a certain extent, there are limits to having a modern-day super heroine in a historical time and context, where women faced very difficult odds. Of course, there were always people who went against societal norms but when they did, there was often a very high price to pay.
AM: Is there a third novel on the way? If so, could you tell us a little about it?
YC: I’m working on something right now, though I’ve changed direction and setting since I started. I tend to write by the seat of my pants, so we’ll see!
AM: The Ghost Bride was set in the late nineteenth century and The Night Tiger was set in the early twentieth century. Will the third novel keep moving forward in time?
YC: I’m not sure, to be honest, though I’m tempted to go slightly backwards in time again.
AM: One final question… Chinese Books for Young Readers likes to ask interviewees about their own childhood reading – would you tell us about the books you read as a child or teenager, what you liked about them, and how you came across them (did someone introduce them to you, or did you find them yourself, and if so where?)
YC: As a child I read Pu Songling’s Liao zhai zhi yi, also known as “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”. My parents bought it from a Chinese bookstore called Popular Bookstore in Malaysia and it’s considered a classic. It’s full of ghosts and foxes and really just odd stories, which captured my imagination, and also painted this shadowy other world that existed alongside ours. I suppose to this day I’m still trying to write “strange tales” myself.