Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, Emily Bazelon spoke with author Vanessa Hua about her compelling inspiration for her new novel, Forbidden City.
This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Bazelon: The main character’s name is Mei. She is a Chinese teenager from the country in China. And she goes on a journey because she’s recruited by the Communist Party to join a dance troupe of girls who perform and really serve the male elite of the Communist Party. The people who the girls are interacting with include Chairman Mao. And so, it is really the relationship between Mei and Chairman Mao, that is the focus and spine of the book. She gets caught up in a lot of palace intrigue, and then in the tumult and violence of the beginning of the cultural revolution. So, we see both Mao and these seismic events in Chinese history through her eyes. So, Vanessa, I understand from your author’s note that a photograph helped inspire this book. Can you tell us a little bit about it and why it caught your interest?
Vanessa Hua: About a decade and a half ago, I was watching a documentary of China and up pops this black and white photo of Chairman Mao, surrounded by giggling teenage girls. And some of them are dressed in plaid, they almost remind me of Bobby Soxers, and that’s when I learned that Mao was a fan of ballroom dancing. And in fact, there was an American journalist, Agnes Smedley in 1937, when she traveled to the rebel stronghold to cover them, she taught them Foxtrot, square dancing. And in the decades that followed, he had these cultural work troupes, as they were called, and these young women would partner with him in the bedroom and on the dance floor.
You have this amazing bit in your author’s note in which you say that you were looking for information about this dance troupe and Chairman Mao’s interactions with them. And so you found the memoir of Mao’s doctor and he wrote, “To have been rescued by the party was already sufficient, good luck for such young women. To be called to the Chairman was the greatest experience of their lives. Imagine what it meant for a young girl to be called into Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure.” Which of course is an incredibly male-centric portrayal and spin on what was happening to these girls’ lives. And I wonder if you wrote the book with that in mind, thinking of giving Mei’s perspective as a kind of corrective.
Definitely. When I read that, as I mentioned in my author’s note, when I looked for more information there wasn’t much and to have what it meant for these young women summed up as exhilarating and an honor, I knew it had to be more complicated than that. I think that’s really where fiction can flourish, where the official record ends. For me, I always treated the research I found as the floor and not the ceiling. And then I think that’s where, as a novelist, I can really get at the stories of young women like Mei who have a hand in history, but don’t even really merit a footnote.