The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
by Jamie Ford
One of the hallmarks of becoming a mature reader is to pick up a book based on a premise that you don’t necessarily agree with and walk into it with an open mind. We all have different life experiences, and those are reflected by the range of fictional stories on the market. However, the reality of the publishing industry is that some ideas and some life experiences are more likely to be published than others. That’s part of the reason I started this blog– themes and ideas attractive to people who live in major coastal cities get published at a much higher rate because that’s where the decision makers live. That leaves many of us “Middle Americans” to feel left out. Our cities and areas are often depicted by authors who have spent much of their life in New York City, causing an inauthentic representation of our culture. Midwesterners and Southerners alike are usually portrayed as bumpkins, unintelligent, or hateful. Our cities are portrayed as boring, uninteresting, or sleepy. Instead, life in a small, midwestern city is often a lot like a major city, but without the traffic. As someone who moved from one of the largest American cities (Washington, D.C.) to one of the largest cities in the world (Tokyo), I long for the days where I can enjoy the quiet urbanity of Oklahoma City.
Why is this important? One of the ideas that seems to be buzzing around the Twittersphere these days is that of generational trauma. I understand the thought behind it, I’ve read the arguments for and against it, and I can empathize for people who feel very affected by it. However, I can’t personally jump on board with the idea. The idea that the decisions made by your ancestors manifest themselves into your DNA to cause later mental health issues just does not sit well with me. If I really want to examine why, I’d have to point to my own home. Oklahomans historically have a lot of hardships. It has never been an easy place to live. We have droughts, tornadoes, and extreme heat and cold. We were the site of one of the largest domestic terror attacks in U.S. history. Many people never pass through Oklahoma, so they rely on stereotypes that are just plain silly. I ran a national convention in college, and the number one question we had to field from other universities, especially those in California and on the East Coast, was whether there were cars and houses. They literally thought we lived in teepees and rode horses. Yikes.
All of this is to say that I’m predisposed to not believe in generational trauma. If there is anything passed down in an Okie’s genes, it’s probably generational fortitude– the belief that you accept your misfortune, brush it aside, and build your life over again. Despite this predisposition, however, I walked into The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford with an open mind. It was a beautiful book.
This book follows the descendants of Afong, who was born in 1836. Afong was pledged to be married, but her fiance died shortly before the wedding. Instead of allowing her to marry her true love, Afong’s family gave her over to her late fiance’s family, who married her to the dead fiance and blamed her as the cause of his misfortune. Outcasted from the start, the family eventually shipped her to America where she became a sort of slave. Her handler, Mr. Hannington, treated her as a sideshow. He sold tickets for people to come to see a Chinese woman. Afong’s life in America is full of misery, and it only gets worse when her translator begins to rape her.
The next person in Afong’s family line is Lai King, who witnesses the arrival of the Black Death to her city in 1892. After watching her neighbors die in droves, Lai King’s father (along with other people in the Chinese community) volunteer (or rather are “voluntold”) to act as guinea pigs for a vaccine to prevent the plague. Lai King’s parents trick her into getting on a ship to China, only to find out that they weren’t coming with her. She watches their city burn down as the ship pulls away. By the end of her story, the plague has reeked even more death and destruction on her life.
Next up is Zoe, a girl who attends a progressive boarding school in England in 1927. Zoe has a crush on one of her female teachers. When the school bully finds out, he destroys both Zoe and her teacher’s lives in their own way.
We then meet Faye, who works as a battlefield nurse in 1942. After a pilot dies in her arms, she finds a picture of herself in his pocket with the words, “Find me” written on it. She becomes obsessed with this pilot and cannot shake the feeling that she is in love with him. However, no amount of wishing will bring this stranger (who doesn’t feel like a stranger) back to life.
Then, we meet Greta, a programmer for a new dating app in 2014. Her company is on the brink of success and her parents set her up with a wonderful man whom she instantly connects with. Then, her company’s silent investor steps in and destroys everything.
Finally, we meet Dorothy, Greta’s daughter. Dorothy lives in the year 2045 and has struggled with mental illness her entire life. As her marriage begins to dissolve, she decides
to begin an experimental treatment called epigenetics. During her sessions, she relives the generational trauma of all of her ancestors. As the treatments threaten her existence in the real world, she pushes through, hoping to break the cycle and make her life better so she can care for her own daughter, Annabelle.
This was a beautifully written book that wove together a diverse set of stories from one family line. Each character was both completely unique and a reflection of the generations before. Every time the author jumped from one story to the next, you felt like you got the taste of something new. However, each story also referenced the lives of the other women. While I absolutely loved each character, I have one major criticism of the book– a lack of closure. After falling in love with the different characters, I wanted to see how their stories ended in real life. Instead, the author failed to color in the ending of each story as it happened, instead relying on the echoes that Dorothy experienced at the end of the book that gave each character an “alternative ending.” Even though I realize this was an intentional act, probably to stress the fact that you can heal from generational trauma, I only gave the book 3/5 stars. I had anticipated a 5/5 star rating until the end.
Despite my gripes, I would absolutely recommend this book to friends. It’s a perfect book club book. In fact, I think I’m going to suggest it to each of my three book clubs as our next read. The subject of generational trauma is sure to produce interesting conversation and debate, and I can’t wait to hear other readers’ thoughts.