Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford

The Daughters of Afong Moy
by Jamie Ford
384 Pages
Published August 2022 by Atria Books

Publisher's Summary: 
Dorothy Moy breaks her own heart for a living.

As Washington’s former poet laureate, that’s how she describes channeling her dissociative episodes and mental health struggles into her art. But when her five-year-old daughter exhibits similar behavior and begins remembering things from the lives of their ancestors, Dorothy believes the past has truly come to haunt her. Fearing that her child is predestined to endure the same debilitating depression that has marked her own life, Dorothy seeks radical help.

Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.

As painful recollections affect her present life, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited. A stranger is searching for her in each time period. A stranger who’s loved her through all of her genetic memories. Dorothy endeavors to break the cycle of pain and abandonment, to finally find peace for her daughter, and gain the love that has long been waiting, knowing she may pay the ultimate price.

My Thoughts: 
I'm a big fan of Ford - from his first book, Hotel On The Corner of Bitter And Sweet to Love and Other Consolation Prizes. Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated from Hoiping, China to San Francisco in 1865, where he adopted the western name Ford. I admire that Ford's books always pay homage to his family history, exploring the Chinese American experience. 

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy pulls together generations of those experiences as it explores the idea of epigenetic, or intergenerational trauma (to learn more about inherited trauma, check out this article from the BBC). Ford launches his exploration of epigenetic with the fictionalized account of Afong Moy, who was the first known female emigrant to the United States from China in 1834. While she did achieve fame, she achieved it as a curiosity. Ford's book imagines what her life must have been like, from the reason she ended up in America to what indignities and abuse she might have endured. 

In Ford's telling of her life, Afong Moy becomes pregnant through rape and the trauma she has endured is passed down through her subsequent generations, each generation adding their own traumas. 

Dorothy is living in a future Seattle, where hurricanes now regularly affect the Pacific Northwest, a landscape that reflects Dorothy's inherited trauma and tumultuous relationship. When Dorothy begins treatment to deal with what the past has wrought, Ford is given the chance to explore the lives of the women who came before Dorothy. 

Each of these women has an interesting story in their own right and each is incredibly sad, making this an emotionally difficult book to read (which is not unusual for Ford's books). While there does appear to be treatment for inherited treatment, the treatment that Ford imagines allows Dorothy to find herself in her ancestors' lives. This was a bit problematic for me. While I believe there is enough evidence of inherited trauma, I can't imagine that the trauma imprints itself in such a way as to allow later generations to fully envision it. Still that approach also allows Ford a way to heal Dorothy, which was satisfying as it also allowed a way for him to heal the women who came before Dorothy. 

Although this is a much different book for Ford, he once again explores our need for love in our lives through his memorable characters set in books that tell stories we haven't read before. 

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