That feeling that you can’t escape fate? Or that the person you just met is someone you immediately feel like you already know? Or do you wonder why your family members feel the same way about certain things?
These ideas are explored in Jamie Ford’s new novel, Afong Moy’s Many Daughters.
Ford was inspired by his child’s musical tastes, so close to his own, and wondered what had happened to a Chinese woman who was put on the stages of the American music hall as a curiosity in the 1830s in 1850, only to disappear from history. She was primarily known as the Chinese Lady, but has also been identified as Julia Foo-chee ching-chang-king, Miss Ching-Chang-foo, Miss Keo-O-Kwang King, and Afong Moy.
The family ties he explores through the prism of epigenetic heredity. At the most basic level, we are talking about family traits here. Or how some identical twins share so much in common, even some who were raised apart.
But Ford and some researchers go further, that there may be a bond between family members in which patterns repeat from generation to generation due to how individuals react to situations and feel certain things. This includes intergenerational trauma, in which future generations learn ways to cope from their elders, ways that may not be healthy. There is also the concept that future generations feel the burden or pain that their elders endured.
I know many of my family members and share similar tastes in music, food and entertainment. But sometimes I wonder if there’s more when it comes to things like a younger parent who can’t get over a first love, just like my great-grandfather (who made sure that his wife knew she was the wrong one; what a rotten thing to do). Or knowing how to get somewhere in a big city that I’ve never been there before (or studying the kind of map that would show me where to go).
What if, well, not exactly the same two souls, but two souls who recognized each other, continued to meet but also were kept apart, from generation to generation?
The women in this novel are descendants of Afong Moy. The reader learns her tragic story, as well as what happens to successive generations of descendants. The first girl encountered is Faye, a nurse during World War II who feels an instant connection to an injured pilot who crashes into his fighter jet and collapses in his arms. Later, she finds a picture of herself younger, with the words “Find Me” written on the back. It’s a photo she never took.
No way not to discover the mystery of this photograph.
Ford travels back and forth in time, leaving a breadcrumb trail in the lives of Moy’s daughters. They include a programming genius whose work makes a women’s dating app a spectacular success, a near-future poet from Seattle who suffers from depression, and a partner with an overbearing mother, a daughter who has a crush on the one of his teachers at the famous Summerhill School, a young girl sent back to China after an outbreak of the plague in San Francisco, and Afong Moy herself. Any of them would have been the lead role in a historical novel.
But Ford combines both the historical stories with the metaphysical and emotional searches of each character. It’s not just meeting and losing one’s true companion. It’s also how each character, in their own way, strives to build a life for themselves within the confines of their time and place. And the way none of them give up, despite the desire, despite the loss, despite the trauma, no matter how hurt they are.
Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say Ford knows what to do with the narratives he’s created. Afong Moy’s Many Daughters is a most enjoyable book to read.