Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein




Here's a fantastic novel to keep you busy while your favorite TV shows go on hiatus. I do the most reading of the entire year during the summer after May sweeps. What else is there to do? Grab a book. Reading is better than watching television anyway. I'm pretty hooked on my reality shows right now but I always have a book or magazine next to me.



Jennifer Cody Epstein, the author of The Painter from Shanghai...oh, where do I begin? I received this book and thought it would take me a month to get through. It's historical fiction which requires more concentration. You don't want to miss a single description or miss a date or event. Jennifer is brilliant and I'm not exaggerating. This book is so rich in detail and I greatly admire and appreciate all the very hard work and dedication that went into this jewel of a book.



The Painter From Shanghai is about Pan Yuliang, a painter from guess where? Shanghai! This is the story of her life starting from when she was sold into prostitution by her uncle then taken as a concubine. The novel sweeps from pre war Shanghai to the glamour of 1920's Paris. We are consumed with her struggle to become who she is meant to be, a painter of provocatively beautiful paintings. Yuliang's life is difficult but her desire to be a painter keeps her moving forward. If you have never seen her art, you must visit Jennifer's site and view these works. They are gorgeous and colorful and by today's standards, not very risque. But back in Pan Yuliangs time, they were outrageous hence the trouble and hardship Pan Yuliang encountered. Don't miss this novel. Head to your favorite bookstore and buy it now.





Jennifer, the book is amazing. Tell me about the huge task of researching for The Painter from Shanghai.

Huge is the word! Although as a former journalist and erstwhile academic (I love universities and basically try to spend as much time as I can at them) the research was actually far less intimidating for me than the writing. For about two years I really just researched, without writing a word (or, rather, writing mediocre short stories that never seemed to go anywhere). At some point I realized that I was using the research as a crutch to keep from starting the novel, because the idea scared me so much. So I had to wean myself off the books and onto Word.

In terms of subject: basically, I read everything I could find on China during this period in English, online, in texts and novels. I also enlisted the help of Chinese- and French-speaking friends to help translate and research relevant texts in those languages (one friend, for example, spent hours on my behest at the Beaux Arts library in Paris), and to vet what I was writing for mistakes. I interviewed a few art historians, painters and the curator of the Guggenheim exhibit at which I first discovered Pan Yuliang, about ten years ago. I also took a couple of painting courses to get a sense of the process and the feeling of painting (although the strongest sense I got was that I’m a far better writer than painter!)

You didn't skimp on the details of Pan Yuliang's life from beginning to end. Did you give yourself a broad creative license to fill in the blanks?

Happily, this was one of those subjects where I actually had to use creative license—even the art historians I spoke to confirmed that there is so little actually factually known about her (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate) that in order to get a full sense of her story, one has to simply imagine. Once I’d come to terms with that, the task of telling a story—rather than, specifically, the story—came much more easily.

Her nude paintings caused a huge stir. Did men painting nude women have the same effect back in those days?

I think it was pretty forbidden on both levels. But in some ways, a man painting a woman nude was even more of a transgression, as women were supposed to be essentially shielded from male eyes well into the twentieth century. “Proper” women, in the old Confucian traditions, left home as rarely as possible, and even when one was ill she wasn’t supposed to be physically examined by a doctor. Rather, she’d be presented with a statue of a woman, and would point to the areas that were likely affected.

The idea of a woman painting a man nude was probably the most scandalous option of all—which in part may explain why there are so few paintings of men in Pan Yuliang’s work—even fully-clothed ones—and why the response when she did do it was so vehement (the painting I have vandalized in the book is based on one that really was vandalized in real life, and scribbled with obscenities referring to her history as a prostitute). What I love so much about her, though, is that she simply didn’t care—in life as in her work she challenged concepts on gender and propriety, and once really did dress up as a man to get into a painting class in Nanjing that was open to men only because they were painting male nudes.

I have always loved Monet, Georgia O'Keefe and Van Gogh, Who are some of your favorite painters?

I didn’t actually know much about painting before I began this project, believe it or not! I do love Manet, Matisse, Cezanne and Rembrandt; I also love Sargent, Valedon, Cassatt, Hiroshige, and—believe it or not—Norman Rockewell, who I think does Americana so beautifully and humorously. Of the Chinese artists, I must say Pan Yuliang has been my favorite. But I’m probably a bit biased J

If you had to delve inside the life of another person for your next book, who would you choose?

There were a few characters I came across in doing this who really fascinated me; Tokyo Rose (one of the English-speaking presenters who taunted US forces on-air as part of Japan’s propaganda efforts during World War II) was one of them, as was Yoshiko Kawashima, a Manchu princess brought up in Japan who later became a spy for the Japanese during World War II in Shanghai. (Obviously, there’s a theme of some sort at work here!).

What I’m actually working now on a non-real-life character for a novel about Tokyo during the end of the war. It’s still pretty rough, but I envision her as an adolescent and am really looking forward to seeing both pre- and post-Occupation Japan through her eyes.

There are so many intriguing and interesting women in history. My favorites include Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart…what about you?

Hmmmm. Those are good ones. There are so many…some of my writing heroes are Pearl Buck, Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved ranks as one of my favorite books of all time). I also greatly admire Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Curie, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks…the more I think the more I’ll come up with, so I’ll stop now!


What was your writing schedule when you were working on the novel?


These days it’s pretty civilized; we have a sitter and I generally try to fit in three or four hours four days of the week on writing or book-related activities When I was a new mom and we had absolutely no money (as opposed to a little) it was kinda insane—the only hours I had to work were when the baby was sleeping. So I’d try to get from 5-9 in (until my husband left for work) and then would add a couple of hours when she was napping, if I wasn’t too tired. I believe I spent much of the first half of the book in a state of sleep-deprived psychosis—I really don’t remember writing a lot of that stuff!

Why don't we know of Pan Yuliang? I'd never heard of her before the book. It seems like we should know her beautiful work.


That was actually the first question I had when I saw her painting at the Guggenheim: Why don’t we know this woman?! She strikes me—not just in terms of talent, but raw perseverance—as a true heroine and inspiration. The only thing I can come up with in terms of her relative obscurity—at least in the West—is that she was Chinese, and most Westerners aren’t very familiar with China’s history or its arts. I also think the fact that she’s a woman had a lot to do with it; women—particularly in her time—were given even lesser opportunity for advancement then they were here, and I think her history as a prostitute made it seem in bad taste to many to appreciate her art (even now I get the sense that it casts a disproportionately long shadow over her accomplishments in China). Though I also think it can be argued that women are largely being left out of the current Asian art boom—for whatever reason that might be.

Are you an avid reader? What genres do you enjoy reading?

Absolutely. With books, as with food, I’m pretty much am an omnivore and a glutton. I love historical fiction in particular. Right now I’m simultaneously reading Max Hasting’s Retribution, Elsa Durante’s History, Elisa Albert’s The Book of Dahlia, Dazai Osamu’s The Setting Sun and (with my daughter) The Horse and His Boy, Through the Looking Glass and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Yes, I’m already encouraging her in my bad habits!)

What will we find you doing on the weekend?

Reading. Yoga. Running with my dog. Watching Disney (princess movies or Hannah Montanna) with my daughters. Struggling to get my daughters into bed so I can have a civilized conversation with my husband. Sleeping (if I’m lucky!).

What do you have planned next?

As I said, something set in Tokyo during World War II. I actually have far more experience in Japan than in China (I lived there for five years and speak the language fairly well) so it’ll be a nice change!

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