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The Many Daughters of Afong Moy


The Many Daughters of Afong Moy

Jamie Ford's debut novel, HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest effort, THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY, is a moving and cerebral look at the legacy of trauma that follows the matrilineal line of the first Chinese woman to arrive in America.

Spanning 250 years and seven generations of the Moy family, the book centers on the emotional journey of former poet laureate Dorothy Moy. Having survived a fractured relationship with her mother, Greta, Dorothy has long battled mental health issues, both lamenting and celebrating the ways that her broken heart and brain inform and propel her work as a poet. Now a mother herself to a precocious five-year-old named Annabel (after Edgar Allan Poe’s creation, of course), Dorothy --- and her increasingly judgmental partner --- can no longer ignore the potential for Annabel to inherit, whether genetically or through observation, Dorothy’s mental health struggles.

Desperate to save her daughter from encounters with depression, dissociation and suicidal ideation, Dorothy pursues a controversial form of therapy that focuses on tracing and unpacking transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, or inherited trauma. Long understood and accepted by Native Americans, this concept has recently become a hotly debated study focused on Holocaust survivors, whose children and grandchildren have been found to display a higher percentage of PTSD, depression and anxiety, despite never having witnessed the traumas of the Holocaust themselves. Knowing that her mother also struggled with mental illness, Dorothy wonders if mapping the patterns of repetition in her bloodline will allow her to avoid a similar fate and save her daughter from one as well.

"[T]here is much to love here, not the least of which is Ford’s unflinching exploration of anti-Chinese discrimination in America, a topic that unfortunately is incredibly timely."

As indicated by the title, Dorothy is a descendent of Afong Moy, the first known female Chinese immigrant to the United States. Afong arrived in New York City in 1836 and was quickly exploited by a family of traders who marketed her as “the Chinese Lady,” inviting patrons to come gawk at her tiny, bound feet and listen to her sing about the beauty and serenity of her homeland. Sold quickly into a life of fame, poverty and abuse, Afong was so famous that her posters graced every street corner, racehorses were named after her, and she even met the president. However, all that she passed down to her “daughters” was trauma…and, as Jamie Ford beautifully shows us, an indelible spirit and a love story that spans generations and continents.

We then meet Lai King, a granddaughter who faces racism, poverty and discrimination in 1892 San Francisco following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. When a plague takes over Chinatown (with the help of doctors who have no issues contaminating Chinese citizens), her mother forces her onto a boat as the city burns behind her. Terrified and alone, she leaves her beloved parents behind to meet her mother’s family in China. Years later, her spinster daughter, Faye, works as a military nurse with the American Volunteer Group, based in Kunming. One night, a mysterious pilot makes an emergency landing, nearly self-immolating when he lights a cigarette and approaches Faye. In his pocket, he holds a photo of her with the words “Find me” written on the back. Faye, who has long eschewed the idea of love after a traumatic indiscretion in her youth, is haunted by the pilot, who felt as familiar to her as her own body, despite their brief encounter.

The mystery of Faye’s pilot will haunt the Moy women’s bloodline for generations, starting with Zoe Moy, a teenager who attends Summerhill School in England, a freewheeling, progressive study in encouraging children’s interests rather than a core curriculum. When the school tests a provocative government model, Zoe learns not only of the evil hiding in her classmates, but of a world that will never allow her to live or love freely. In 1942, Zoe’s fragile and sensitive granddaughter, Greta, watches her promising career at a tech startup implode, taking the love of her life with it and finally reuniting us with Dorothy again, who is just beginning to meet these women through her epigenetic therapy. As her doctor explains, the goal is to “[r]ecognize a pattern of behavior, of repeated cycles of trauma and loss, and then rewrite the script by reconciling those memories.” But for Dorothy, who already carries so much pain, immersing herself in the genetic wirings of two-and-a-half centuries of inherited trauma may be the thing that undoes, rather than fixes, her and puts her beloved daughter at unimaginable risk.

THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY is a beautiful novel that asks almost as much of its reader as it gives, a trade-off that will work for some and be undeniably tedious for others. Luckily for the latter group, Ford begins the book with a helpful Author’s Note that explains some of the more scientific terms and their origins, while also talking about his interest in the science of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. And then, of course, he ensures that every scientific term and existential query he explores sits comfortably on a bed of gorgeous character studies, timely connections, and the spellbinding themes of inheritance, courage, love and motherhood.

The novel is not written in a linear fashion, and while the jumps will be difficult for some, there is a sublime joy in watching as Ford’s framework is exposed and the ties between each of the Moy daughters are bound. Still, for a story spanning centuries, continents and lives, I found the ending a bit too rushed and untidy, more of a disservice to the stunning work that came before it than a satisfying conclusion.

That said, there is much to love here, not the least of which is Ford’s unflinching exploration of anti-Chinese discrimination in America, a topic that unfortunately is incredibly timely. Add to this his keen insights into the minds and hearts of women, and you have a truly intoxicating combination of searing realism and heartfelt sentimentality that will forever shape the way you think about the traits, emotions and legacies you have inherited from your family…and the ones you are passing down to future generations.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 5, 2022

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
by Jamie Ford