A factory owner’s wife ignites a scandalous love affair with a Chinese worker in Karen Shepard’s newest novel, The Celestials. A bi-racial love child follows. In conjunction with the New-York Historical Society’s ongoing exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, we sat down with Chinese-American author Karen Shepard who teaches writing and literature at Williams College to discuss her work of historical fiction, her source of inspiration, and the lives of her characters. She sets the scene for her oeuvre in a 19th-century Massachusetts industrial city amid a divisive union labor strike. Scores of Chinese strikebreakers arrive to fill the emptied assembly line at a local shoe manufacturer. But their entrance does more than maintaining the status quo.
During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants became a crucial source of labor on both American coasts. This watercolor is featured in our ongoing exhibition on the subject, Chinese-American: Exclusion/Inclusion. Jake Lee, Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1950s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). © Chinese Historical Society of America.
Who are the Celestials? How can a contemporary audience relate to your 19th-century characters?
The Chinese in America in the 19th century were often referred to as Celestials. One of the translations of the word for “China” was “The Celestial Empire,” thus, “the Celestials,” but there was also the sense that these people were so foreign, so alien, it was as if they were literally other-worldly. I was interested in how a word like that lumps a whole bunch of individuals together in a way that prevents them from being distinct, that allows their “viewers” to see them as one mass of something very, very different from anything we may have felt comfortable with.
Yes, the book is set in the 19th century, but the emotional desires and needs of any of us flawed humans don’t change all that much, I think. And, more specifically, I was struck, when working on the book, how many of the issues that were relevant then are relevant now: immigration, labor, interracial relations, etc.
A photograph of the author by Barry Goldstein
Where did you first get the idea for this book?
I knew a little about the Chinese living as strikebreakers in North Adams, Massachusetts, but I didn’t know details until I went to a lecture by Anthony W. Lee, an art historian at Mt. Holyoke, who has a non-fiction book on the photograph of the workers that was taken when they first arrived in North Adams. I didn’t go with the idea of writing a novel in mind, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t have anything to take notes with in my bag. Lee showed slides of the photographs that the workers took of themselves, and they were really intriguing to me—a window into what these workers wanted, how they wanted to appear to the world, and to themselves. I came home from the lecture and did a couple of years of reading before admitting to myself that I wanted to write a novel based on the event.
The Celestials is a work of historical fiction, so where does the history end and the fiction begin? How do you straddle these two worlds in your text?
For me—and this might be different from project to project—I had to read enough of the history, the facts— to feel confident about making stuff up. I had to feel that I knew how people heated their homes, what time they went to church, what they ate for supper— so that I could imagine their interior emotional lives, and so that I could imagine exterior events that may not have happened, but could have happened. I think of the novel as an alternate universe, an alternate story of the factual event.
Do the struggles immigrants face today differ from those of the Celestials?
I would imagine the answer to this is yes and no. But I would also imagine that today’s immigrants are struggling with many of the same questions that Charlie Sing and the other workers were struggling with when they arrived in North Adams all those years ago: who will I be here in this new and alien place? How will I reinvent myself? What will that reinvention cost me? As many writers have said before me, fiction writers are interested in what their characters want and what they’re willing to do to get it—character and plot.