Rita Chang-Eppig on Researching Pirates for Her Debut Novel
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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Maris Kreizman: Rita, your debut novel is not the typical debut novel that I usually see coming out of an MFA program, and so I’m wondering if you could just take us through how this idea came to you, what it is, and how you built this intense world of a lady pirate in the 19th century.
Rita Chang-Eppig: When I first told my agent that I was working on a novel about pirates, I think I was expecting just for her to say, ‘all right, that’s it. We’re, I’m ending our contract right here, we’re not proceeding any further with this relationship.’ But my novel is based on a historical figure who lived during the early 1800s in what is now the region around Hong Kong.
And we can call her a pirate queen. She was a woman who commanded, by some historians accounts, the largest pirate fleet ever in the history of pirates. So, this book is a fictionalization of the events of her life. And it also draws upon Chinese mythology. I’m a big mythology buff, and I definitely wanted to pull some of those elements into the book.
MK: And you do! Shek Yeung is a great character. She didn’t want to become a pirate. She had other other plans, but all of the alternatives were not so great, and she really embodies doing what you have to do to survive.
RCE: Yeah, she’s lived a very hardscrabble life that the historical figure. She was a peasant girl. There really are no. Records of her before she joined the fleet because she was considered a person of no importance by society, right?, and, there are records that indicate that she might have been herself abducted by pirates when she was a pretty young woman.
And, back then, if you couldn’t pay your ransom after the pirates kidnapped you, usually one of two things happened : You either got conscripted into the pirate flee. So you had to basically become forced labor. Very often in the case of women you got sold off to, they had a pretty euphemistic name for what was basically a very horrible place back then, which was called flower boat. They sold you to the flower boat so that you became a sex worker or sex slave, depending on how you think of it.
MK: In the book you write flower boats neither sold flowers or functioned as boats, which made it hard to picture… Tell me about that a little bit.
RCE: Yeah. They didn’t sell flowers and they definitely didn’t function in the sense that they never left the dock. They were just kind of these more together sanpans that occupied the coastal region. And , I’ve always thought that the process of extracting pearls was kind of violent, Like this thing is living its happy little life by itself. And we want it, what’s inside? So we pry it open to get this beautiful thing out. And so that image had a certain resonance for me, with this idea of a young girl who was basically forced into sexual slavery. So I guess that’s where my mind was when I was thinking about the pearl image.
MK: And then we see her starting to develop survival skills that kind of turn into an overall kind of savviness so that she is able to truly impress one of the men who comes to the flower boats.
RCE: I did a lot of research, obviously. For a novel like this, you kind of can’t proceed without having a pretty solid sense of what the world was like back then. And unsurprisingly, these settings, these flower boats were often places where a lot of secrets got exchanged. So there was a way in which, people are drunk, people are kind of engaging in various [sexual] acts, and people say things. So I think one of the things that this historical figure Shek Young was supposedly very good at according to records, is that she was able to listen, to remember what people were saying and then connect the dots to see how this might be important information, later on.
The story goes that this pirate, we’ll call him a pirate king, Zeng Yat, was like, wait, you’re really good at this. You’re really good at strategizing. You’re really good at the diplomacy aspect, because of course she worked around people all the time and had to appease people all the time. And he was like, all right, you’re joining me on my fleet.
MK: It’s such a weird moment of a transition of power. She’s both more empowered and less perhaps, and she has to struggle with that throughout the novel. I mean, how do you say no?
RCE: Can you say no? I mean, I think this is a question. Can you say no to somebody who holds a lot more power than you do? This is a question that I think a lot of people are still grappling with these days. This is why when people talk about coercion, when people talk about feeling like, well, I felt like I had to go to this person’s hotel room or whatever, because Zeng Yat was this really wealthy and among the underworld, really respected person. Hypothetically he could have had her killed without anybody even batting an eye.
And so she is in a position of being coerced, but at the same time he’s saying, okay, if you do everything I tell you to, you can have a much more powerful position than you were ever able to hold on the flower boat. It was definitely a tension that I was trying to explore in the book: what it’s like to be both empowered and really disempowered at the same time.
MK: And it seems like for the majority of the book, she lives in a constant fight or flight mode. She doesn’t know who to trust. Enemies all around, maybe even including people on her own ship. So there’s no relaxing.
RCE: I was still working on this novel after the first year of the pandemic. And I remember back then I was seeing a lot of things on social media about how the pandemic has made all of us live in constant fight or flight. Technically, I’m thinking in psychology, it’s fight or fight or flight or freeze, but it’s the same idea. That your adrenaline, your epinephrine is running and you’re kind of reacting to everything in the world, every stimulus in the world with this fear, this panic.
I don’t think it was an intentional decision on my part, but I think a little bit of that idea seeped through as I was working on this novel. What is it like for a person who, because the circumstances of her life can never turn back, you can never just chill out and like, have a glass of metaphorical wine and go take a nap. I wouldn’t call her high strung, but she’s definitely very used to making do, or existing in this fight or flight or freeze mode.
Rita Chang-Eppig received her MFA from NYU. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Clarkesworld, The Santa Monica Review, The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Best American Short Stories 2021 (selected by Jesmyn Ward), and elsewhere. She lives in California. Her debut novel is called Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea.