Yangsze Choo on her new novel 'The Fox Wife'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Snow is a fox. Really, the fox spirit - able to allure, to entrap and to change shapes. Snow can take on the form of a woman referred to as Ah San. And in 1908, she's on the hunt for the man who murdered her daughter. Snow's search for truth and justice through Manchuria and Japan is at the center of Yangsze Choo's new novel, "The Fox Wife." And Yangsze Choo, the author of several bestselling novels, including "The Night Tiger," joins us now from California. Thanks so much for being with us.
YANGSZE CHOO: Thank you for having me, Scott. It's such an honor.
SIMON: Well, the honor is ours. Help us understand the position that the fox can hold in various Chinese cultures.
CHOO: You know, I've always thought that the legend of the fox is so fascinating. In Chinese literature and also Japanese and Korean legends, the fox is a shapeshifter, as you mentioned, who can turn itself into a very attractive person. And folklore is full of these stories - many of them odd figments of stories - of foxes who interact with people, often tricking them, sometimes killing them or making off with their property.
The classic fox tale is that there's a scholar who's studying for the imperial exams late one evening when there's a knock at the door, and a beautiful woman appears. Later on, of course, he discovers she's not human, which raises all sorts of questions about, what is the story really about? But when I was a child, I read lots of these stories, and I was always fascinated by the fox, by this creature. Why do they come at night? Why do they always interrupt people's exams? (Laughter). And what lies on the other side of the door? You know, the sort of wildness and otherness - that's really interesting.
SIMON: Snow is searching for a photographer named Bektu Nikan. What does she think she knows about what he knows?
CHOO: She thinks that if she finds him, it will be the answer to solve a lot of her anger and bitterness. So when I wrote this novel, I hadn't really planned it. I started off with the idea of a woman who's also a fox. And I thought about, what sort of driving need would take you out of the grasslands of Mongolia, where she starts off with, to go into human society? And so she is looking to avenge her child. But I think it's a much more complicated narrative. And it turned out to be a story about old relationships and old loves.
SIMON: I found myself very drawn to the character of Bao Gong, who, of course, is a retired detective. I shouldn't say of course.
SIMON: A retired detective. He was called into the mystery when a woman is found dead in an alley. He also kind of has a special power, which is useful for a detective, doesn't he?
CHOO: Yes. He can hear truth from lies. You know, I mentioned earlier that I don't really plan well. But when I started this novel and I wrote chapter two, the words the detective appeared on my screen as I was typing them. And as I wrote about him, I felt like he could probably tell the difference between when people were lying or not. And I think, you know, most of us actually can tell a lot about someone from their voice.
Sound is one of the senses that we pay less attention to than we might have in the past. I think we live in an increasingly visual world of screens, where we rely on eyesight. But when you close your eyes and really listen, they've actually found from studies that people can quite accurately tell - you know, describe the person who's talking just from the tone of their voice.
SIMON: Bao Gong muses at one point - and it was so beautiful I wrote down the word - foxes are said to beguile people. Charming tricksters that will carry off your gold wine cups, as well as your heart. But it goes on to say, yet easily killed or maimed. They lose paws, tails and their own lives in gruesome ways. Boy, it makes you root for the fox.
CHOO: Yes. I think that they are very vulnerable. You know, the funny thing is that all over the world, the nature of the fox seems similar. When you look at Native American legends or the European tales and to China, it is a wily, tricky animal. And one thing that struck me is that you're only a trickster if you don't have much power. Like, the apex predators in these environments, like a lion, does not have to be particularly tricky. So I think the sense of being a fox and also the form of a young woman are both very vulnerable forms. And I try to bring it across in my book, where the foxes and the women are constantly under threat of being captured or imprisoned or, as a fox, trapped.
SIMON: You grew up around the world - a Malaysian family of Chinese descent. Did you grow up hearing Chinese folklore?
CHOO: I did. I read a lot of stories, and my mom also told me stories. It's a very rich world of mythology which has many, many animal spirits in it. The fox is part of what they call the Wudamen, or the five great Clans. It is a folk religion from northern China, in which the five great clans who are worshipped as gods of wealth are the fox, the hedgehog, I think the weasel, the rat and the snake. That's very weird to us because they sound more like pests, which also raises the question of, why would you worship them? Or is it a way to placate them?
SIMON: To placate them because we fear them?
CHOO: Well, maybe they eat up our wealth. If you think about it, in the past, wealth was probably grain.
SIMON: How many stories do you have going on in your mind at any given moment, do you think?
CHOO: Usually one. But the one story is made of many stories, which you might have noticed in "The Fox Wife." There is a Chinese tradition of writing notes and commentary in the margins of a book, and then the book will get passed around. And over the years, if some of the comments were particularly good or written by noted scholars, when the book was republished, they would republish it with these funny notes. So it'd be sort of like getting a copy of "Beowulf" with a comment by Jane Austen. Very interesting reading. And I wanted to do that with "The Fox Wife" and add many, many stories. But then I also realized that perhaps people don't like to read footnotes, so we had to pull back from that. But in my mind, when you ask, like, is it one story or many? It is both. It is the one story which gives rise to many, many others, which I think is the nature of tales.
SIMON: Yangsze Choo - her new novel, "The Fox Wife." Thank you so much for being with us.
CHOO: It was my pleasure, Scott. Thank you so much for having me.
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