THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY by Jamie Ford This reading group guide for THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jamie Ford
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy Moy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. This story is told in alternating timelines across many characters. Who did you relate to the most? Was there one story you wished there was more of?
2. In the opening chapter, Faye Moy reads from an Edgar Allan Poe poem, “But we loved with a love that was more than love . . .” How do you think the characters show their capacity for love? Most of the characters seem to be driven by love. How do you think that affects their decisions? How does it affect the final outcome of the book?
3. Dorothy Moy recognizes some characteristics that she shares with her young daughter. How do you think that realization makes her feel? This book is all about how we can share trauma through a family line. What are some shared traits, positive and negative, that connect you to your family?
4. The relationship between Louis and Dorothy is very volatile. Why do you think that she stays with him?
5. The theme of fate versus choice runs throughout this novel. Pick out some of the moments where a different choice made by a character might have led to a different outcome. What stopped the character from making a better choice? Do you think it was external or internal forces that informed the decision?
6. At one point, Dorothy wonders if art can only be created through pain and trauma. What do you think? Can there be great art created from joy?
7. What was your reaction to Summerhill? Did it seem like it was an ideal school? Were all the normal hierarchies of school still present? What was your expectation for how their political experiment in fascism would play out?
8. A lot of the women in this book have very little agency over their lives and bodies. Discuss how that changed for each generation in the story. How would you say that women are treated today in the real world? What has changed since the time of Afong Moy in the 1800s? What changes do you see in the future?
9. Greta Moy designs a dating app called Syren that is female-led and meant to be empowering to women. Unfortunately, it is ultimately taken down by the actions of a man. What did you think about the decisions made by Greta in meeting with Carter? How did he manipulate the situation?
10. This book takes a peek at the year 2086 with high-speed trains and driverless cars. What are some advancements you hope to see in the next twenty years? What do you hope future generations might get to see?
11. Dorothy is able to drastically change the lives of her family members and herself through an experimental treatment. Would you take part in an experiment? What might deter you? What would make it enticing? What, if anything, would you change in the lives of your ancestors?
12. Discuss your reaction to the ending. Was it a satisfying ending?Enhance Your Book Club
1. There is poetry woven throughout this book. Is there a meaningful poem in your life? If not, have your book club write a poem inspired by your reading of the book.
2. Afong Moy was a real person. Do some online research about her and discuss how Jamie Ford presented her story in this book.
3. This book ends with an incredible moment of magic. Discuss whether it went against your expectations for the conclusion and what that might mean.A Conversation with Jamie Ford Q: What is epigenetics? How did you come across the idea and how did it bloom into this story?
A: Epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can alter the function of our genetic code. It’s also the study of how those phenotype changes in our DNA are heritable, affecting subsequent generations.
I began exploring the world of epigenetics after I read an article about a study done at Emory University in 2013. It was there that researchers showed how genetic markers in lab animals, thought to be wiped clean before birth, were used to transmit a single traumatic experience across generations.
Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about what we, as humans, might be transmitting. What kind of trauma are we encumbered with at birth and what might we pass down to our own children and grandchildren?
Since I’m a fairly emotive person, the more I read about epigenetics, the more I wondered if it’s possible to pass down more than trauma, pain, and negative experiences? Is it possible to pass down positive things as well? What about love?
That’s when I decided to write an epigenetic love story.Q: What inspired you about the true story of Afong Moy? When did you first learn about her?
A: I first learned about Afong Moy more than ten years ago. I read an article about her life in the United States while tumbling down some other research rabbit hole for a different book. What confounded me about her story is that it’s never told in her own voice. Her entire history and identity have been constructed by articles and advertisements promoting her appearances in the 1800s. She’s sensationalized and romanticized, almost described as something between a cultural ambassador and an intrepid world traveler.
All of that hype obfuscates the fact that Chinese women couldn’t leave China at the time, and if they did, upon return, the punishment was death. So it’s unlikely that Afong came here willingly.
That alone speaks to the tragic circumstances of her life. But when you couple that with the fact that no one really knows what happened to her in the end, her story was begging to be told.Q: This is an amazing cast of women spanning several generations. How did you manage each of their personalities? What was important to you in the telling of each of their journeys?
A: What was most important in telling the stories of all these characters is acknowledging that they are all women and that their stories rarely get told. The etymology of the word “history” is “his story.” But what about her
story? What about their
As far as managing the personalities of the various characters throughout the book, I really thought of them as the same person, just genetically expressed at different points in time. While their worlds and experiences—good and bad—are unique, in many ways they are all echoes of Afong.Q: There is a lot of evil in this book. How did you balance that against the overall positive message of this book?
A: It was easier to manage the evil, or negative things in the book, because for the most part that evil was all structural or institutionalized. The racism, sexism, and bigotry in the book were all woven into the fabric of each society at the time. It’s almost impossible to re-create those worlds on the page and have it not be there.
As far as balance, there’s a lot of hope in the book as well, and a small amount of hope can offset a towering mountain of evil.Q: What was the significance of Edgar Allan Poe and his works?
A: Because Poe’s work is often regarded as dark and gothic, mysterious and macabre, it’s easy to forget that he was one of the most influential romantics of his time. In his own life, his first love, Elmira Royster Shelton, became his last love decades later. He also often wrote about strong women who meet terrible ends, leaving behind a sense of perpetual yearning. His work and his life seemed to resonate with this story of love and longing.Q: You imagine the future in this book. What was the writing process like for that? Is it much different than writing a timeline set in the past?
A: The writing process is definitely different. With historical fiction, my research involves newspaper databases, museum visits, looking at old maps and ephemera, and plowing through a ton of nonfiction related to each time period.
When writing about the future, you have your imagination and a blank page. It’s freeing, but also daunting. Instead of researching a world, you’re building one.
Fortunately, I’ve published short stories that have been speculative and dystopian, so I’ve always had an interest in writing about the near future. This is just the first time I’ve done it in a novel.Q: Did you always know that you would end this book with redemption for your characters?
A: I always know the ending of my books before I begin, so I definitely knew where I was taking my readers. (Thanks for making the journey.) I tend to think of writing fiction as banking and spending emotional currency. Sometimes there’s a withdrawal at the end, sometimes there’s a payoff.Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another novel that’s historical but also speculative. I’m going to refrain from saying what it’s about, but for research purposes I just visited the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies—a research unit within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. It’s a group of parapsychologists who study near-death experiences, altered states of consciousness, and children who report memories of previous lives.
Some of that is in the next book (and my lucid dreams as I write this thing).