Deep As The Sky, Red as the Sea
By Rita Chang-Eppig
Bloomsbury Publishing; hardcover, 304 pages; $28.99
Rita Chang-Eppig received her MFA in fiction from NYU, and she received fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, the Writers Grotto, the Bread Load Writers' Conference, and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. Her short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2021, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Clarkesworld, The Rumpus, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Chang-Eppig grew up hearing stories of the mythical sea goddess Mazu and fierce 19th century Chinese pirate queen Shek Yeung, but as she grew up, she realized that those around her didn't know these incredible tales. As an adult, while she worked in clinical psychology, she read the literature on women in leadership and listened to the family stories of her grandparents escaping the Communist Revolution on a junk ship, she realized she could blend her interests with her childhood stories of fantasy into an incredible historical debut incorporating literary fiction, mythology and ancient figures.
Deep as the Sea, Red as the Sea is her debut novel, and it is a riveting adventure about a legendary Chinese pirate queen, Shek Yeung, her fight to save her fleet from the forces allied against them, and the dangerous piece of power.
When Shek sees a Portuguese sailor slay her husband, a feared pirate, she knows she must act swiftly or die. Instead of mourning, she launches a new plan, that she would immediately marry her husband's second-in-command, and agree to bear him a son and heir, in order to retain power over her half of the fleet.
Shek Young vies for control over the army she knows she was born to lead, but it's not all easy sailing. The Chinese Emperor has charged a brutal, crafty nobleman with ridding the South China Seas of pirates, and the Europeans - who are weary of losing ships, men, and money to Shek Young's alliance - have new plans for the area.
As Shek navigates new motherhood and the crises of leadership, she must decide how long she is willing to fight, and at what price, or risk losing her fleet, her new family, and even her life.
AUTHOR APPEARANCE: On Wednesday, June 14 at 7:00 p.m., Rita Chang-Eppig will be at Books Are Magic, located at 122 Montague Street in Brooklyn, in conversation with Anna North. Click here for more information.
A Conversation with Rita Chang-Eppig about Shek Yeung, Mazu, and Inspiration (provided by Bloomsbury):
When did you first hear about Shek Yeung and Mazu? Why are they important figures?
Rita Chang-Eppig: Mazu is a figure worshipped in many parts of East Asia as both a goddess of the sea and as Empress of Heaven. It's hard to overstate how much Mazu is a part of daily life in Taiwan, where I grew up. There are temples and altars to her on every corner, parades that draw both older and younger folks, commercial products branded with her name and image. Every year there are pilgrimages attended by thousands of people in which a statue of Mazu is carried on foot long distance (one of them is approximately 60 miles), making unpredictable detours that are chalked up to the goddess's whims. A few years ago, the goddess supposedly wanted to go into a supermarket, so the entire procession followed the stature into the supermarket. In a sense, Mazu has always been a part of my life.
As for Shek Young, I first read about her in a book. She was barely a blip - the author had dedicated maybe two or three sentences to her - but she fascinated me. I took it upon myself to learn more because I thought there had to be an amazing story behind this woman who came from humble origins and rose up to command the largest pirate fleet in China, some might say the world. The more I read and heard about her, the more I became convinced that she deserved to have her story told. The fact that most people still refer to her as 'Ching Shih' or 'Zheng Yi Sao,' both of which translate to 'Zheng's wife,' tells us everything we need to know, I think, about history's erasure of this woman's life and deeds.
What kind of research did you go to bring this story to life?
RCE: I did quite a bit of on-the-ground research in China and Taiwan. I started by reading about Chinese maritime history and visiting museums, and then after I felt I had a good sense of that era, I engaged in more experiential research, the kind of stuff that's hard to describe in a novel until you've lived it. For example, I climbed around a life-sized replica of a traditional junk ship, participated in Mazu worship ceremonies, talked to the grannies who volunteered at temples (all of whom had vivid memories of what Mazu worship was like back in the day and couldn't wait to tell me about it), and so forth.
What about your family history set you on the path to write about pirates, junks and mythology?
RCE: When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents told some astonishing stories about escaping from China to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution. The one that has never left my mind is of my grandmother as a teenager, several months pregnant, running over a minefield with my grandfather to get to the boats that would take them across the strait, stepping over bodies the whole time. When they got to the shore, there were two boats available: one was large, diesel-powered, and relatively new, whereas the other was an old one-masted junk ship. My grandparents didn't have the fare for the larger boat, so they got on the junk, thinking that was probably it for them. As both boats set sail, people fired artillery at them from land. Shells were falling into the water in front of them, missing the junk ship by a hair. My grandparents looked over at the modern boat and saw that it was sinking - its larger size had made it an easier target for the artillery. So I guess you can say that junk ships hold a kind of mystical significance in my family. Without them, I would not be here.
Shek Young has been portrayed in popular culture over the years (A 1970s movie, and most recently, in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, among others): what was the most accurate, and what do you hope your novel will do to right some of the wrongs of her earlier portrayals?
RCE: Like many people who were alive and watching movies in the early 2000s, I was obsessed with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I watched a few of the sequels more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I remember getting to the one in which they depicted Shek Yeung, whom they called 'Mistress Ching, and just feeling so deeply disappointed by their portrayal of her as this kind of 'Dragon Lady,' from her styling down to her lines. One of the things I really wanted to do with this novel was to depict her not as a caricature but as a human woman, with all the complexities inherent in that.
What role does Chinese mythology play in your life? How has it shaped how you tell stories?
RCE: I grew up around myths, not only those from China and Taiwan but also from many other parts of the world. As a teenager, I actively sought out books of mythology. Even though they're ostensibly about heroes and gods, they're really about how different cultures have attempted to talk about and create meaning from weighty topics like family, grief, and love. It doesn't matter how far society has come since those early days - the human experience, I believe, still boils down to grief and love. And yes, my book is an adventure tale, but it is also about these real people who lived during a time of immense political and financial upheaval, who loved and lost even as they did incredible, myth-worthy things.
There are many strong female characters (and goddesses) in your novel: what women inspire you?
RCE: I've already mentioned my maternal grandmother and the things she did to keep herself and her unborn child alive, but she continued to be this unstoppable force even after escaping the revolution. After arriving in Taiwan, she and my grandfather lived in poverty for many years. They'd lost all these financial and emotional support because none of their family members, except one of her sisters, had made it to Taiwan. Whatever the family needed, she had to learn how to make or acquire. For example, she scavenged through people's trash to find discarded rice sacks that she then turned into diapers. Living this way forced her to be shrewd, to learn how to stretch a buck and haggle and sweet-talk. To this day she is still the matriarch of the family - no major decisions get made without her approval.
Can you talk about how folk religion and fortune telling have informed your writing?
RCE: As with Mazu worship, fortune-telling is a common practice in Taiwan. My mother took me to a fortune-teller as soon as I was old enough to sit still in her lap long enough for the fortune-teller to read my face. He told her I would (a) achieve some fame and (b) get into a bad accident at the age of 21. Neither has happened, but my mother still worries every time I have to drive long distances. At temples, lots of worshippers use fortune sticks and moon blocks to get answers to their questions. And all the people I know from there, even those with absolutely no formal training in feng shui, have strong opinions about a location's feng shui ever time they enter someone's home or store.
Ultimately, this has to do with worldviews: in many parts of East Asia, the individual is not separate from the environment. Everything is connected in a way that can be hard to explain to folks who don't share that worldview. Even alternative health practices like acupuncture and qigong are based on this idea. So when I say I'm into folk religion and fortune-telling, I mean I grew up with this worldview, and then as I became acculturated to Western practices, I incorporated things like the tarot into my life. And, well, they say you should write what you know, so I found a way to fit it into the novel.