10 February 2013

Guest Blog: Laura Rahme

This week, we're welcoming author Laura Rahme, whose latest title is The Ming Storytellers. Laura is offering a free paperback copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb: 
It is the 15th Century. At the dawn of the Ming Dynasty, three women's path will cross.
And of their journey, a tale will be born.
An imperial concubine,

A Persian traveller,
And a mysterious storyteller.
Three women: one story.

This is BEIJING. A city seething with mystery and royal intrigue.
Once a palace orphan, the wilful Min Li has only ever sought to please, even if that means pleasing Emperor Zhu Di. Now a powerful concubine, Min Li unearths a terrible secret concealed within the walls of Beijing's Imperial city. Driven to despair, she seeks help from her lover, Admiral Zheng He. But this will spark a chain of events that even sets Beijing's palace on fire. Min Li's fate is sealed but her true enemy is not who she thinks.

The Ming Storytellers is a historical tale of 15th century China that sweeps across the palaces of Nanjing and Beijing into the mountainous villages of Yunnan, where a mysterious shaman holds the key to a woman's destiny.

Across the oceans, from the bustling bazaars of Southern India to the lush shores of Zanzibar, nothing is quite what it seems.

For the eyes and ears of the Ming Emperor are ever near.

A tale of the far East replete with dark secrets, The Ming Storytellers is set during the early Ming Dynasty, soon after the reconquest of The Middle Kingdom from the Mongols. 

The Ming Storytellers delves into the political and personal intrigues of the Zhu Imperial family. On the eve of the great Beijing Palace fire and the Ming fleet's sixth expedition, an imperial concubine is swept up by dark forces of obsession and revenge. 

The Ming Storytellers is a must journey for historical travellers and for those who believe in the bridging between worlds.

**Q&A with Laura Rahme**

Let’s begin with a fun question. List three things you enjoy that have little to do with historical writing and research.
I love fashion and clothes. I am vain, shamelessly girly and all those things people may not at first believe upon discovering that I wrote about a Chinese admiral who led a giant fleet. Then again, dressing up is a form of role-playing, isn’t it? And perhaps that, too, relates to writing... I love perfume and beholding eccentric perfume vials. There is something sensual and comforting about inhaling scents. I love cakes. Eating cake makes me happy.

The Ming Storytellers 
is set in the Ming Dynasty. Why did you choose to write about the Ming Dynasty?
It was in 2006. I had just read Gavin Menzies’ 1421. I witnessed a passionate debate about the book’s claim for Ming China’s discovery of America prior to Christopher Columbus. It left me indifferent. What mattered was that I had just been blown away by a period in China’s history of which I’d known little about. It was exciting. This was the first Ming Dynasty based book I had read and I knew of no historical novel set in that period.  Aside from Menzies’ 1421 and a few other publications The Ming Dynasty seemed overlooked, at least in Western literature. How could this be? The 15th century was a period of immense achievement for China, both at home and across its naval realm. Beijing’s palace as we know it today and the reconstructed parts of the Great Wall owe much to Emperor Zhu Di, one of the first Ming emperors. The Mongols might still more or less rule China had not Zhu Di’s father, Emperor Hongwu, risen from his poor peasant status and led the reconquest of The Middle Kingdom. Again, during the Ming Dynasty, China was a maritime power and left ship remains as far as Africa.  Back then, China’s Muslim eunuchs became powerful admirals who headed naval diplomacy. In fact eunuchism during the Ming Dynasty reached an unparalleled scale. Where had I been sleeping? Where were all the books I could have been reading? It seemed to me that available literature was focused on the later Qing (or Manchu-ruled) China only to then run the full gamut on books based in Mao’s era. To answer the question, there was a gap that I hoped to fill. I am not the only writer who saw it. 

What was the inspiration for this novel?
I was researching my Vietnamese family genealogy, which dates back to the 17th century. I read that my first known ancestor was a Ming partisan from the Chinese province of Fujian. He had fled China and settled in Vietnam at the end of the Ming Dynasty to avoid the humiliation of Manchu rule and escape the famine raging in his province. His tragic story gave me the impetus to research my Ming China origins. Through my family archives, I also learned of scheming eunuchs and of forbidden love affairs between imperial concubines and ministers. All this titillated my imagination because like many people, I love secrets and exploring other worlds. When I visited Beijing in 2006, its Inner Palace evoked for me, a sort of monastery with the eunuchs circulating like monks and possessing hidden knowledge. The lure of delving into the concubines’ secluded life, of creating a stifled atmosphere where little is directly spoken, all this, appealed to my affinity for nuance and secrecy. It was from this sense of mystery that I began my story. It took me five years to complete.

The novel’s description speaks of three women who are each from a different cultural background. Can you tell us more about them?
They are fascinating. When writing about China, I wanted to evoke its cultural plurality and shake off the homogenous ethnic quality that, in the West, we often assume of foreign characters. Min Li, my ‘Chinese’ concubine is in fact of mixed descent. The novel makes allusion to her mother’s White Hun parentage (today this would be closer to a Uyghur from the north-western province of Xinjiang) and while Min Li has been raised in the Nanjing palace and received a Confucian education, there are claims by other characters that her constant desire to roam derives from her ‘nomadic Mongol blood’. 

Min Li’s psychology was the most difficult to achieve. I wanted to justify her complex character as being a product of her unusual and orphaned upbringing. Earlier in the novel when she is still a teenager and becomes a concubine, it was a challenge to give her point of view; the point of view of a woman-child, eager to serve her emperor but naive about the role she plays in his master plan. Adult, she is psychologically the strongest and most resilient character in the novel. Min Li is also the woman depicted on the novel’s cover.

The second female character is someone I would describe as trans-cultural. We tend to think of the trans-cultural as being a modern phenomenon but I feel it has always existed. Shahrzad is Muslim, she is veiled and she is of mixed Omani and Persian descent but she has lived most of her life in the then Arab colony of Zanzibar. Ever since the tragic death of her mother, she has been partly raised by a Swahili servant. It is possible to imagine that much like her non-traditional upbringing she has grown into an anachronism of her times. As such I took many liberties with her. I permitted her cerebral obsessions and her commanding disposition. Shahrzad is far from a secluded woman. She travels. She reads avidly. She is highly intuitive and ruthless in achieving her aims. Like the other characters, she has secrets. When the enigma of Shahrzad is lifted, one can read The Ming Storytellers differently. It gains a different meaning.

The third female character, Jun, is another ‘Chinese’. Actually, she is ethnically a Mosuo from the south-western province of Yunnan. To create her accurately, I researched Nakhi and Mosuo culture along with their ancient Tibetan roots and I visited the mountainous village of Lijiang in China. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Unlike Min Li and Shahrzad who exist in a patrilineal world, Jun springs from a matrilineal heritage. She comes from a social system where women inherit property and, in the case of the Mosuo, are free to choose their own lovers.

Do you believe historical novelists should abide to facts and refrain from too much creativity in reconstructing history?
Like many, I believe history as we know it is written by those who ruled and this has meant that its compilers are males, notably from a ruling class. As was the case for Emperor Zhu Di in the Ming Dynasty, official records attempted to give a favourable impression of the ruler’s character and achievements. I am wary of this just as I am wary of what is unsaid, what is never written and what is lost or destroyed. All these represent a significant gap in history, which archaeologists or other researchers will then attempt to somehow fill.  Yet even after this, there is still ambiguity. This historical ambiguity allows for a degree of creativity in writing. Wherever a historical figure’s motivation has remained unclear, wherever there is murder or a sudden death, wherever love affairs may have existed, or where a woman was involved (especially a woman whose name may not even feature in written records), in all those cases, there is room for informed creativity.  So far, this belief guides my writing. I believe that fiction becomes much more entertaining where there is artful integration of known facts into a creative narrative and the result is historically plausible. The Ming Storytellers does go a little further as it invites a touch of magic realism.
And one last question...any influences from your childhood that have imbued your writing?

There are many.  In The Ming Storytellers there are also elements that originate from popular stories that have marked me and I noticed this only after writing. For example, Jun can be conceived as a Little Mermaid archetype. When I was five and read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for the first time, I burst into tears.  I remember that I wept from my first broken heart but I also wept from awe and respect for the main character. Since then, I have always been moved by generous, self-effacing, yet incredibly strong characters and I think this was the drive behind Jun’s creation.

It was an uplifting journey as was the entire experience of writing The Ming Storytellers.

Novel Links:
Official Website – http://www.themingstorytellers.com

The Ming Storytellers on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/themingstorytellers

Digital editions available on AmazonBarnes & Noble , iTunes and Lulu
Paperback available on Amazon

Author Links:
You can find Laura Rahme on Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest and Amazon.
Or visit her blog, Teranga and Sun