Dori Jones Yang
Interview with Dori Jones Yang, author of Daughter of Xanadu
I love historic stories that show young women breaking the feminine-molds of their times, as Dori Yang’s memorable Emmajin does in Daughter of Xanadu. It seems that every era holds stories of women finding a way to follow their dreams and finding happiness outside of the traditionally held views of how a girl or woman should live. In Emmajin’s case, she is a superior athlete to the boys around her; there’s no denying her athletic gifts, the envy of many warriors in Xanadu. What a joy to peek into Dori Yang’s research and writing process. And, I just learned that she has a newly released sequel, Son of Venice. Can’t wait to get away to my chair on the deck with that one. Thanks, Dori! – Gigi
Gigi: Dori, I thoroughly enjoyed Daughter of Xanadu! Thank you for writing it.
Dori: Thanks for finding it and reading it – and recommending it for Girls of Summer!
The story unfolds in the Thirteenth century, but it reads as contemporary, which makes the main character, Emmajin, very relatable. Did you do approach the book in this way from the beginning or did you experiment a bit in your early drafts?
I’m very conscious about how long-ago stories can be hard for present-day readers to relate to. Plus, of course, none of my characters spoke English, so everything I wrote is “in translation.” I deliberately chose contemporary language that could help bring the story to life for today’s readers. Often, my editor criticized me for this, insisting that I should use more “formal” language, to simulate the experience of being in a past century. But I think formal language can get in the way and turn people off. This was a constant tension between my editor and me. I strongly believe that it’s important for a story to seem real today with characters who are, as you say, “very relatable.”
When you survey history and find young women who forged non-traditional paths, what commonalities do you see?
By and large, the stories of young women breaking the mold were not told in previous centuries. But of course such girls existed! Their true stories are lost. That’s why it’s great for novelists to imagine such young women and create stories that might have happened. The commonality I see is that in past centuries, girls’ choices were extremely limited; only a few could break out of pre-ordained roles. A favored granddaughter of the Emperor, perhaps, or a young queen like Cleopatra. Today’s girls in America have many choices and options that were not available in the past. I grew up during a time of transition, when opportunities were opening up for women. I wanted badly to “make it” in a man’s world; in my case, I chose business journalism, which was then a profession dominated by men. That’s why I could relate to Emmajin, who was trying to “make it” in the ultimate male profession of the military. In her day, that was the most honored and high-status profession; why wouldn’t she long to join it?
What, in your opinion, makes Emmajin a strong girl?
Many readers assume that Chinese girls of the past were weak and simpering; this is because bound feet kept most of them from going out into the world. But Mongolian girls were (and are!) different. Traditionally, they were raised in the grasslands, learning to ride before they could walk and cultivating archery skills from a young age. In the early days of the Mongol conquests, wives of warriors often went to battle with their husbands. Genghis Khan even allowed some of his daughters to rule as queens over small territories. By the time Emmajin was born, this heritage of strong Mongol women was in decline, but she would have heard stories about them. In fact, in Marco Polo’s Travels he describes one Mongolian warrior woman who challenged all her suitors to wrestling matches and defeated them all! That earned her the right to remain single and go to battle. In Daughter of Xanadu, Marco tells that story, and it inspires Emmajin to push ahead with her dream of joining the army.
You’re very dedicated to research; you actually visited the ruins of Xanadu! How did that experience inform the story? And, how did that experience impact you personally?
It was very hard to find the ruins of Xanadu. When I asked Chinese friends and tour guides for help, most of them told me, “There’s nothing left to see.” Xanadu is not on any tourist itinerary in China. But I felt I had to go see at least the place where Marco Polo got to know Khubilai Khan—and Emmajin. Just standing amidst the wildflowers in a wide valley, I could imagine the marble palace and the flowering trees in the glorious gardens of Xanadu. I could feel the presence of Emmajin and Marco calling to me. Well, I’d like to think so. It wasn’t that romantic, really, but I was thrilled to be there. My friend and I read out loud Coleridge’s poem that begins “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.” Like Shangri-La, Xanadu seems like a mythical, dreamlike place that sets the imagination on fire. The fact that it was hard to find just makes it more mysterious.
Did you also visit Venice? Does Venice have some pretty cool, little-known documents relating to Marco Polo?
I did visit Venice and took a gondola ride on the canals with my Chinese husband. It was very romantic! I did find some little-known documents, including Marco Polo’s will, but not in Venice. One interesting fact: no one knows what language Marco Polo wrote his book in, originally. Was it Latin? Medieval French? Venetian dialect? Many translations of his book exist, all over Europe, but the original is lost.
For historical writers who are researching on a budget, what tips might you offer them?
Oh, armchair travel, of course! Frankly, I did most of my research in my own office or in libraries. My local university library had some old books not available in the public library. The travel was great fun, but to be honest it was icing on the cake. My best tip is this: try to find out how ordinary people lived, what they wore, what they ate and drank, what stories they heard, how they celebrated. That information is harder to find but vital for bringing the past to life.
Son of Venice, the sequel to Daughter of Xanadu is just out, congratulations! Does Son of Venice: A Story of Marco Polo pick up where your first book left off? What can you tell me about the new book?
Yes, Son of Venice picks up less than a month after Daughter of Xanadu ends. Marco and Emmajin are about to embark on a journey west, along the Silk Road. Actually, I wrote these two books as one story and originally planned to publish them as one book. That book grew to be too long, so I cut it in two and published Daughter of Xanadu first. Some readers have told me that Daughter of Xanadu doesn’t really come to a conclusive end; that’s why! If you want to know the end of the story, you have to read Son of Venice.
What are some of your favorite books that celebrate girls?
Aside from Daughter of Xanadu and my children’s book, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang,* here are my favorites: Little Women, A Little Princess, Hattie Big Sky, Ties That Bind Ties That Break, Midwife’s Apprentice, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, The Hunger Games (yes! I loved it. It really made me think about ethical choices in a harsh world). Also, check out my friend Sundee Frazier’s book about biracial twins, The Other Half of My Heart.
* Check it out on www.dorijonesyang.com. It’s about an immigrant girl from China who goes to school in America and finds she can’t speak even one word.
Complete this sentence: Strong girls… create more choices for their lives!
Dori Jones Yang is a writer who aims to build bridges between cultures, especially between East and West, between China and America. Author of a wide variety of books for different audiences, she loves to explore exotic locales, celebrate strong women, seek wisdom, and make history come alive. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, and educated at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, Dori worked many years as a journalist for Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and loves dabbling in foreign languages and musical instruments. She has written four books, including Daughter of Xanadu and its sequel Son of Venice, as well as a business book and a middle-grade novel, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang.