Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Jamie Ford, author of the mega-best-selling Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and now Songs of Willow Frost, which is publishing this month and has just appeared on the first LibraryReads list. Here’s the result of our conversation.
“I like complicated family stories, stories about the human condition. Exploding cars are not my thing,” affirms Jamie Ford, speaking in a phone interview about Songs of Willow Frost, his forthright, affecting second novel after the sensational Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. His new work is in fact a love story, though Ford plumbs not starry-eyed romance but the bond between mother and child. In 1930s Seattle, on a movie outing from his orphanage, Chinese American William Eng recognizes beautiful actress Willow Frost as his mother, and he spends the rest of the novel finding her and coming to understand why she had to leave him.
Willow’s desertion of William resonates painfully—“We all have varying degrees of abandonment issues, though I can’t go anywhere near the characters in the book,” says Ford—but it is grounded in the complex social history of a time when white Americans disdained Chinese, Chinese disdained performers, and men had supreme power over women and children. Willow acted to protect William, and Ford is clear-eyed about her predicament: “I like looking under the rock at the squishy things, which are more interesting than the rock.”
Among the squishy things he investigates is this country’s discrimination against those of Chinese heritage, so brutal in the early 20th century that women were often forced to give birth on the docks. “It gave me a new appreciation for what my parents and grandparents went through,” notes Ford, who good-naturedly ventures that he was spared some harassment because of his name. His great-grandfather, Min Chung, refashioned himself as William Ford after arriving in this country, and that surname “might have baffled the bullies,” observes the author. “Plus my dad taught martial arts.”
Further complicating Willow’s situation is her career as a singer and actor, “another form of isolation,” says Ford. “In traditional Chinese theater, men played women’s roles, so for her to be onstage was like being a consort or lower.” Meanwhile, white audiences insisted that performers like Willow and Stepin Fetchit (seen early in the book) play prescribed roles, remaining “in a very limited box”—just as they do today, with black actors typically portraying drug dealers and Asians fighting their way to fame.
Despite Willow’s travails, Ford does not make her a latter-day feminist symbol, refusing to “chastise the decorum of the time period or make judgments based on modern reality.” Instead, he maintains a plausible and plaintive realism informed partly by his keen sympathy for real-life screen star Anna Mae Wong, not wholly accepted by either the white or the Chinese American communities—or in China when she later returned.
Wong’s spirit infuses the book, as does a clear sense of Depression-era Seattle. To make it real, Ford drew on books about old Seattle; fading maps, newspapers, and magazines; photography collections at the library; and the memoir of his former college art teacher, William Cummings, who had known WPA artists. The Depression-era setting proved “really juicy to splash around in because it was such a huge juncture for change,” with silent movies and Prohibition on the way out, war on the way in, and the idea of socialism scaring some folks as it does today. Shocking to Ford, though, was the discovery that parents sometimes placed children in orphanages because they couldn’t afford them—and never returned.
While his book’s sense of time and place is arresting, like any good writer Ford draws primarily on lived emotion to shape the narrative, and he uses the lovely phrase “banking and spending emotional currency” to explain how he does it. Inevitably, the writer must probe scar tissue until it hurts, and in Songs of Willow Frost Ford has painfully prodded issues of prejudice, abandonment, and disappointed love. The result is a fine-textured study of human loss and, finally, triumph.