While reading August’s pick for Read with Jenna, Jenna Bush Hager said she wished she could have stayed a little longer.
“I was totally lost in their world,” Jenna said of the characters in the book — and there are several, all linked by genetics and weird shared experiences.
August’s pick is “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” by Jamie Ford. Jenna calls it “one of the most beautiful books about motherhood and what we pass on to those who come after us and what we inherit”, and “a book about strength and kindness”.
As Jenna explained, “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” unfolds “through many, many generations of this incredible woman.”
The book begins with Afong Moy, an actual historical figure believed to be the first Chinese woman in the United States, and many of her ancestors – all imagined by Ford. Afong’s arrival in the United States in 1834 was highly publicized, as were his travels as what was effectively a carnival spectacle. But his life thereafter was not recorded.
“She had all these eyeballs on her, and yet we never really heard her speak,” Ford told TODAY. Afong was unable to return to his home country. “His life probably had a darker side, a more tragic side, which obviously his promoters are not going to share with the world. They monetized his otherness into ‘exoticism’.
Ford has written historical fiction in the past, but sought something more experimental to tell Afong’s story.
“When telling a story about genetic inheritance, I thought she would be an interesting locus character. I could follow his descendants and they would all have left behind this tragedy, this abandonment and this lifelong desire,” Ford said.
Ford describes his novel as an “epigenetic love story” because by following one through several generations, he discovers what each woman inadvertently passes on to her descendants.
Epigenetics is the notion that your behaviors and experiences can affect how your genes are expressed. A 2016 study of children of Holocaust survivors showed that the next generation was affected. Ford wondered, through his book, if other things could also be transmitted.
“I just couldn’t help thinking that we have to inherit other things – benign things like a taste for music or a liking for spicy foods. But maybe beneficial things like emotional IQ, or how we receive and reciprocate with love. The book seems like a natural way to explore that,” he said.
Afong’s ancestors include Faye Moy, a stoic nurse serving in China during World War II; Zoe Moy, a student at an experimental boarding school in England in the 1920s; and Greta Moy, founder of a modern-day dating app.
2045 Washington Poet Laureate Dorothy Moy connects them all. Having struggled with depression all her life, Dorothy undergoes experimental treatment to delve into her past – even beyond, uncovering the stories of the women who came before her. Dorothy undertakes this treatment in an effort to prevent her young daughter, Annabel, from going through the same cycle.
Jenna said she had a favorite character, like everyone in her life who read the book.
“(Ford) has created such incredible worlds that we all prefer a different scenario,” Jenna said. “My husband loved Faye and my sister was obsessed with Dorothy. I loved them all, but I wanted to live longer at this boarding school.
Taken together, Jenna said the book “shows the strength of women and a time when I think we need it most”.
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