When we think of pirates, we often think of white men with British accents. But according to many historians, the best pirate of all time was a Chinese woman. It is this exceptional but unappreciated pirate whose story is (finally) being told, sort of, in Rita Chang-Eppig’s new historical adventure novel Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Chang-Eppig discusses what inspired and influenced this story, as well why certain liberties had to be taken.
Photo Credit: Lily Dong Photography
I’d like to start with some background. Who was Shek Yeung?
Shek Yeung was a real-life pirate queen who lived in Southern China in the late 1700s / early 1800s. These days most people call her either Ching Shih or Zheng Yi Sao, but both those names translate to “Zheng’s wife,” which I think speaks to history’s erasure of this fascinating woman. According to many historians, she is the most successful pirate in the history of piracy. That’s quite a feat given how many pirates there have probably been.
Her first husband was the commander of a powerful pirate fleet, and when he died, she quickly married his “adopted son” to consolidate power (back then adults could adopt fellow adults so that the adoptee could legally inherit the adopter’s fortunes). Under her command, the fleet grew so powerful that it rivaled the imperial navy and the European powers who were trading in the region at the time.
And then, what does Shek Yeung do in Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea?
I made a decision to start the novel after the death of her first husband because I wanted to focus on her as a leader, not as his second-in-command. So you might say this novel is about the decisions, good and bad, that she makes as commander once she no longer has him looking over her shoulder. He died around 1807, so the novel starts at that point. Obviously, there are flashbacks to contextualize their history together, but my main interest was in who she became as a result of all that power.
So, did you set out to tell a story about Shek Yeung and Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea is what you came up with, or did you come up with the idea for this novel and then realize it would work better if it was about Shek Yeung?
I started seriously considering writing a novel about her in 2016, around the time of the election. I’d known about her since I was a child, but the events around the election and all the discourse circulating about women leaders really got me thinking about complicated women leaders throughout history.
It also really bothered me that whenever people talked about her, they tended to talk about her as a trope: she was either a villain or a rah-rah #girlboss kind of figure. But she was a human being who had to make complicated decisions during a complicated period of history. Of course, all time periods are complicated, but this particular one saw mass famines, governmental corruption, rebellions, and massacres. I wanted to explore what a person thrust into her circumstances would do, and how those circumstances might have been complicated by gender.
Much of what we know about Shek Yeung is speculation. Does that mean you’re taking liberties with her life?
I did because, as you’ve noted, so much of what we know about her is speculation. That said, there were certain established facts I felt compelled to keep, such as her history as a sex worker or victim of trafficking, depending on which version of history you believe. I really, really struggled with whether to change this part of her life because there are already so many sexualized depictions of Asian women, and these depictions cause negative ripple effects in our society. Ultimately, I decided to keep this part of her story because I didn’t want to contribute to the erasure of sex workers. And the fact is that what she experienced on the “flower boats,” the euphemism at the time for brothels, probably contributed to how she commanded the fleet; the skill set she was forced to acquire on the flower boats was different from what she would have acquired working as a merchant or farmer or weaver. So it mattered in terms of character believability.
Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea sounds like a historical adventure novel. Is that how you’d describe it? Because stories about pirates can veer into the fantasy, what with sea monsters and sirens and whatnot.
The novel does include some speculative elements, though not sea monsters. Historical adventure and historical literary fiction are probably the closest genre labels, if we had to use labels. I personally have never found genre boundaries entirely necessary or helpful because I don’t think the distinction between reality and fantasy is as clear as publishers seem to think it is.
There was a study done in the U.S. maybe fifteen years ago in which people were asked, “Have you ever heard God talk to you?” (I’m paraphrasing). Something like 25% of people said yes. Again, this wasn’t a hundred years ago. This was 2007 or thereabouts. When I read that, I started thinking about how the boundaries of reality are slippery for a lot of people, past and present. I wanted to play with that line in this novel to accurately represent Shek Yeung’s experiences. Many people’s experiences, really.
Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea is your first novel, but you’ve had stories published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Clarksworld, and The Best American Short Stories 2021. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea but not anything else you’ve written?
Oof, that’s a tough one. There are many writers who’ve influenced me like, to name just a few, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Mariana Enriquez. But influenced this novel only?
I guess I can cite Pu Songling’s Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio. Pu was this Chinese writer in the 1600s / 1700s who spent all his time traveling, collecting stories from other people. I think I read somewhere that he would go up to people and literally say, “Tell me the strangest story you’ve ever heard” (but don’t quote me on this). These stories he placed in a compendium.
I read Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio a couple of years before I started writing this novel. As I read, it struck me how specific in time and place these stories were. Instead of starting with a distancing phrase like “Once upon a time” or “In a place far, far away,” these stories would start with something like, “In the year 698, in the Xiang township, a man made a deal with a ghost.” Sometimes the stories even contained elements meant to convince the listener that everything was true, like “Ask Wu’s cousin.”
So going back to my earlier point about the slippery boundaries of reality, I think this collection made me reconsider how I was telling stories containing speculative elements. In this novel, I played with blurring the boundaries. Did the speculative things happen or not? Who cares! What matters is that the characters believe they happened.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not a specific movie or show, but I grew up devouring manga and anime. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was influenced by those forms of media in some way.
I will say that one thing I learned from all those years reading manga and watching anime instead of, I don’t know, dating, is that something can be entertaining and also have artistic merit. I occasionally encounter people who believe that if something is fast-paced or plot-heavy it can’t be considered “art,” which just makes me sad for them. While I was writing this novel, I spent a lot of time on prose and character, but I also stopped every few pages to ask myself, “Would I be bored by what’s going on if I were reading this?” and if so, “What would need to happen for me to stop feeling bored?”
While we’re on the subject of TV, etc., there was a recent episode of Doctor Who that was about Shek Yeung. I’m sure it wasn’t an influence on Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea, the timing doesn’t work out, but did you watch that episode, and if so, did they do anything with Shek that made you think, “Oh, man, I should’ve done that”? Because time travel stories are cool, but I don’t think it would’ve worked for your novel.
I didn’t watch the episode, even though I love Doctor Who. Some people have said I should, and others have told me to stay away. That episode came out last year, right? Or maybe 2021? I was actively working on the novel with my editor then, and I try not to consume media too closely related to what I’m writing. You just…never know what you’re going to absorb through osmosis.
Right, you might’ve wanted to add a robot dog to this story. Now, most pirates don’t go on one cool adventure and then retire. Is Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea going to be the only story you tell about Shek Yeung, or are you thinking this will be the first of many?
Pirates don’t go on one cool adventure and then retire, but writers do!
I’m half-joking. I definitely plan to write more books, but I think this is it in terms of my pirate material. Part of what I love about being a writer, what drew me to the field, is that it allows me to explore new ideas and worlds. To be clear, I’m not criticizing people who write many books based on the same world; if that world continues to intrigue you, then by all means, do it. But that’s not how my creative process works. I actually love starting with a completely blank page, with no established characters, setting, relationship dynamics, etc. Coming up with all that is part of the fun.
Earlier I asked if Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Deep would work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would work as a TV show, though I certainly wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to make a movie. I say TV because there are several narrative threads, each important and contributing to the overall effect, and a movie might not be enough time for all of them.
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Shek Yeung and the other main characters?
Hmm. I quite like the work Jessica Henwick did on Glass Onion, and she was in The Matrix Resurrections, so we know she can do action.
For the other characters, I’m not sure. I actually love the idea of getting stars from a bunch of international markets: K-dramas, Bollywood, you name it. The thing about pirate fleets is that they were / are incredibly international. Wherever a ship could dock, there were crew members from that place. Why not have the cast reflect that?
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea?
Just that most of the characters were real people, which I think is kind of cool. There’s this one woman in the book who might seem like an action-movie trope — she was this pirate leader who spoke English fluently and was incredibly skilled with firearms — but, real person!
Finally, if someone enjoys Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea, what novel that’s a fictional story about a real-life person would you suggest they read next?
I loved Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden City, which was based on this girl Hua saw in a photo once with Mao Zedong. The photo captivated her so much that she wrote a whole book based on what little information was available on this girl’s life.