Interview: Jennifer Cody Epstein (Writer)

Posted on June 1, 2011


New York based writer Jennifer Cody Epstein has just published her first novel “A Painter from Shanghai” based on the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang. The book traces Pan Yuliang’s tumultuous life and her relentless pursuit of artistic fulfillment against the backdrop of seismic political and social change in the China of the early 20th century. Jennifer’s novel has been called “luminous” by the New York Times and Publishers Weekly says it “captivates to the last line”.

You are an American writer, based in New York. How did you hear about Pan Yuliang and what were your intentions in writing about her?

It actually began at the Guggenheim Museum, about ten years ago. My husband and some relatives and I were at an exhibition on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately. It was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me. I went over to see more and when I read about Pan’s story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I’d never heard of her before—but I couldn’t, at that moment, understand why—it struck me that everyone should know about her. I guess I hoped that by writing this novel I’d both educate myself about how that transformation happened(not just factually, but emotionally—in a way only fiction can really get close to) and also spread the word about a woman I consider to be—at least in the West—an unsung feminist hero.

What is the perception of Pan Yuliang today in China? Do Chinese women perceive her as a role model or as a failure?

I think that within the context of women artists in general she’s finally fairly respected there—in large part because of a novel (HuaHun) that was written about her there and a movie (by the same title) starring Gong Li that came out about fifteen years ago. There might be some debate about whether this is solely due to her extraordinary story, rather than on the merit of her art; but I think the fact stands that while her subject matter and her history both remain controversial (as recently as the mid-90’s some of her nudes were taken down from an exhibition in Beijing) people recognize the phenomenal strength of character it must have taken for her to transcend her original circumstances and, not just paint, but paint what she wanted to. Regardless of the consequences.

There is, I think, a larger story somewhere here about women artists in China in general; for whatever reason they simply aren’t accorded the same acclaim and opportunities as male artists are (I’ve actually had a well-known Asian art collector tell me, bluntly, “I don’t collect female painters and I don’t know anyone who does”). I don’t think many would argue that compared to their male counterparts, Chinese women artists are largely absent from the current Chinese art “boom,” though why that is is also open to debate. I think there’s a really interesting study to be done on it, though.

The story of Pan Yuliang is set against the history of China as well as the history of art – did you do a lot of research and try to stay as close as possible to facts or did you take the proverbial fictional license?

Both, actually. I happen to love research, and China and Chinese art in particular were things I hadn’t had as much background on when I began the project so I did pretty much pull out the stops. I took graduate level classes in Chinese history at Columbia, read everything I could get my hands on, talked to a number of people and even took a painting class (with decidedly mixed results). That said, this was one of those subjects where I actually had to use creative license—even the art historians I spoke to confirmed that there is so little actually factually known about Pan (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate) that in order to get a full sense of her story, one has to simply imagine. Once I’d come to terms with that, the task of telling a story—rather than, specifically, the story—came much more easily.

Memoirs of a Geisha was an international bestseller and dramatized the life of a Japanese courtesan. It seems obvious to draw parallels between Memoirs and The Painter from Shanghai – do you feel comparisons are justified?

I’m really mixed on the subject. On the one hand, I loved Memoirs, and am flattered that anyone would compare me to what was so obviously an industry-changing novel. But it’s a little strange to be constantly compared (as I am) to a book that I actually don’t think has much in common with mine—apart from having an Asian prostitute at its heart. I was really trying to do something very different in Painter than talk about prostitution; in fact, I was far less interested in Pan’s experiences at the brothel than how they informed her development as an artist. And, of course, Japan and China are extraordinarily different countries and cultures (having lived in both I can say that with a fair degree of confidence!).

So I guess, in the end, it cuts both ways—if the comparison makes people who liked Memoirs take a look at my book then that’s good, obviously. But I’d have to say if they still feel like they’re similar after reading through, I’d be slightly disheartened—no one wants to live under someone else’s literary shadow (and Geisha casts a very long shadow!) And my favorite reviews—the New York Times, the South China Morning Post, the Huffington Post—are the ones that don’t make the comparison at all.

Politics, gender, art history, colonialism, war – the book touches on many complex subjects and covers a lot of ground – what particular aspects were the most difficult to write about and why?

I think the politics were probably the most complicated for me; they were so wonderfully complex in China at this point, with so many different influences and factions and switcharoos from one side to the other. I essentially worked with a huge timeline on my wall showing what, specifically, was happening when; when the Republicans were in charge; when they were allied with theCCP, when they were attacking them, when the warlords were in charge of which parts of China; which elements held political sway within each party at different points. It helped somewhat that it’s all from Yuliang’s perspective, and she would have been learning about it more or less first hand as well—that was largely why I introduced the character of Xing Xudun, who was her sort of guide to the confusing world of political acronyms and various feuding radical groups abroad.

In the 1920s and 30s Europe was an arts and culture mecca for educated Chinese (and other nationalities), a continent respected and admired for its artistic achievements and innovations. What does Europe represent to young Chinese today you think?

That’s an interesting question! I actually would probably have to ask young Chinese today for the answer, as most of the people I spoke to for this project were academics. But I do know that there is a lot of movement between China and Europe in the art world; if you look at the resumes of some of the top Chinese artists many (if not most) of them have spent some time in Paris or Italy, studying. So I’d imagine that at least as far as art goes, Europe is still an arts mecca at least.

You’ve lived in hong kong – did you draw on your experience in Asia to write about China or did you spend some time in Shanghai and Nanjing researching the local culture?

I actually lived in Asia for a total of seven years, and spent a good four more studying Asian history and culture at college and graduate school. In terms of China in particular–I’d backpacked through parts of it as a college student, and when I lived in Hong Kong I made frequent trips to Guanghzhou, Shenzen and Shanghai (I had a boyfriend there for a while, which was good motivation!). During the specific decade in which I was working on this book, though, I unfortunately couldn’t afford—on many levels—to go back. I made do with hiring researchers, reading everything I could get my hands on on China, and doing a lot of internet “journeying” –which was hugely helpful.

The wonderful thing about Google is that while you do have to check the sourcing of a lot of the information very carefully, there is pretty uninhibited access to images; I was able to download hundreds of images of Shanghai and China from the time period of my book (including Pan Yuliang’s own paintings), which were all enormously helpful to draw upon.

You were a journalist before turning to writing fiction. Why did you switch from journalism to fiction? Was it a difficult transition?

It was difficult—but also, for me, inevitable, I thought. I always wanted to write novels-pretty much from when I could first read them. But I was afraid—as I think many writers and artists (although obviously not Pan Yuliang!) are to take the leap; which is primarily why I ended up in journalism for so long. It wasn’t easy to go from a steady paycheck and standard measures of success and accomplishment to something as completely subjective and risky as writing a novel (a lot of people thought I was crazy, actually). But I knew if I didn’t do it now I would probably miss the boat completely.

I did find being a journalist helped a lot in terms of learning to economize with language—and, essential for this book—to research and interview effectively. The fact that I’d gone to school for International Relations and was used to writing about people in different places and worlds made it slightly easier to take on something of this magnitude of difference from my own life. I do think that as a journalist it’s probably that much harder to let yourself veer from fact. For better or for worse, though, as I’ve said, there was really limited fact to work with in Pan Yuliang’s case; so it forced me to take leaps I probably would never have dared otherwise.

Pan Yuliang lived in a time of great upheaval for China. Today China is experiencing another period of economic and societal shifts that are redefining its relationship with the West and especially the US. Were you influenced by current events in your writing? And do you see your book contributing on some level to the debate about China’s “new” role in the world?

For me, the book was largely born of my fascination with cultural shifts and mergings and interactions between cultures and countries. I’ve always been intrigued—particularly from my first few years living in Japan—with the way that bits of American and European culture (as well as, obviously, Chinese culture, though obviously on a much grander scale) find their way into first the fringes, then the mainstream of intellectual, cultural and political life and resurface as things completely unique and fascinating in their own right, with attributes from both cultural “parents” but identities that are singularly their own. Pan Yuliang’s art was one terrific example of this for me; the way that not only her actual technique and subject matter reflected the changing tide in China’s art world but the fact that she, as a woman, could make the kinds of statements that she did, coming from where she did—that, too, was the result of a breakdown of traditional, Confucian ideas on gender and identity under more modern, Western ways of thinking.

It seemed to me that by studying how her work came to be, you could also study the way those different cultural currents interacted, and play with the way that they might have mixed and clashed.

I don’t think I was influenced specifically by current events in writing Painter so much as aware of the fact that—as they say—history does repeat itself; and in many ways the China we see today, while certainly facing different challenges than that of the period I was writing about, is also facing a huge task of reconciling various—and at times, downright oppositional—facets of tradition and modernity in order to continue on. Similar stories to Pan Yuliang’s are probably being played out on a daily basis everywhere on large and small scales; different venues, different conflicts, different resolutions, of course. Not just in China, but everywhere. But the process of somehow melding the old and the new, the known and the foreign into something unique and valid continues. (And of course, if my book can contribute to that in any way I’d be more than flattered!)

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