First of all, what’s the significance of the title? Unswept Graves sounds like it might be a murder mystery or a horror story.
No, it’s neither of those. The title refers to the Chinese holiday of Ching Ming, which is also known as “Grave Sweeping Day.” It’s the time when the Chinese honor their ancestors, which includes cleaning up the ancestors’ grave sites. But my main character, Jasmine Wu, doesn’t really know anything about her ancestors, which means that, figuratively speaking, she hasn’t been sweeping their graves.
Where did the story come from? You’re not Chinese, so how did you end up writing about Chinese immigrants in 1898?
It was something of a happy accident. Originally, Jasmine was going to be a supporting character in another story that never quite came together. I made up an entire history for her family, and then discovered my idea was completely wrong. History simply wouldn't have allowed it. But by that time, I had learned enough about what really happened to start putting the basic ideas together for Unswept Graves.
What kinds of things did you learn about?
The first thing I discovered was the set of laws that kept Chinese people from immigrating to the US, and the factors that kept Chinese people confined to places like Chinatown in San Francisco - both the anti-Chinese prejudice in the US and the emphasis on community in Chinese culture. That's what killed my original idea for Jasmine's family history. Then I learned about the slave trade for Chinese young women and girls. It was a shocking discovery, but it gave me something dangerous and dramatic to put Jasmine through in my story. And third, I discovered Donaldina Cameron and the Presbyterian Mission Home, and the work they did to rescue slave girls and give them new starts in life. That gave me the opportunity to put some action into the story.
So there really was a Presbyterian Mission Home?
There still is! It’s called “Cameron House” now, and it’s a community center instead of a refuge for slave girls, but it’s still there. It’s even still in the same place, 920 Sacramento Street.
Did you include any of the Mission Home’s real residents in your story?
Well, I decided to leave out Donaldina Cameron herself. I didn’t have enough of her writings to feel like I could capture her accurately, so I said she was out of town instead. However, the character Tien is based on a real person, Wu Tien Fuh, who was rescued as a girl in the 1890s and stayed on to work at the Mission Home as an adult. Also, the Mission Home really did take in several Chinese women connected with the 1898 World’s Fair, but it happened after the fair, not before.
Why did you decide to tie the 1898 Omaha World's Fair into the story? How did you learn about it in the first place?
I put Helmerton in Nebraska because that's where my mom's side of my family originally settled when they immigrated to the US. Helmer Syverson is named after my great-grandfather, Helmer Halderson, who was a lawyer and served as a judge in the town of Newman Grove. Once I made that decision, it was just a matter of finding something significant that happened in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century. The World's Fair was the best choice.
What about the "Moli hua" song? Did you name your main character Jasmine so you could use it?
Believe it or not, that was another lucky find. Jasmine was named Jasmine almost from the moment I made her up. What I imagined was that her mother was a fan of Disney's Aladdin movie! I only found the song later, when I looked up how to say "jasmine" in Chinese.
What was the hardest part of writing the story?
I wanted to make sure I represented the cultures of the 1890s accurately and with respect. It would have been very easy to show either the Chinese or the Americans as two-dimensional bad guys. After all, the Chinese were enslaving young women and the Americans were being racist. I wanted to show that there were cultural reasons behind what was happening, and also that there was a wide range of attitudes and behavior on both sides. Not approving of them, of course – I’m against both slavery and racism – but highlighting some of the conditions and complexities that created them. What happened in San Francisco in those days was the result of real people living real lives, not the master plan of some cartoon villain.
Which character was the hardest to write?
Mrs. Chiu. Writing her was like walking a tightrope, because she had to be both cruel and kind. She’s very smart and independent-minded, and yet she defends the Chinese traditions that keep her at the bottom of the social order. It all makes sense from her point of view – some of which she explains, and some of which she doesn’t. And since her relationship with Jasmine is at the core of the story, I had to maintain that balancing act all the way, through all the things that happen and all the events the two of them experience.
This is your second historical novel with Royal Fireworks Press. What do you hope your readers will learn from reading about the past?
At the basic level, I’d like to give people a taste of what life used to be like – just the experience of being there. Beyond that, I hope people will learn the same lesson that Jasmine learns during her trip to the past, about the challenges and hardships people had to face, and the determination it took to survive all that. And third, I hope that reading about other times and other cultures will give people a new perspective on themselves. Things that happened in some other place and time can be a lot like things that are happening in the here and now, but the added distance can allow us to see those things more clearly.
What do you mean?
Well, look at what Jasmine goes through in the past. People she doesn't even know treat her terribly, simply because she's Chinese. She knows there are still people like that in the present, but in 1898 it's the entire city of San Francisco, from the newsboy on the corner to Mr. Powell, who's an official with the Port Authority. Back in her own time, she won't have to suffer that kind of prejudice again – but how do you think she's going to feel if she sees some other group being treated the same way? And similarly, because the readers have gone through Jasmine's journey with her, maybe they'll feel differently if they see prejudice going on around them. Liberty Girl has a bit of that same idea, when Eleanor is harassed for being part German.
Do the two books have anything else in common?
You could say that both books are about the main characters finding their places in a world that has become much larger than the one they knew before. In Liberty Girl, Eleanor's world expands geographically. She moves to Baltimore and meets new people there, and through them learns about places like Harlem and France. In Unswept Graves, Jasmine's world expands through time. She discovers a heritage that stretches back a century and beyond. Those are experiences that anyone can have. You don’t have to be Chinese or part German or anything else. You just have to be a human being.

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