Stirring up ghosts

Sac native novelist Shawna Yang Ryan unburies a piece of Delta history

The author.

The author.

Photo By jia ching chen

Even before she took up temporary residence in an old gambling parlor in Locke, Shawna Yang Ryan already knew she wanted ghosts in her tale. “It’s a perfect setting for a ghost story,” the 31-year-old Sacramento native says of the Delta town in which her first novel, Locke 1928, is set.

The town’s cultural history may be buried in the popular imagination, but its way of haunting the present convinced Ryan that it might be worth digging up. A San Francisco City College writing teacher and former Fulbright scholar, Ryan brought out her novel last spring with the small Berkeley-based publisher El León Literary Arts. Recently, Penguin Group picked the book up for national distribution.

Locke 1928 posits the fictional riverboat arrival that year of three mysterious women on the day of Locke’s annual Dragon Boat Festival. The women’s ghostly presence becomes a lens through which Ryan reveals the struggles of Chinese-Americans living and working in the Delta during the early part of the last century. Her characters include a Chinese preacher and his white wife; their daughter and her new friend, a young brothel worker; the owner of the local gambling hall and his former lover, the brothel’s clairvoyant madam.

Ryan, who’s of Chinese and German heritage, first studied Asian-American literature at UC Berkeley. “A lot of what I was reading was not satisfying to me,” she explains. “The books about Chinese-American women were all contemporary, and the ones about the men—that’s when you started reading about railroads of early California history. So I decided I wanted to write about women, the history of Chinese-American women … and that’s when I discovered the immigration laws.”

Those laws went into effect in 1875 and prohibited most Chinese women from entering the United States unless they were married to scholars or merchants—a status few Chinese immigrant laborers were able to attain. As a result, during the time period in which Ryan’s book takes place, men in Locke outnumbered women by 20-to-1. So, “to have [my] book be about Chinese women in America while solving that historic problem of not really having Chinese women in America,” Ryan took inspiration from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and invented some female characters as ghosts.

Then she allowed them to upset the established order of daily life for her imagined town’s bachelors and wove her story from there.

The book.

Locke 1928 opens with the town’s founding in 1915, after a fire destroyed nearby Walnut Grove’s Chinatown. Chinese laborers lived in the Delta ever since they were hired to construct the very levees that protect it. But by the time of the Walnut Grove fire, the levees had been completed and the immigrants sought work as farmhands. After the fire, a group of the now-homeless Chinese residents opted to build a town for themselves. They approached local landowner George Locke, who agreed to lease a portion of this land to the Chinese residents, since a 1913 federal law prohibited them from actually owning any land.

Once established, Locke stood much as it does today, with two parallel streets of wooden buildings then hosting brothels, restaurants, boarding houses, gambling parlors, a church and a general store. With this setting at its core, Ryan’s story moves breathlessly through time and space—from China to California to New York and back.

“Strange happenings,” the first chapter’s opening line informs us, “can take place in a town built on tragedy.”

“Literally,” Ryan says, “I was referring to the fire that resulted in the town being built, but also to the tragedy of circumstances.” While interested in the experience of Chinese women, Ryan also was deeply moved by the plight of the men. One character, for example, travels to the United States soon after getting married, in order to seek work. Like many Chinese laborers at the time, he left not knowing if he’d ever see his wife again. “Locke is this whole symbol of the bachelor communities, the history of the Chinese in America, the laws that led to their particular situation in America,” Ryan says, “and … the stereotypes that have come out of that. All of that is pulled together in Locke.”

As part of her research for the book, Ryan spent a summer living there. She rented a room above the old gambling hall, where she spent her mornings writing. In the afternoons, she posted herself in front of the general store. “Of course, people were very curious about who I was,” she says, “When I showed up in the town, some people already had an idea of why I was there.” It was 2000, by which time only a handful of the town’s 80 inhabitants were related to or were themselves original Chinese residents—who once numbered in the hundreds. Ryan recalls that the people she really wanted to speak with “didn’t really want to be researched.” But before long, two women befriended Ryan and allowed her to spend afternoons listening to them talk about “what things were where in the town and what kind of people used to live [there].” Of course, that meant ghost stories, too.

Your ghost story here: How Locke looked in the early part of the last century.

Photo Courtesy of library of congress’ american memory project

But it wasn’t just the ghosts that gave Ryan a sense of the town’s unique character. “It seemed like no rules applied there,” she says of 1920’s Locke. “They weren’t incorporated in Sacramento County. Nobody had jurisdiction over them, so they had the gambling halls.” And, of course, the brothels. Locke’s prominent Chinese families prohibited Chinese women from taking up sex work, so, as Ryan points out, “in the midst of this anti-miscegenation period … the prostitutes [were] all white.”

This little known contradiction in the era’s race relations drives many of Locke 1928’s subplots. “Each character had a theme that I wanted to address,” Ryan says. “Back then, it was illegal for a white woman to marry a Chinese man. [The government] even tried to pass a law at one point where a woman who married somebody who wasn’t white would have to forfeit her citizenship. I was interested in that. I was also interested in this idea that you could have an interracial relationship, but still have these … deep-seated prejudices.” Ryan chose to tackle such issues through the characters of the preacher and his wife. Even still, the issue most vexing to their mixed-race daughter is not race but sexuality; her friendship with the young prostitute remains ambiguous throughout the book. “I didn’t think that just because you have an Asian-American book that it has to be all about race,” Ryan says. “There is so much more to that identity.”

Ryan first dug into Locke’s history in a short story she wrote for an undergraduate creative-writing course at UC Berkeley. At the time, her professor tried to discourage her from developing the story into a novel. “I took it as a challenge,” she says. Seven years later, Ryan has a master’s degree in English from UC Davis, and her novel, recently nominated for a 2007 Northern California Book Award, has been accumulating critical acclaim from literary luminaries such as Pulitzer-winner Gary Snyder and Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winner Yiyun Li.

Ryan has been pleasantly surprised by her book’s warm reception. She confesses that she “always thought of it as a Chinese-American story, and people started saying, well, this is an American story, an American history story. I’m really glad that people see it that way.”

Now, having successfully launched her first novel into the world, Ryan is currently tying up work on her second, about the aftermath of a 1927 massacre, known in Taiwan as the “228 Incident,” that ended a popular uprising against the Kuomintang of China. She also has plans for a future project exploring the intersections between her family members’ personal histories and historical events like the Taiwan massacre and the German atrocities of World War II. Unearthing such issues may take her into volatile territory, but Ryan isn’t afraid of stirring up ghosts.