The novelist Gail Tsukiyama binge-watched “Killing Eve,” co-starring Sandra Oh, during the pandemic. She marveled at Oh’s performance as a British intelligence officer chasing a psychopathic assassin. That led Tsukiyama to wonder about Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star.
Three years later, Tsukiyama is about to come out with The Brightest Star, a novel about Anna May Wong, who became the highest profile Chinese American actress in the early days of Hollywood. Born in 1905, Wong’s career spanned silent film, talkies, radio, television, and the stage. She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express and Douglas Fairbanks in the silent film, Thief of Baghdad, all the while facing constant discrimination in a period of overt American racism.
Despite her popularity, Wong was never cast as the top star because of miscegenation laws. “She could never be a leading lady because she couldn’t kiss the leading man,” Tsukiyama said recently from her home in El Cerrito.
The Brightest Star is Tsukiyama’s ninth novel. Born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawaii, Tsukiyama specializes in historical fiction that draws from both sides of her ancestry. Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden, two of her previous books, were bestsellers and award winners.
Tsukiyama loves to research earlier eras. “The historical timeline always gives me a security blanket,” she said.
The Brightest Star: A Novel
By Gail Tsukiyama, (El Cerrito)
HarperCollins Publishers / HarperVia, June 20, 2023
The pandemic lockdown meant Tsukiyama couldn’t travel to research Wong’s life. Luckily, Yale University had digitized hundreds of letters that May had written to her family and friends. “I read and reread her letters to get her voice,” said Tsukiyama.
The Brightest Star is written in the first person from Wong’s perspective. It is true to the major events of Wong’s life, but much is imagined in between those milestones. The book recounts Wong’s life growing up in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, her difficult relationship with her father, who did not think acting was an honorable profession, and her ups and downs as an actress (at one point Wong moved to Europe because she was so frustrated by the limited roles offered to her by American producers and their tendency to cast whites to act as Asians) and her decision to make her own movies. Wong never married and drank and smoked too much. She died of a heart attack at 56 in 1961 right as Hollywood, due in large part because of her efforts, made its first movie with an all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song.
More new books, from Bay Area and Northern California authors, listed by release date
The Questions that Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom
By Jane Smiley (Carmel)
Heyday, June 6, 2023
A collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jane Smiley, The Questions That Matter Most begins with a piece that traces Smiley’s journey from Iowa to California. She then delves into her reflections on California writers grappling with race, class, identity, and sex, and also explores the works of canonical writers such as Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Will Cahtere, Frank Kafka and others.
Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better
By Jennifer Pahlka (Oakland)
Holt, June 13, 2023
Jennifer Pahlka, President Obama’s former deputy chief technology officer and the founder of Code for America, argues that government software is so poorly designed that it deprives citizens of legal, financial, and medical aid to which they are entitled. In Recoding America, Pahlka calls for an overhaul of government systems to put people first.
You Can’t Stay Here Forever
By Katherine Lin (Atherton)
Harper, June 13, 2023
Days after her husband dies in a car accident, Ellie Huang finds out he had been cheating on her with one of her colleagues at a San Francisco law firm. Distraught, she escapes with her best friend to the French Riveria, convinced that immersing herself in the sun, sand, gourmet food, and wine at a luxurious resort will help her come to grips with her loss and betrayal. But Ellie’s escape turns into a reckoning as she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths.
Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me
By Aisha Harris (Oakland)
HarperOne; June 13, 2023
Aisha Harris, the co-host and critic for NPR’s hit podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, is known for her sharp critique of all things pop culture. In her new book of essays, Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture that Shapes Me, Harris explores her nineties childhood and the cultural touchstones of the time. She writes about the origin myth of her name, how social media has warped how we experience pop culture, the ramifications of critiquing Black art as a Black critic, and more.
Talia’s Codebook For Mathletes
By Marissa Moss (Berkeley)
Candlewick, June 13, 2023
Marissa Moss, beloved for her Amelia’s Notebook series, has created a new heroine: Talia, a math lover. It’s the first year of middle school and Talia is finding it hard to fit in, especially after her friend Dash tells her they can’t talk in front of other kids. Stung by his rejection and the cold shoulder she gets at the all-male math club, Talia forms an all-girl math club. With engaging illustrations, Talia’s Codebook offers tips on acclimating to the complexities of middle school and tackles gender stereotypes.
How to Survive History: How to Outrun a Tyrannosaurus, Escape Pompeii, Get Off the Titanic, and Survive the Rest of History’s Deadliest Catastrophes
By Cody Cassidy (San Francisco)
Penguin Books, June 13, 2023
The world is a scary place. But be reassured. In How to Survive History, Cody Cassidy uses hindsight and modern science to tell people how they might have survived a range of historical threats, such as being eaten by a T. Rex, the sinking of the Titanic, not starving with the Donner Party, and how one might escape the ravages of the Black Plague.
Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam
By Thien Pham (Oakland)
First Second June 20, 2023
Thien Pham and his family fled Vietnam by sea and ended up at a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling in California. In this young adult graphic memoir, Thien traces his family’s struggle to belong through the memory of food. He remembers being on a boat and eating a rice ball with fish inside; being picked up by a Scandinavian ship and being fed watermelon and grilled squid, hunting for crabs at the refugee camp, and how potato chips became his favorite, yet elusive, indulgence. The larger story of the graphic memoir is Thien Pham’s search for the American Dream.
Yenebi’s Drive to School
By Sendy Santamaria (Oakland)
Chronicle Books, June 27, 2023
As an American growing up in Mexico, Sendy Santamaria had an unusual commute to school. She made a two-hour trek each day from her home in Tijuana, past tamale vendors and immigration lines at the U.S. border, to get to class in San Diego. In her debut book, Yenebi’s Drive to School, which she wrote and illustrated, Santamaria tells the story of a young girl’s unusual trip to school.