Tales of shipwreck, war and nightclub dancers all at the National Book Festival

Ishmael Beah’s family was killed by rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone. Lisa See became fascinated with her father’s Chinese ancestry. Tiphanie Yanique, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, had a sea-faring great-grandfather who went down with his ship in a historic wreck.

All three will be at the National Book Festival on Saturday, with novels that take on Africa, San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Caribbean. All are based, to one degree or another, on their family histories.

Beah’s “Radiance of Tomorrow” is the follow-up to his hugely popular memoir, “A Long Way Gone.” That book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 40 languages. “Radiance” tells the fictional story of two friends who return to their home village after a brutal civil war.

See’s “China Dolls” is the tale of three young Asian women who dance at a nightclub in San Francisco — and then Pearl Harbor is bombed, complicating their lives in ways none of them could have foreseen. Her most popular book, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” has sold more than 3.2 million copies worldwide, has been translated into 39 languages and was turned into a 2011 film.

And Yanique’s much-lauded debut, “Land of Love and Drowning,” traces the multi-generational saga of two sisters, born of a doomed sea captain early in the 20th century.

Here’s your cheat-sheet guide to all three:


Tiphanie Yanique. (Debbie Grossman)

Yanique’s "Land of Love and Drowning" took 11 years to complete. (Riverhead)
Tiphanie Yanique

The schooner Fancy Me went down in a storm off Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) on July 26, 1926, taking the lives of Yanique’s great-grandfather, James Henry Smith, the captain, and more than 50 others. It was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Virgin Islands and a transformative event for Smith’s descendants.

“It’s really where our family mythology begins,” she says in a phone call from the Virgin Islands. “We can trace our line back further, but that wreck is so famous that it’s really where our story starts.”

The family was devastated by the loss of the patriarch. Smith’s youngest daughter grew up to be a librarian, a storyteller and Yanique’s grandmother. Beulah Smith Harrigan also raised Yanique and imbued her with a love of books, stories and the mysteries of the past. That took hold. Now 35, Yanique has published a book of short stories, poetry and this multi-generational novel.

Working on all three at once — plus teaching creative writing at the New School in New York, becoming a wife and a mother — “Drowning” took 11 years to complete.

Although Yanique knew the story would start with her great-grandfather, she decided that she’d have to stray from the family history in order to get at larger themes of love and loss, of the colonial history of the islands.

“The emotional complexity is what is the most sacred to me,” she says, laughing. “I’m willing to throw actual history under the bus in order to get to the deeper truth.”

To that end, she moved events and changed histories.

In the book, the doomed ship is renamed the Homecoming and only two men survive; actually, more than 40 did. A telegram informs the United States and British Virgin Islands of the sinking; in reality there was none, and families waited days for news of the ship. And, in actual cinematic history, “Girls Are for Loving,” a soft-core sexploitation flick set in the Virgin Islands, came out in 1973. Yanique has it appear in the novel a decade earlier, with fictionalized scenes and advertising, to better suit the narrative.

Yanique moved to Boston after high school and has lived in both the United States and the Virgin Islands ever since. That split time is also a theme of the book: how the people of the islands are the vestiges of colonial times, “quasi-Americans but also intensely Caribbean.” It’s an unusual sort of national identity, she says.

“In a major way, [the characters] don’t officially immigrate. They wind up living in V.I. It’s about becoming American without ever moving.”


Lisa See (Patricia Williams)

See’s "China Dolls" explores the lives of three women who become dancers at a San Francisco nightclub. (Random House)
Lisa See

See, whose books have been bestsellers over the past 19 years, hews to the opposite tack: Actual dates and events can not be changed.

In her eighth novel, “China Dolls,” three young American women of Asian descent (two are Chinese, one Japanese) become dancers at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco in 1938. Their lives are about to be changed by many things, but none more than the onset of World War II.

“You can’t change history,” See says in a phone interview. “If history is something that happens to real people, then it also happens to your characters. Pearl Harbor can only happen on Dec. 7. It can’t happen on the fourth.”

She came to this rule after an initial career in journalism. A former writer for Publishers Weekly (her mother is novelist and just-retired Washington Post critic Carolyn See), she was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She’s one-eighth Chinese (her great-grandfather immigrated), with red hair and freckles, but spent a lot of time in her childhood with her paternal side of the family in Chinatown.

On Gold Mountain,” her 1995 biography of her family over the previous century, involved five years of research, including interviews with more than 100 relatives.

“I could see that there were these [historical events] they didn’t realize had a big effect on them, but in looking back it did. . . . That’s where I got that view, with history happening to real people.”

Fiction followed, with thrillers based in modern-day China (“Flower Net,” “The Interior,” “Dragon Bones”). She then turned to historical novels that are largely devoted to the loves and friendships of Chinese women, whether in the Old Country or immigrants elsewhere.

Today, she has settled into a career. She’s 59, a city commissioner in Los Angeles, with a spouse and two adult children.

She spent three years researching and writing “Dolls,” and no detail about the era was too small.

“I probably spent about 40 or 50 hours of research into women’s undergarments [that dancers would have worn],” she says with a laugh. “I mean — step-ins or panties? Bloomers? . . . As you’re reading the novel, it’s not a big issue, but I know it’s right.”

All of that background sets the table for what she’s really writing about — the tangled web of love and friendship between three women, and how those evolve over time.

“Each of them have their secrets, and how they chose to reveal or not reveal them has an effect on the other two,” she says. “It’s a certain kind of single-mindedness and persistence and drive that allows them to keep going.”


Ishmael Beah (John Madere)

In "Radiance of Tomorrow,” Beah aimed to find a redemptive story in a brutal war. (Sarah Crichton)
Ishmael Beah

He laughs a lot, that’s the first thing you notice. For someone who has lived through the horrors that the 33-year-old Beah has, it’s no small thing.

Living in a small village in Sierra Leone, his family was killed when soldiers from the rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front, raided the town. He was taken into the army, which turned him into a soldier as a teen.

He was eventually taken to an internationally run rehabilitation center, got invited to speak in New York and came to live with Laura Simms, a professional storyteller and human rights activist whom he now calls his adopted mother. (An Australian newspaper reported that significant details of his story were in error; Beah and his publishers have stood by the work.)

Since then, he has graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in political science, gotten married and settled in Brooklyn. He often works with international nonprofit groups devoted to children’s welfare.

“Radiance” is a fable-like story of two friends returning to a small African village that has been ripped apart by war; bones still litter the streets. Like the memoir, it’s designed to provide a redemptive story to one of the most brutal wars of the past 20 years.

“There is beauty, the difficulties and the in-betweens, even in the middle of violence from oppression,” he says. “People are not always moping around, dragging their sorrow with them. I’m trying to introduce cultures that people tend to look at negatively, to have people rethink.”

He spent three years working on the book, in between his travels to Europe and Africa. The book’s lyrical tone comes from his sense of play with translating languages. The literal translation for a soccer ball, for example, from Mende (spoken widely in Sierra Leone) to English would be “a nest of air.” How do you keep that sense of wonder in English? That was on Beah’s mind while writing.

“How can I get the best of what people say and how they say it, the beauty of the languages and the manners of how they express themselves?” Beah — and his novel — ask.

Schedule: Ishmael Beah: Fiction & Mystery, 10:55-11:40 a.m. Tiphanie Yanique: Fiction & Mystery, 1:40-2:25 p.m. Lisa See: Fiction & Mystery, 3:30-4:15 p.m. and Great Books to Great Movies, 8-9:30 p.m.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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