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Our Books, Our Shelves: History Is Quicksand, Stories Are What I’ve Got

Nghi Vo and her novel Empress of Salt and Fortune

The Complete Poems of Cavafy is a heavy book with a very tattered dust jacket and a velvet quality to the slightly limp pages. Throughout, there are soft pencil marks next to some poems and several marks proclaiming the book the property of the Gay People’s Union Library.*

A couple of years ago at the Great Hunger Book Sale run out of All Saints Cathedral in Milwaukee, I happened to pick up a collection of poems by Constantine P. Cavafy, a pretty edition from 1961 with an introduction from W. H. Auden. It was a weird choice for me. I don’t really read poetry, but I do have a deeply personal interest in queer artists. I didn’t know at the time that Cavafy was a queer man (spoiler, he was), but the fact that it was introduced by W. H. Auden, another queer poet, was a pretty good hint.

Turns out that I had discovered my favorite poet and at the same time stumbled on a piece of queer Milwaukee history as well.

I read the book quickly—I think I had a lot going on that summer. I liked one of the poems enough to write it on a piece of paper and carry it in a locket, another one enough to carry it in my wallet. After that, I kept the book on my shelf for a few years until one day I opened it and discovered stamps I’d somehow never noticed before on pages 69 and 169*: “This Book Is the Property of The GAY PEOPLE’S UNION LIBRARY.”

I’d volunteered for a few years at the Milwaukee LGBT Center, specifically in the library, and I had never heard of this particular organization. Some research told me that the Gay People’s Union was the very first organization of its kind in Milwaukee, founded directly after the Stonewall Riots. It split and schismed as such organizations do, divided on goals and means, but there’s no disputing the fact that it’s the ancestor of the organization for which I used to shelve books and handle donations.

When I examined the book more closely, it gave up another secret. Inside the front cover, almost hidden under the flap, was a name. It’s not a proper bookplate; instead, it’s an address label of the kind you would put on a letter. There’s a little American flag printed hopefully to one side, and underneath the name, an address just three blocks from mine.

When I wrote The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, I was, among many other things, trying to take a stab at the quality of history that makes it at once realer than rocks and slippery as all hell. I explore history in artifacts and in oral tradition, and at the end, Chih, the historian protagonist of both stories, realizes that the only thing they have to hang on to is words.

All I’ve got is a book.

I think about the person whose name is in my book. I think he’s a man, though in retrospect, I wonder why I’m so sure, given the fact that I’m a cis woman, and I was drawn to Cavafy’s verse as well. Maybe it’s the checkmarks next to the more sensuous poems, the ones that draw attention to male beauty and longing. Maybe it’s a quirk of my own worldview and upbringing.

The person who owned this book lived in an apartment a few notches nicer than mine, one with a view of Lake Michigan. It must have been something pretty special back in the 70s and 80s, when I believe they lived there.

I think the person who owned my book at some point made contact with the Gay People’s Union Library. Maybe they were the one who donated it, or maybe they took it out and never brought it back. You learn to be resigned to lost books if you work at a library.

You learn to be resigned to lost books, missing episodes and strange gaps if you work at history as well.

I find myself thinking off and on about the previous owner of my book. I think about who they were that they were drawn to Cavafy’s writing, and what kind of contact they had with the Gay People’s Union of Milwaukee. I think about how they probably walked in the same park that I like to walk in, and how the lake looked from their windows. I think about AIDS during the 80s and 90s, how it changed everything. I hope they made it through and I hope that they were happy. Who knows, maybe they still are.

I think about how my protagonist Chih would dearly love something solid to hang on to even as they dutifully record every bit of their lived experience and hope that someday it all makes sense.

It makes me want to do my bit to add some solidity to history, so here:

The owner of this book lives in Milwaukee. She’s a queer writer who writes queer stories. She’s Vietnamese-American. She’s more happy than she is sad, and she’s lucky. She’s loved, and that’s pretty great. She’s angry a lot, less good. She reads. She writes. She’s mostly doing just fine.

*Me: So that’s probably not a coincidence, is it?
My friend: You are absolutely smarter than this.

About The Empress of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo:

“Dangerous, subtle, unexpected and familiar, angry and ferocious and hopeful…The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling.”—NPR

A 2020 ALA Booklist Top Ten SF/F Debut
A Book Riot Must-Read Fantasy of 2020
A Paste Most Anticipated Novel of 2020
A Library Journal Debut of the Month
A Buzzfeed Must-Read Fantasy Novel of Spring 2020

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Nghi Vo was born in central Illinois, and she retains a healthy respect of and love for corn mazes, scarecrows, and fifty-year floods. These days, she lives on the shores of Lake Michigan, which is less a lake than an inland sea that she is sure is just biding its time.

Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, PodCastle, Lightspeed, and Fireside. Her short story, “Neither Witch nor Fairy” made the 2014 Otherwise (formerly Tiptree) Award Honor List. Nghi mostly writes about food, death, and family, but sometimes detours into blood, love, and rhetoric. She believes in the ritual of lipstick, the power of stories, and the right to change your mind.

Don’t forget to check out the other excellent additions in our exclusive Our Books, Our Shelves column with Tor Books! 

(image: Tor Books)

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