A Life of Books: Jenny Tinghui Zhang, author of Four Treasures of the Sky

The Adroit Journal Senior Editor, Jenny Tinghui Zhang, has published her debut novel Four Treasures in the Sky. The book is an 1880s epic that uses the Chinese Exclusion Act as the backdrop. It explores the American West, immigration, racism, and so much more backed by breathtaking prose.

Zhang’s work has also been featured in Apogee, CALYX, Ninth Letter, Passages North, wildness, and The Rumpus, with essays in HuffPost, Bustle, The Cut, and HelloGiggles, among others.

We asked her to answer our recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

There were so many! But if I had to point to one, it would be The Lord of the Rings series. I was a girl obsessed, and although I came to the books via the movies, I loved both. I wanted to live inside that world so badly. I remember once, I went to school dressed as Legolas. I walked on my tiptoes for a whole summer to mimic the light footedness with which elves walked. At some point, I learned Tengwar and could write letters with it. 

I look at that version of myself with fondness, because I still carry the same kind of hotheaded obsession for so many things, but I have different ways of channeling it now. Maybe this is for the best! I don’t think my calves could bear it now. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I have always firmly believed that books are what shaped me (among a few other things). My parents let me read whatever I wanted to and I think I turned out alright, so I suppose that is my philosophy, too.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I’m cheating with this answer, but The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. We had to read it for French class, in French, and it’s not that I disliked it, but I remember simply acknowledging that it existed and not really thinking anything special of it. 

Later on, when I was about 25 and at a very low point in my life, I came to the book again when a coworker lent me his copy after we had a frank conversation about the things we wanted to pursue in our lives, but weren’t pursuing. I remember the book seemed to open for me in a way it never had before. I felt like it was speaking directly to me, as if it could see inside me and pull out all the insecurities, desires, and losses I had accumulated up to that point. Now, I look at The Little Prince with reverence and appreciation. It’s one of those books that will continue changing in meaning, depending on where you are in your life. And those books, in my mind, are the ones that are the most precious. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I haven’t revisited it since I read it in high school, but I have a feeling I might not love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey as much anymore. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee. I think the writing is just so incredible. I still remember the first time I read the opening section–I put the book down and had to catch my breath. When I was writing Four Treasures of the Sky, I read a few pages from Edinburgh before each writing session as a way to remind myself to pay attention to language. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I regret to say that I haven’t had very much time to read lately–it feels like it has taken me weeks to simply finish one book. My mind is all over the place right now. But there are so many books that I can’t wait to read once things calm down. I am really looking forward to Inheritance by Elaine Hsieh Chou. I got to hear her read from her book in Philadelphia and it was so sharply funny, but also so real. The new Ocean Vuong and Emily St. John Mandel, of course! The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies has been calling to me for a while. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Read, rest, rejuvenate.

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