THE BOOK: Empire of Glass.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Kaitlin Solimine.
THE EDITOR: Robert Lasner.
THE PUBLISHER: Ig Publishing: A New York-based press devoted to publishing original and award-winning literary fiction and political and cultural nonfiction.
SUMMARY: Called a “gorgeous experimental work,” by BookRiot, this novel examines the unlikely relationship between an American homestay student in Beijing and her Chinese host family. In the mid-1990s, the American teenager, named Lao K, stands on Coal Hill in Beijing, a loop of rope in her hand. Will she assist her Chinese homestay mother, Li-Ming, in ending her life, or will she choose another path? Twenty years later, Lao K receives a book written by Li-Ming called “Empire of Glass,” a narrative chronicling the lives of Li-Ming and her husband, Wang, in pre and post-revolutionary China. Lao K begins translating the story, which becomes the novel we are reading. But, as translator, how can Lao K separate fact from fiction, and what will her role be in the book’s final chapter?
Chronicling the seismic changes in China over the last half century through the lens of one family’s experiences, Empire of Glass is an investigation into the workings of human memory and the veracity of oral history that pushes the boundaries of language and form.
THE BACK STORY: I lived in China in the mid-90s with a family with whom I grew very close. Over the course of the next decade, and as I became a substitute mother figure to my Chinese host sister, I questioned what this relationship meant personally but also set within the wider context of US-China relations and history. I felt there was a narrative within this worth delving into and examining in a fictional story so I could experiment with both form and point of view. The entire process (from research to book published and on shelves) took just over 10 years (I know!). It was a decade during which I was learning how to write and also, more specifically, how best to write this story and what structure suited the characters and the overall themes of inheritance, translation, cross-cultural communication, and historical memory.
WHY THIS TITLE?: For a long time, the book was called “The Soap Tree,” after a type of tree prevalent in the protagonist Lao Wang’s hometown (and because in an earlier draft, there’s a romantic scene beneath the tree integral to that plot—for anyone curious to read an early draft of the novel, here’s an excerpt published in 2010!). When that plotline was abandoned, the title didn’t fit. About 5 years into the writing of the novel, I was editing a draft when I read this line: “His father: the farmer’s son who learned a trade as best he could, who built from wide country hands a quiet empire of
glass, now living alone, impoverished, in his hometown’s granary, sleeping beside well-fed rats and cockroaches.” I knew immediately that “Empire of Glass” was the new title and that it perfectly summarized so many thematic elements of the novel, not only that of Chinese imperial history, but also the multiple lenses and narrative refractions.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I’ve been deeply grateful for the multitude of readers who have shared with me their experiences of reading Empire of Glass, from those reading in English as a second language to those who’ve never left the United States. I think every reader will bring to the work their own lenses and thus will read the book based on their own background—e.g., for a Chinese-American friend who grew up in China, he found the historical sections to be deeply painful to relive; for a book club in upstate New York, the history and setting in China was inspiring and unknown. At its core, I hope that the novel asks readers to question their own relationship with History (capital “H”) as well as with their own cultural and personal biases that impact both their personal and social worlds. At the same time, I was deeply inspired by working with the multiple layers of perspective, as well as researching poetry by the somewhat esoteric Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and histories of the Korean War that are widely unknown by modern day Americans (e.g., that the U.S. ran bombing missions over Northeastern China). I hope that the novel also allows readers to experience fiction in a new way—the ability to read the narrative however they like and thus potentially even experience multiple readings at once. REVIEW COMMENTS:
National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Finalist, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: “A bold and luminous book, a novel that captures the great upheavals of history and the smallest fissures in family life with equal attention, intimacy, and insight.”
An Amazon reviewer: “This was a beautiful – uncomfortable – and ultimately dazzling work. As a Chinese American, I felt at home as I read: inhabiting a home that was at once familiar yet surreal. Beautiful, sad, tragic and sublime. Fantastic work.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “Empire of Glass… is a complex, lyrical, and unsparing revelation about the old and new China and the hardships faced by an ordinary Chinese couple who survived Mao’s cultural revolution.”
Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Painter From Shanghai, in Amherst’s The Common: “I remain haunted by the masterpiece I sense lies beneath [the novel’s] glittering reimaginings, reconfigurings, and re-reflections.”
AUTHOR PROFILE: Kaitlin Solimine once performed on Chinese national television in a hideous yellow dress and spent a summer traveling alone throughout China’s Dongbei region as contributor to the formerly-indispensible (now replaced by the Internet) travel guide, Let’s Go: China. Raised in New England, she has considered China a second home for almost two decades. While majoring
in East Asian Studies at Harvard, she was a Harvard-Yenching scholar and, for a season, the youngest member of the Varsity lightweight crew team. She is co-founder of the academic media platform, Hippo Reads, and after spending a few years in Singapore, now resides in San Francisco with her husband and daughter where she was a 2016 SF Writers Grotto Fellow. She is associate producer of the groundbreaking childbirth documentary, These Are My Hours. Her debut novel, Empire of Glass, was named a Finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She is grateful to have read sections from the novel at places as critically important as indie bookstores Powell’s and Newtonville Books, as lovely as Madrid’s Desperate Literature and Berkeley Books of Paris, and as far flung as Singapore’s International Literary Festival.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: My novel started with a very small, intimate premise: rewrite my relationship with China and my Chinese host family. But what started small grew into an investigation of cultural inheritance and appropriation, of attempting a new understanding of literary fiction’s potential, and of an unexpected literary career. Writing is often a very solitary pursuit but I was lucky to connect, through the research for this novel, with a number of deeply impactful individuals including the Chinese artist Zhang Dali, as well as a slew of impressive female writers like Xu Xi, Vanessa Hua, Heidi Durrow, Natashia Deon, Kirstin Chen, Yang Huang, Hasanthika Sirisena, Val Wang, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and many, many more. In this journey, I’ve lost mentors who were early and avid supporters of my work—Les Plesko and Gene Cooper, you are deeply missed. I’m grateful I can now connect with readers on stories of their own cross-cultural experiences and relationships, as well as travels that have inspired their lives.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: In LitHub and Newfound Review.
LOCAL OUTLETS (SF Area): Green Apple, Booksmith, Napa Bookmine.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Ig Publishing: http://igpub.com/empire-of-glass/ IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781632460554 Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Empire-Glass-Kaitlin-Solimine/dp/1632460556 Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/empire-of-glass-kaitlin-solimine/1124727043.
PRICE: $16.95 (retail paperback), $10.99 (Kindle).
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @letsgokato Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/solimineauthor/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/soliminewriter/ Website: kaitlinsolimine.com