Jenny Tinghui Zhang's Four Treasures of the Sky is shortlisted for the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. 

Jenny Tinghui Zhang © Mary Kang

Zhifu, China, 1882. Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she once imagined.

Over the years that follow she is forced to reinvent herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the American West in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been - including the ones she most wants to leave behind - in order to finally claim her own name and story.

About the author: 

Jenny Tinghui Zhang is a Chinese-American writer. She was born in Changchun, China and grew up in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. Four Treasures of the Sky is her debut.

WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?

Jenny: To be completely honest, I haven’t ever thought of myself as an adventure writer. When I think of “adventure writing,” I think of faraway places, epic journeys, and great escapes. I couldn’t really place my book in such a framework, but perhaps my own definition needs changing…. I do consider this book an adventure of the spirit and soul, particularly for Daiyu, the main character. After all, it is both a physical and spiritual journey for her. In that sense, maybe I am an adventure writer after all!

WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on

Jenny: Toni Morrison, Alexander Chee, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Edith Wharton are some of my favourite writers, and I frequently look to their work for comfort and guidance. More recently, I have loved The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng, Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej, If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang.

WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?

Jenny: I like to think of my time getting my MFA in Wyoming as a grand adventure. I’ve spent the majority of my life living in Austin, Texas, and a place like Wyoming felt completely unknowable and daunting. During my time there, I got to visit ghost towns and climb colossal rocks. I got to sing karaoke at the local dive and walk through the snow in May. I got to look at mountains and plains and endless sky after years of staring at a computer screen for eight
hours every day. And I got to meet some of the best people and writers I’ll ever know. It was a magical, transformative time for me, and I treasure it very much.

I never expected Wyoming to influence my writing, since I wrote mostly about my Asian-American identity. But Wyoming found its way in, and I found myself writing essays about my experiences there, which culminated in a column for Catapult. It was through that column that I was able to connect with my now agent.

I wrote the majority of Four Treasures of the Sky during the early months of the pandemic. A portion of the story takes place in Idaho. I always planned to visit for research, but quarantine and the pandemic prevented that. Instead, I drew upon my time in Wyoming to recall the feeling of being in the West—the eeriness, the loneliness, and yes, the enormous beauty.

WNSF: Four Treasures of the Sky could be called historical fiction. Why did you choose to write about this time? Or this particular place in this time?

Jenny: I don’t know if I could say that I chose this time period… I think it chose me. Of course, my father played a huge part as well — he was the one who discovered the historical marker that sparked the idea for the novel. Once I began doing research on the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, I realised that not only was there an abundance of Chinese people in the American West during that time period, but that their stories — both their joys and their heartbreaks — have been dismissed or excluded from history. It became imperative for me to reclaim this part of history and to make sure these stories remain known.

WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?

Jenny: Early in the novel, Daiyu meets Master Wang, a calligraphy instructor who eventually becomes her mentor. Through him, Daiyu learns not only calligraphy, but the philosophy and morality around it — lessons which serve as a framework for how she goes about the world. Master Wang is both a father figure and a mentor, but he can also be strict and unwavering when it comes to his views about life and art.

I’ve had many teachers in all phases of schooling who evoked an almost emotional response from me in terms of how and what they taught me. Sometimes, it wasn’t even what they taught — it was the fact that they could see me during a time when I needed desperately to be seen. I wanted to reflect that experience of supreme trust and deep appreciation here for Daiyu, while also admitting that a mentor can only ever be a mentor — the rest is up to the

WNSF: We find that adventure often crosses into other genres, including crime and historical fiction. What kind of books do you like to read?

Jenny: I love books that immerse me in a character and their state of mind. Books that bury me in moods and atmospheres and relationships. I especially appreciate books that experiment with time, form, and perspective.

WNSF: If there anything else you'd like to tell us about Four Treasures of the Sky?

Jenny: I mention this in my Author’s Note, but the story was inspired by a historical marker located in Pierce, Idaho (I’ll avoid the exact details of the marker, as it could be a spoiler).

The winner of the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at an awards ceremony on 18th October 2023. Support Jenny and buy a copy of Four Treasures of the Sky: