Susan Blumberg-Kason talks to Spencer Wise about his debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes
Spencer Wise’s debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes, came out on June 5 from Hanover Square Press, an imprint of the romance publisher Harlequin. His story centers around Alex Cohen, a Jewish-American man who travels to his father’s shoe factory in Foshan, a city of seven million in the southern province of Guangdong. Alex’s father would like him to take over the family business, but instead Alex falls in love with Ivy, a factory worker and pro-democracy activist. According to his biography, Wise “comes from a long line of shoemakers dating back many generations to the shtetls in Poland.” He also spent time living in a shoe factory dormitory in southern China in preparation for writing his book.
Surprisingly, there haven’t been many books published in the US set in Guangdong. Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls is the only one that comes to mind. I recently asked Wise about that lacuna, as well as cultural appropriation in literature and why American men writing about China tend to shy away from romance in their books:
You write about shoe factories in southern China, an area that has been central to US manufacturing for the last two decades. In real life, your family has run a factory from Foshan and you spent some time there getting to know the factory workers. How did you decide to write a novel rather than a nonfiction narrative?
I actually never considered writing this as nonfiction. My family’s business in China is pretty boring on a day-to-day level. If you don’t believe me, here’s a recorded line from my father talking to another shoe designer: “This is just fuchsia polyurethane and now you’re changing to a microfiber sock? Oh, this is going to be bad, real bad.” Boring, right? I guess it’s kind of funny because my father is melting down, per usual. But it’s full of jargon no one understands, and it’s inconsequential. I have a dozen notebooks full of these lines. Novels need trouble, not fuchsia.
Once I looked over my notes, I knew I had better do some serious inventing. Your memoir, for instance, is inherently interesting (and awesome) and has a built-in plot. I had to let my characters take charge, otherwise I’d have a novel about the real me and my real father, which would amount to a long agonizing conversation about where to eat dinner. This would go on for about 200 pages, with my dad listing every restaurant in the area and the daily specials and which waitresses had recently been visited by their grandchildren – and then you’d throw the book at the wall.
My characters are all inventions. I never tried to take over my father’s business. In fact, that decision alone – abandoning the family shoe business after five generations, after growing up with the expectation that I’d take over – this was one of the main reasons I had to write this novel.
Most of the books published in the US about China are set in places like Sichuan, northern China, Shanghai and Beijing. But there’s so much going on in Pearl River Delta! Why do you think so few books have been set there?
It’s fascinating that Westerners don’t really explore southern China. You’re right. All Peter Hessler’s great books or Amy Tan’s novels are, I believe, set in northern China. My guess is this: the Pearl River Delta’s designation as a special economic zone drew in Western businesspeople and investors, but Westerners who weren’t involved in those industries gravitated to Beijing or Shanghai, cities which feature many well-known tourist attractions. But there are just as many fascinating cultural sites in the south. Guangzhou has the Nanyue King Mausoleum, the Guangdong Museum, the Pearl River Bank, Liang’s Garden – and much more. But I think the southern cities are now marketing themselves successfully to non-businesspeople as cultural destinations, which is great, so I imagine we’ll start seeing more narratives about the region.
I also know that access is heavily restricted in the Pearl River Delta area when it comes to the factories. I was able to get into the factory because of my father’s connections, but a journalist couldn’t just walk up to the guard booth and say, “Hey, I’d like a tour.”
But the Pearl River Delta is one of the most beautiful and culturally and historically rich places I’ve ever seen in my life. The economic story is just one part of a much more diverse and dynamic culture. So I don’t know why there isn’t more written about it. I wish there was.
In The Emperor of Shoes, you write about workers’ rights, protests and other forms of unrest. Your main character, Alex Cohen, feels a deep empathy with the workers, as many American Jews would. But his father, who had been in China for decades at that point, takes an authoritarian stance against the activists. Was it difficult to write about since your family has factories in China, and in an area that has been the hotbed of pro-democracy protests in recent years? (In Wukan, a village in Guangdong Province, villagers protested for land ownership rights from 2011 to 2016, when their seventy-two-year-old leader Lin Zulian was arrested. Factory workers at Foxconn have periodically gone on strike, threatening to commit suicide; not a few have acted on that threat.)
My father doesn’t actually own any factories in China; he serves as a middleman between American retailers and Chinese manufacturers. So in that sense it was slightly easier for me to write about issues of labor abuse. But I was absolutely petrified to show the book to my dad – I hid it from him for three years – because I didn’t want him to think he was the father in the novel or that I wasn’t grateful for everything he’s sacrificed. At the same time, I knew it was a book I had to write.
All these ethical and moral issues aren’t unique to Jewish people either. There are plenty of business people in the world facing some pretty dodgy ethical dilemmas. One is sitting in the White House. What’s fascinating is how they justify or rationalize their actions and decisions. So yes, it was all very difficult to write about, but these are the fundamental issues of our times: social injustice, inequality and the widening income gap. All the unseen costs of free market globalism. And that’s the key; they’re unseen. The shoes, the computers, the furniture–they all just magically appear at your doorstep from Amazon.
Romance! Your book is published by an imprint of Harlequin and contains a central romantic interest between Alex and a Chinese activist named Ivy. Most American men who have written memoirs or non-fiction narratives set in China haven’t touched upon romance in their books. It always seemed to me a little disingenuous. How did you set out to write a story with a romantic bent?
Harlequin has recently branched out from romance and started these great imprints with more literary titles. One of them, Hanover Square, is amazing, and I’m totally honored they got behind my book. But it’s still sort of fun to imagine the traditional romance reader picking up my novel and wondering, “Now what the heck is this?”
But The Emperor of Shoes is a love story. Alex and Ivy are both striving to understand something essential about themselves through their relationship. I think we all have that basic longing to connect with someone outside of ourselves. The fundamental existential questions – who am I and what in the world am I doing here – are often pursued through romantic relationships.
I can’t think of a book I loved that didn’t have a romantic relationship. It’s fascinating that you mention its absence in nonfiction about China. I don’t know why that would be. I’d think memoirs would have them. Yeats famously said that “sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” Sounds too serious for me, but I understand his point. These opposing forces are so primary to our experience and understanding of self that I can’t imagine a story without them.
There’s a trend among editors and agents to only represent authors writing in their own voices. You and I have both written stories with Chinese main characters when we clearly aren’t Chinese, although our central protagonists are Jewish like we are. Did you come across any resistance because many of your characters are persons of color?
In terms of offensive cultural (mis)appropriation, there’s a world of difference between writing a novel with diverse characters and the white ladies sitting next to me at a restaurant yesterday wearing giant Styrofoam taco hats and sombreros for Cinco De Mayo. Of course it’s easy for a white person to write a racist/sexist/classist cross-cultural narrative, but that just means it’s a bad book. There can’t be a blanket rule. Imagine if I could only write all-male, all-Jewish stories. That’s Sartre’s No Exit for me. Stuck in the schvitz for eternity. We need transcultural stories. It’s only through difference that we understand ourselves. We don’t want to shut that conversation down. A good book uses specificity and emotional authenticity to touch on something universal about the human condition.
Some editors wanted it to be Ivy’s story. But I don’t feel like I could write a convincing story from the perspective of a Chinese female factory worker. I’m not saying I wouldn’t write it out of deference to identity politics. I wouldn’t write it because it’d be bad. It would misrepresent and reduce and ring untrue. Writing Ivy’s book probably requires a writer like Ivy to make it credible and emotionally truthful. I too want to hear stories from the Ivys of the world, and I think The Emperor of Shoes is partly about the global and economic reasons why that isn’t feasible. ∎