I was probably about ten years old when I asked my mom, “Why does Hanford (our hometown) have a China Alley and none of the surrounding towns do?” At that point, I understood that many towns throughout Central California were founded because of the railroad and that Chinese immigrants supplied the labor for that construction. Hanford was–and still is–very proud of its China Alley with its Taoist Temple Museum and annual Moon Festival. But where were those things in Selma? Fresno? Tulare?
“Those cities have changed a lot in the past century,” my mom said. “Hanford just happened to keep their alley.”
Over twenty years later, I found out the truth. Selma, Fresno, Tulare–they all had Chinatowns, sure. Chinese fruit packers were expelled from Selma by a posse of forty men, and when the Chinese came back that night, they were dragged from their homes, and as the police watched, forced to leave. Everything left behind was looted. In Fresno, laundrymen and shopkeepers were given five days warning to leave the city, or else. In Tulare, where 20% of the town was Chinese, fires burned through the Chinese quarter, and then white citizens evicted those that remained and intentionally burned down the rest of the district. In the 1890s, Chinese immigrants across the valley fled in terror as rumors spread of an actual anti-Chinese army that would make the Celestials ‘git.’
My Blood of Earth trilogy, which begins with Breath of Earth, takes an alternate history spin on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by adding in geomancy and incredible creatures. Though the fantastical element is strong, to me, it was very important to get my facts right. In changing history, I wanted to make conscious changes rather than ignorant ones. That was especially important when it came to representing the Chinese experience. It’d already been dismissed from the mainstream historical narrative. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.
As much as I love research, though, when it came to this particular topic, sometimes the reading was outright depressing. Assault, murder, injustice; some people denied that the Chinese were human beings at all.
As I dug deeper, as I uncovered the connections to my own hometown, my research became personal. My mood switched from dismayed to furious. I found mention that my town paper (still in existence today) included an 1893 editorial that admonished young women of Kings County to learn the ways of the kitchen so that they didn’t need to hire a Chinese cook.
I hadn’t been taught about any of this in school. Neither had my mom. Even worse, my grandma didn’t know, and she grew up in the 1930s on a ranch three miles away from Hanford right outside the still quite-small town of Armona; the only remnant of its Chinese district is Shanghai Street, which borders the cemetery.
We hadn’t even been lied to across the generations. The historical facts had been utterly erased. The vineyard laborers driven out by an armed posse, forgotten. Firebombed buildings, built over.
Turns out, outrage over historical injustices makes for good writing fuel.
In my books’ world, the United States and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and in the process of taking over mainland Asia. The Chinese are treated even worse there than in our actual history, but I base everything on fact.
I’ve heard from many readers that they thought I had made up everything. I talk about things like the Dog Tag Law, how the Chinese were forced to carry photo IDs (a first in the world) or risk deportation. That and so many other details are real, and I make sure readers know that, too. At the end of each book in my trilogy, I include an Author’s Note where I break down the major changes from history and include a complete bibliography. My sources are also listed on my website.
Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky might be shelved with the Fantasy & Science Fiction and include a whole lot of magic, but writing about history also includes a responsibility to shine a light on the darkness of the past. My books make for entertaining reads, sure, but I hope they are also enlightening ones… and that at the end, readers look at my source materials and dig a little deeper on their own, just as I did. Maybe they’ll find out some things that hit close to home, too.
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and three feline overlords.
She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Her alt-history Blood of Earth trilogy includes Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky.
Follow her at her website and on Twitter at @BethCato.