currycredit-bobtoomy-photographyEditor’s Note: This is the final author profile in our series leading up to this weekend’s Decatur Book Festival. For a full schedule of events, visit decaturbookfestival.com

By Janet Metzger

What drives a woman working in finance to write her first novel about a young prostitute in 19th century China? “I believed in her story.” Alexandra Curry spoke with me recently about how she came to write The Courtesan.

Curry was traveling with her family in China when she overheard a tour guide speak about the Chinese legend Sai Jinhua (pronounced sigh gin-wah), a late 19th century courtesan.

Jinhua’s story resonated with Curry. Western-born, Curry moved with her parents to Singapore where she spent her formative years. She experienced the move from West to East as difficult, fascinating, even sensual. While Jinhua came of age in a Chinese brothel, it was during a time when women were closeted, isolated from the world outside their homes. In becoming the concubine of the first diplomat to leave China for the West, Jinhua was thrust into a Western world beyond her imagination. “I felt that [Jinhua] had taken this journey in reverse,” Curry told me.

Although Curry began writing The Courtesan as a personal story, her research revealed an important truth, namely that Jinhua was a strong, opportunistic woman. She knew this story had merit, and as Jinhua “grew in my imagination, my research dropped bits of delicious information in my lap.” For example, Jinhua and the diplomat actually lived in Berlin, but Curry, who has a family background in Austria, chose to place her there. Curry thought back to when she studied for a year at Vienna’s Palais Kinsky, and imagined it was a fairly logical place for Jinhua to have lived. She later learned that the Chinese Embassy indeed was located in the Kinsky during the first part of the 19th century.

Sai Jinhua has inspired numerous treatments of her life. I asked Curry where she thought her book fit into that canon of work. She explained that the other treatments of Jinhua’s life have ranged from very romantic depictions to what are called “depravity novels” written toward the end of the Qing Dynasty in order to shine a light on the depravity and lack of morals of the dynasty’s latter days. Curry talked about China’s changing values during the Boxer Rebellion and end of the Qing Dynasty through the Nationalist government and Communist takeover. And each treatment of Jinhua exploited her life to suit the political/cultural goals of the time. Curry wanted to tell a different story.

Curry has always been interested in what happens when you mix people from the East and the West. The Courtesan is not just one woman’s fascinating story; against the backdrop of the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, The Courtesan “shines a light on the history of China’s relationship with the west.” Curry hopes readers will come to understand how that period, referred to by the Chinese as The Hundred Years of Humiliation, looked to the Chinese people.

Alexandra Curry will speak and sign her book at The Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 5, from 10-10:45 a.m.  at Decatur City Hall.

Janet Metzger is an audiobook narrator, performer and teacher living in Decatur.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.