The Brightest Star: A Novel by Gail Tsukiyama

Cover of “The Brightest Star: A Novel” by Gail Tsukiyama.

Life teaches that reality is often more fascinating and more intricate than any synthetic tale of fiction: the dense events of history, or the thick narratives of any individual life, provide writers with a range of images and stories that can beguile a readership more than the deliberate inventions of a fanciful imagination. The life and career of American actress Anna May Wong is a fitting case in point.  

Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong (a name she devised when she was still a teenager and planning a film career) was a fiercely intelligent, ambitious, independent and complicated woman whose acting career spanned the trajectory of American entertainment media in the first half of the 20thcentury, from the era of silent movies to the advent of ‘talking pictures’, and, finally, to the early and exciting (because so new) years of American television. She had fallen in love with movies and the very idea of acting when she was still a little girl, and that passion propelled her to a multi-decade career—promising, tumultuous, frustrating, charismatic—in the US and, when the US failed her, in Europe, on stage, in film, and, finally, on the small screen. However, despite her enthusiasm and evident talent, the overt racism and blatant misogyny in American society and especially in the American movie industry constantly thwarted her attempts to achieve all that she had hoped for her career, to realize the same opportunities for roles and the same possibilities of success that were readily available to white actors.

To know the life of Anna May Wong is to learn about the sordid hypocrisy driving many American institutions and the deleterious effects that discrimination can inflict on an individual and, by extension, upon a society.  Even though for many years Anna May Wong doggedly battled the social and cultural obstacles that stymied her career, and that burdened her with self-doubt and self-recrimination, the trauma of those struggles eventually wore her down until she was felled by a heart attack in 1961. The life of Anna May Wong, then, requires no fictional gloss or creative reimagining to captivate a readership.

Author Gail Tsukiyama. Source: Facebook.

Thus, it does come as a bit of a disappointment that the gifted author Gail Tsukiyama (“Women of the Silk,” “The Samurai’s Garden”) chose to write about Anna May Wong not in the context of a richly textured biography, either in the context of a researched exploration of gender and race in the United States of the 20th century, or of a studied examination of the American film industry, but as a work of creative non-fiction, thus imposing the impressionistic voice and creative vision of the novelist on the life story of Anna May Wong who, in her own lifetime had been so constantly defined and delineated by others, howsoever she strove to live independently, on her own terms.

It should be said that Tsukiyama is clearly well-intentioned and does give credit at the end of the novel to the several biographical and historical resources that were available to her. She is achingly sincere in her desire to depict the many struggles in Anna May Wong’s personal life, including the contentious relationship with her very traditional father whom she admired and loved and deeply but who simply could not accept her unconventional choices, and her thwarted relationships with several (mostly white) lovers who were always cowed by the heinous miscegenation laws that even prevented a white actor from having an intimate relationship with a non-white actor in films (let alone in their personal lives). Tsukiyama is also understandably horrified by the many occasions that the American film industry chose to resist any attempts to challenge the white privilege and blithe patriarchy that were its foundation, and so humiliate generations of actors, like Anna May Wong. Yet, ultimately, Gail Tsukiyama’s sincere intentions seem fleeting and faint and, throughout the telling, the reader is left wanting much, much more—more detail, more insight, more nuance, more depth.

The problem stems from a format that promises more than it delivers.  As the novel opens, Tsukiyama situates Anna May Wong on a train ride from California to New York City in 1960 (just a year before her untimely death), traveling to the East Coast for scheduled interviews in an attempt to ‘reignite’ her stalled career. As Miss Wong sits alone in her sleeper car, she decides to read though an assortment of notebooks she has with her, journals that she has kept over a lifetime of work and travel, crammed with material that she plans to be the nucleus of her own autobiography.

Tsukiyama’s book then purports to be the personal narrative of Anna May Wong as she sifts through notebook pages of lengthy notations and tackles tempests of memories that the journals elicit. Such a call to memory, and the particularities of hindsight, could have shaped an absorbing story by creating a space for Anna May Wong, too often publicly silenced during her life, to give voice to her memories, reflections, ideas and reactions, with the added benefit of a skilled writer composing the narration. However, the anticipated bounty of Anna May Wong’s thoughts and impressions, expressed as a ‘memoir’, never materializes.

Tsukiyama adopts a kind of fangirl breathlessness in recounting Anna May Wong’s ‘remembrances,’ gliding swiftly from one famous personage to another, from one uneasy movie set to another, from one exceptional encounter after another, seeming to opt for quantity over quality of recollection. For example, in a ‘journal’ entry for 1934, Anna May Wong records that mutual friends had arranged for her to meet the redoubtable Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, and they first met in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Anna May Wong admits that she was at first more frightened than eager to meet Gertrude Stein, and the reader, too, becomes eager to delve into the dinner conversation among the three rather unconventional women. However, there is only a single line about the dinner: it was, for Anna May Wong, “an evening she would never forget” (200). Nothing more.

Publicity photo of Anna May Wong from Stars of the Photoplay in 1930. Source: Wikimedia

A writer of Gail Tsukiyama’s calibre could easily have used her own creative imagination to weave for the reader the rich fabric of a robust dinner with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Anna May Wong in attendance, but she did not. The chapter then simply hurries on to another dinner, in 1935, in London, where Anna May Wong is discussing an article she had written on interracial marriage for a French magazine with the elegant British author W. Somerset Maugham, one of her favorite authors. Again, Tsukiyama deprives the reader of an account of a brilliant and challenging conversation: almost at once, the discussion with Maugham is sidelined for a listing of other famous personages whom Anna May Wong met that evening.

So it happens for much of the novel: while Anna May Wong did know many celebrated personalities and was involved in cultural and political episodes, the novel reads as if her memories are so many and so full that each one cancels the one preceding: there is no room for exploration or inquiry. Even the great Marlene Dietrich, with whom Anna May Wong had a secret affair, becomes in the novel curiously distant, even two-dimensional, despite the fact that such an interlude in Anna May Wong’s life, and the subversive brilliance of the great Dietrich, could have lent itself easily to the imaginative creativity of a novelist.

Tsukiyama also might have abbreviated the constant allusions to famous old Hollywood names and personalities, and instead explored more critically what it meant to be Asian American in the early 20th century, particularly what it was like to be an Asian American in an industry that was notorious even in its own time for its use of ‘yellowface.’  The practice of ‘yellowface’ (which in the form of ‘whitewashing’ has persisted into the 21st century, just consider Emma Stone in the movie “Aloha”) was a egregious example of the racism in the American film industry that chose to have white American or European actors in ‘yellowface’ makeup (along with contortions of the actor’s eyes) depict Asian characters rather than employ Asian actors themselves.  There is a chilling moment in the novel when Anna May Wong recalls a time when a studio executive explain that he would not allow Anna May Wong to play the role of a Chinese woman in a film because she was ‘too beautiful’ to portray a Chinese woman and he preferred to depict an Asian woman through the antics of a white actor in yellowface. different impression of an Asian woman. Thus, countless roles of Asian female characters were lost to Anna May Wong simply because she was, well, an Asian (-American) woman. 

The reality of yellowface not only dismayed Anna May Wong (and her many colleagues) but it also led to difficult questions about the ethics of her career choices, since she had to grapple with the vexing fact that too often, the roles that she was usually awarded played into racist and sexist stereotypes, like the ‘Asian dragon lady’ or the devious courtesan. Her options were fairly stark: should she allow herself to portray on screen some of the most corrosive stereotypes of Asian women and so abet the persistence of those odious images, or should she simply refuse any such roles offered to her and likely end a career to which she had devoted her entire life? Were there opportunities even in such roles for her to subvert surreptitiously such stereotypes? Again, Tsukiyama touches on this ethical conundrum that faced Anna May Wong several times in the novel, but each time only in a cursory and hasty manner, providing Anna May Wong with little thoughtful reflection. A deeper dive into such difficult questions would have enriched the novel and engaged the readership in better understanding of the ethical as well as practical struggles of Anna May Wong and others.

There are clips from Anna May Wong’s treasury of films available on Youtube and watching even a few of them, the viewer becomes aware that Anna May Wong was both a charismatic and talented actress with potential for a wide and deep range of performance (just watch her hold her own with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express!). Her gaze is unwavering, her voice deep and resonant, and her appearance—as she ‘explains’ in Tsukiyama’s novel—is always proudly and defiantly Asian. What a loss to the narrative American film is her obvious absence from so many appropriate roles.

This reviewer does propose, however, that for anyone who knows nothing about the remarkable Anna May Wong, or has little knowledge of the countless social, political, cultural obstacles that confronted, challenged and deterred her in her endeavor to build a career in American cinema (and that eventually compelled her to leave Hollywood and achieve some success in Europe), The Brightest Star does work as a worthy introduction, because of the skill of Gail Tsukiyama as a writer but especially because of the fascinating life and personality of her subject, Anna May Wong.

June-Ann Greeley, Ph.D., is Professor of Languages, Literature and Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University. She is trained in classical languages and literature and Medieval Studies, specifically late antique and medieval theology and literature, religious and intellectual history, and classical/medieval (Latin) poetry. Dr. Greeley translates and interprets late antique, Celtic and medieval Latin theological and literary works and explores late antique and medieval spirituality, including the literature of medieval women, medieval mystics (Christian and Sufism); sacred art and architecture; medieval and modern Celtic authors; the emergence of Islam in medieval Europe; Dante Studies, and global medievalisms.

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