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The Language of Threads



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About The Author

Gail TsukiyamaGail Tsukiyama

Born to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father in San Francisco, Gail Tsukiyama now lives in El Cerrito, California. Her novels include Dreaming Water, Women of the Silk, The Samurai's Garden, and Night of Many Dreams.

photo: Kevin Horan

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Readers of Women of the Silk never forgot the moving, powerful story of Pei, brought to work in the silk house as a girl, grown into a quiet but determined young woman whose life is subject to cruel twists of fate, including the loss of her closest friend, Lin. Now we finally learn what happened to Pei, as she leaves the silk house for Hong Kong in the 1930s, arriving with a young orphan, Ji Shen, in her care. Her first job, in the home of a wealthy family, ends in disgrace, but soon Pei and Ji Shen find a new life in the home of Mrs. Finch, a British ex-patriate who welcomes them as the daughters she never had. Their idyllic life is interrupted, however, by war, and the Japanese occupation. Pei is once again forced to make her own way, struggling to survive and to keep her extended family alive as well. In this story of hardship and survival, Tsukiyama paints a portrait of women fighting the forces of war and time to make a life for themselves.


How did you start writing?
As a teenager, I wrote mostly poetry. However, I did not start to think about writing as a career until college. I then got my Master's in writing.

Which authors do you love to read?
I like to read writers I can learn from. I often read Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris, and Kaye Gibbons, to name a few. Recently I have been enjoying Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Louis De Bemieres' I Correlli's Mandolin, and E. Annie Prouix's The Shipping News.

Has the culture you were raised in shaped your identity?
I'm both Chinese and Japanese, yet born in San Francisco and in many ways as American as apple pie. And yet being raised in the Chinese culture, I still adhere to many of the traditions and superstitions. When Chinese New Year comes along I'm still very careful about not saying any- thing negative, because it sets the mood for the whole year. All these Chinese traditions from my mother's side of the family are within me, and have somehow found expression through my books.

You enjoy traveling. Where have you been?
I have been to England, China, Italy, Germany, Egypt, Israel, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Greece, Japan, and France. When I was young, I often went with my mother to Hong Kong to visit my grandmother. Recently, I have been going to Europe once or twice a year-whenever I get a chance.

Do your travels influence your writing?
Various landscapes have definitely given me a lot of material for my writing. In my four novels, I have explored Asia as the background for my narratives. My childhood experiences of visiting Hong Kong play a large factor in my subconscious, and thus, it comes out in my writing. I would like to write a novel set in Europe, as I have been spending more and more time there.


1. When Pei and Ji Shen first arrive in Hong Kong, they meet the rickshaw boy, Quan, who takes them to their boarding house. How does he represent the bustling city of Hong Kong and what role does he play in both Pei and Ji Shen's life?
2. Discuss how the sisterhood was able to thrive in Hong Kong after the demise of the silk villages in China. How were they able to remain a unionized faction?
3. Why is Pei determined that Ji Shen get an education rather than immediately become a domestic servant? How does this put a strain on their relationship?
4. Pei first goes to work for a Chinese family, which ends in disgrace. She then goes to work for an English woman, Mrs. Finch, whom she grows to love. What are some of the distinctions in each household and how does Pei cope in each?
5. Discuss how Pei, Ji Shen, and Mrs. Finch become a tight-knit family of their home despite social differences.
6. Discuss Mrs. Finch's internment at Stanley camp. How did they function within the camp? How do Pei and Ji Shen make her imprisonment more comfortable?
7. Ji Shen becomes involved with a man named Lock and the black market in Hong Kong during the occupation. In what ways does Pei try to get her out of it? Does she succeed?
8. Why do you think Pei refuses Lin's brother Ho Yung's offer of marriage?
9. After the war and Mrs. Finch's death, Pei becomes an invisible mender or seamstress rather than returning to work as a domestic servant. How does her new business turn her life around?
10. Pei's friend Lin remains a powerful memory throughout the book. The past is never far from her mind. How does the bond between her and Pei change the way Pei lives her life?

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