There’s nothing that takes you out of your own time more than stepping into another time,” Gail Tsukiyama says via Zoom from her home in El Cerrito, Calif., which boasts views of San Francisco Bay. “I’ve always thought there was something romantic about historical fiction—about seeing how people lived and worked, how they brought us to where we are.”

Tsukiyama is the author of eight works of historical fiction, all focused on the Chinese and Japanese experience. Her latest, The Brightest Star (HarperVia, June), is about the pioneering 20th-century actor Anna May Wong, considered to be the first Asian American Hollywood film star.

This was Tsukiyama’s first time writing about a real person, and the experience was a bit intimidating. “It was fun—and frightening!” she admits. “Anna May Wong left footprints in the world, and I wanted to do her justice, to show her as a flesh-and-blood human, someone who climbed over barriers against the odds.”

Born in San Francisco, Tsukiyama was raised by a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawaii. She was a quiet child, unlike the flamboyant Wong, who left school as a teenager to pursue acting. Tsukiyama’s novel is a nuanced study of Wong’s life, with a focus on her career—particularly her fight to be taken seriously by a racist industry that typecast Asian performers—and on her relationship with her traditional Chinese family, including a father who likened acting to prostitution.

“I empathized with and understood Anna May Wong,” Tsukiyama says. “I don’t know if another writer who wasn’t Asian, who hadn’t grown up in the culture, would understand the stress she was under.”

Tsukiyama was inspired to write her book after watching the series Killing Eve. “Not all writers are deep,” she jokes. “While watching the show, I was thinking about how wonderful it was that Sandra Oh was the lead, and that it could’ve been a role for any actress—and that’s what you want. And that got me thinking about Anna May Wong. She was a trailblazer, the first one to say, ‘I’m an Asian actress, hire me.’ ”

Tara Parsons, Tsukiyama’s editor at HarperVia, praises Tsukiyama for her ability to bring Wong’s world to life through fiction. “This book has the hallmarks of what Gail is so amazing at,” Parsons says. “You can picture the time that you’re in—the smells, the sounds, the sights. She puts you there. She’s a beautifully evocative writer.”

Joy Harris, Tsukiyama’s agent, says The Brightest Star gives readers a chance to delve meaningfully into Wong’s story. “You really feel like you’re hearing Anna May Wong’s voice,” she notes. “You’re hearing about her determination and terrible disappointments. This book will allow people to connect with her, to see the racism of that time. You can’t help but understand the difficulties of this woman’s life when you read it.”

Tsukiyama has been amplifying Asian voices throughout her career, and her new novel offers an intimate look at what made the original Chinese American film star tick. “Anna May Wong was the first, and it’s important for readers to know that—to understand how hard it was and still is,” she says. “Her life is a great story in itself, but it goes beyond what she did, it’s how it reverberates. I feel lucky that I can take that story and hopefully keep it going.”

Gail Tsukiyama will sign ARCs of The Brightest Star at the evening author reception on Feb. 22, 5–6 p.m., in Hall 4B.

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