The inspiration for Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky (Flatiron, Apr. 2022), was a marker her father saw on a road in Idaho. It was at a site where five Chinese people, charged with “hacking a prominent local merchant to pieces,” were hanged by vigilantes on Sept. 18, 1885. Zhang recalls her father saying to her, “You’re a writer. Can you write a story about it?”
Zhang’s story of Chinese immigrants in the American West is told through the voice of Daiyu, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped from a fish market in China in 1883 and smuggled to a brothel in San Francisco in a coal-filled bucket. To survive in America, she assumes different identities, escaping the brothel of Madam Lee with the help of Samuel, her young friend and patron, to work in the mines in Idaho, where she masquerades as a boy. Daiyu’s journey of self-discovery is set against the travails of the exclusionary laws and racist sentiment confronting early Chinese immigrants.
Zhang, 31, explains that she wanted to relate this history in a way that would appeal emotionally without being didactic. Born in China, she grew up in Austin, Tex., and Oxford, Miss. “I didn’t know this history,” she says. “I learned about the Exclusion Act late in my education, but what stayed with me when I was researching was that they smuggled Chinese girls and women into America confined in buckets filled with coal.”
Zhang was in the MFA program in nonfiction at the University of Wyoming writing personal essays—notably a column for Catapult magazine titled “Why-oming,” which according to the website “explores life as a woman of color in Wyoming, one of the whitest and loneliest places in the United States.” But in her last semester, in 2019, she took a novel-writing course and had the idea to explore the 1885 lynching that her father had told her about. “I was in conversations with agents, sending linked stories, but the interest was in a novel,” she recalls. “Teachers and colleagues have always called my short stories ‘sprawling’ so maybe, I thought, I was meant to write novels.”
Agent Stephanie Delman was a reader of Zhang’s column, loved her voice, and in spring 2019 reached out to ask if she had anything book length. “Jenny answered that she was working on a historical novel, which was better news than I expected because I represent more fiction than nonfiction,” Delman says. “The book was about reclaiming the West and my interest was piqued. She sent the first 90 pages, and I was knocked out.” (After 10 years at Sanford J. Greenburger, Delman opened her own agency, Trellis, in October 2021, with Michelle Brower and Allison Hunter. She was able to take Zhang and Four Treasures with her. SJGA retained foreign rights to the book.)
Originally, Zhang says, she had imagined a book with several voices, but Delman suggested staying with the voice of Daiyu, adding, “Why don’t you revise, and let’s touch base?”
Zhang tells me, “My mom had said the same thing. My mom is kind of my guiding light. I have instant trust in mom and I chose Stephanie as an agent because I had that same kind of inherent trust in her from our first interaction. I was getting offers for representation from everyone, but realized that Stephanie’s feedback was right. It’s important to have a good relationship with your agent and Stephanie and I are so compatible.”
In October 2019, Zhang sent back a revision and signed with Delman the next month based on a partial manuscript. Then, Delman recalls, “she disappeared!”
Zhang surfaced with a full first draft in summer 2020, then “immediately went to the woods for 10 days with no cellphone, no internet,” Delman says. “I read the draft right away and was dying to talk to her. I had to remind myself that this was my client, that I was not just reading a great book. I couldn’t believe it was a first draft and a debut.”
Delman realized that “Jenny is the kind of writer who needs to go away.” She says that as soon as Zhang resurfaced, she “pounced on her” and told her she wanted to go out with the manuscript in September.
“Jenny is so humble,” Delman says, “and couldn’t believe it was ready, but I was so excited I didn’t even wait until Labor Day. I sent it out in late August.”
Delman’s plan was to submit widely, but she had been speaking with a few editors. One of them was Flatiron senior editor Caroline Bleeke. “We’ve known each other since we were baby assistants,” Delman says. “I know her taste, knew she would love this, and I always wanted to do a book with her.”
While more than 20 editors received Four Treasures, Delman gave Bleeke a 24-hour head start. Bleeke says she got the manuscript in the morning and that night sent a long email to Delman raving about it and letting her know that she was mobilizing her team. “I told her not to move without me,” Bleeke recalls.
The character of Daiyu pulled Bleeke in from the very first line: “When I am kidnapped,” Zhang writes, “it does not happen in an alleyway. It does not happen in the middle of the night. It does not happen when I am alone.”
Zhang’s prose continues with this intense beauty even as the violence and abuse mount, until the very end when she writes, “Let your story be yours, and my story be mine.”
Bleeke moved quickly. She says she spoke with Zhang to make sure they were on the same page editorially and loved her. “Jenny’s novel is an adventure story,” she adds. “The freshness and urgency is exciting and it felt original as historical fiction, a trace of our history that we haven’t seen. There were scenes I could not get out of my head: Daiyu crossing the ocean... It’s so powerful.”
Flatiron’s publisher, Megan Lynch, read the manuscript overnight, and they quickly put the deal together. North American rights were sold in a preempt in the high six figures, according to Delman. Four Treasures also “got a nice preempt” in the U.K. from Jillian Taylor at Penguin Michael Joseph, she adds, and has sold in eight other territories.
“Whatever Jenny is writing about, and she’s covered topics from karaoke to weight lifting, there is a reverence that wakes you up as a reader,” Delman says.
With the voice of a young girl, Zhang has written a sensitive and moving story, alerting us to a neglected and unknown part of American history.