Monday, August 20, 2012


Hello, world.

I have been thinking how, since the dawn of civilization,  women have always been the throw-aways of war. Victims of rape, kidnap,  murder.  Ironically, as man became more 'civilized,' the throw-aways came to include anyone outside the tribe whose language, or skin-color, varied from the accepted  norm.  In my new novel,  THE SPY LOVER,  about the American Civil War,  I address the issue of racism, especially toward Chinese soldiers,  in both the Confederate and the Union Army.

In that War,  men and women 'of color,' nurses as well as soldiers,  were always the last of the wounded to be carried from the battlefield. And they were the last, if ever, to be treated by medics.  In my research for THE SPY LOVER, I discovered that white orderlies in field-hospitals (usually huge complexes of filthy tents) referred to soldiers of color as 'skins.'  'Redskins' (in those days referred to as Indians) 'Yellowskins' (Chinese) and  'Brownskins' (in those days  referred to  as Negroes.)

 Unless their wounds were superficial, these 'skins' were usually left to die unattended. My Chinese uncle, Ayau Kam,  used to talk about his ancestor from China, who emigrated to Hawaii, then the U.S. mainland.  When the War started,  this ancestor, John Tommy Kam,  had enlisted at Staten Island, New York,  and fought valiantly for the Union Army, after being promised U.S. citizenship if the North won the War.

One of the many little-known facts about the American Civil War is that fifty-two Chinese are documented as having served in that War, fighting for the Union side as well as the Confederacy.  It is astonishing to me that, until now,  no book has been written about these incredibly brave soldiers, fighting for a country that essentially scorned them.  Many were immigrants who arrived in ports like Charleston and New Orleans,  then gathered in small farm settlements up and down the Mississippi River.  With no women of their own available, they intermarried with Creole women, Native Americans and African Americans,  and produced broods of beautiful,  mixed-blood children.

When the War began, some of them were  kidnapped by the Confederate Army and forced to fight for the South. Many defected to the Union Army, rather than fight for slavery.  In real life, John Tommy Kam was believed to have perished at the Battle of Gettysburg.  But other Chinese soldiers survived the War.  And when it was over,  the  U.S. government  broke its promise, refusing these  brave soldiers U.S. citizenship and the pensions they were due.  They were unilaterally cast off.  Forgotten.

The hope was that they would go back to China, and leave America 'pure.'  Instead, the following decades saw a great influx of Chinese immigrants  into America, fleeing their own country which for thirty years had been engaged in its own civil war (that reportedly cost 30,000,000 lives.)

Chinese laborers  helped build America,  they laid most of the tracks for the first railroads going east to west and west to east.  During that time they died in the thousands  of fever, starvation, outright murder. Their bones are buried beneath those tracks. Still, more Chinese immigrants arrived.  They proved to be hard-working,  honest, and - with a shortage of their own women - continued intermarrying with white women and every other available race,  and proved to be  excellent husbands and fathers.

Their  growing numbers, hard work and perseverance threatened white America. Just as they had been denied citizenship after the Civil War,  anti-Asian sentiment grew, culminating in the Naturalization Act of 1870, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (both enforced by the U.S. government until 1943!)  And worse, Americans reacted to their growing numbers with the heinous Chinese Massacres that spread across America in the 1870's, 80's, and 90's.

Even after the slaughter of Chinese was made illegal, punishable by imprisonment,  it continued  in the back alleys of cities where they were creating their own small  Chinatowns.  Astonishingly, it continued until 1965 when all restrictions on national origin and race were abolished. ( Still it continues in these United States: the demonizing and victimizing of each new immigrant group.)

  But, what of the brave Chinese heroes of the American Civil War? Those who perished, and those who survived?  Were they ever to be  officially acknowledged? Only in April, 2003,  was  the House Joint Resolution #45 introduced to Congress, to posthumously proclaim all U.S. Civil War  soldiers of Chinese descent to be honorary citizens of the United States, in recognition of their  honorable services.  But, their pensions were denied to their descendants.  2003.  One hundred and thirty-eight years later.

In the course of five long years of research and the writing of THE SPY LOVER,  I discovered the war records of John Tommy from Canton China,  and Hawaii. (Along the way he had dropped the name 'Kam,' perhaps to sound more American. In the novel I renamed him Johnny Tom.)  His records show  he had  fought in six different battles with the famed New York Excelsior Brigade.  He had also suffered long, debilitating  months in two different  prisoner-of-war camps.  He had  saved lives, and was promoted to corporal. He fought valiantly, and perished at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In time, I found John Tommy's place of burial in  the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park, amongst the 'unidentifiable' soldiers of the New York Excelsior Brigade who died at the Battle of Gettysburg.  This man who had no country, no family to mourn him, and who died 'unidentifiable' is  at peace with his comrades.

 I have laid flowers there  for John Tommy.  For all of them.  And I have written this novel, THE SPY LOVER, to memorialize him, and to memorialize  another ancestor, Warren Rowan Davenport, who fought for the Confederacy.  In the end, I believe I wrote this  book to memorialize  all the valiant boys of the North and South who perished, many who were too young to shave.

I hold the novel in my hand,  and think of an old Chinese proverb:
"War has always been the same.  Old men talking, young men dying."

  I hope you are moved by THE SPY LOVER.  Thank you.

Friday, August 3, 2012


Hello, world.

At last.  THE SPY LOVER, my long-awaited U.S. Civil War novel will finally be published!  I am happy to announce that it will be available on August 28, on Amazon.  Being half Native-Hawaiian and living mostly in the islands, my novels and story collections have always been set in the Pacific, so a novel about the U.S Civil War is a brand new departure for me. Why such a radical change?  Because THE SPY LOVER is based on my family history. A story waiting to be told.

  My mother, Emma Kealoha Awa'awa Kanoho Houghtailing  was a full-blooded Native Hawaiian, while my father, Braxton Bragg Davenport, was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Anglo-American from Talladega, Alabama.  (So I am part-native, part-Southern redneck.)  For years my Alabama cousins have urged me to write about our ancestor, Warren Rowan Davenport, a cavalryman who rode for the Confederacy in the Civil War with a famous unit known as the Prattville Dragoons, out of Prattville, Alabama.

 They fought and died valiantly in the bloody battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Vicksburg and many other battles. Those who survived, including Warren, eventually served under General "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler, the indomitable Confederate cavalry leader who drove his men to many victories, in spite of being wounded repeatedly and having seventeen horses shot out from under him. ( Wheeler was only 5'4" tall, but he was called a giant in the saddle.)

  Thus, I began my research on Warren Davenport, which would eventually entail reading over forty books on the Civil War.  During this time, my  Hawaiian cousins reminded me of our late Chinese uncle, Ayau Kam, Sr., who had often talked about HIS ancestor, John Tommy Kam, who had emigrated from Canton, China, to Hawaii, and finally to the East coast of the United States.  In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, he had enlisted at Staten Island, New York, as a fighting soldier with the Union Army, after being promised U.S. citizenship if the North won the War.

I had at my disposal old tattered correspondences and documents  from Warren Davenport,  but there was nothing in writing from John Tommy (who had  dropped "Kam,"  perhaps to sound more American), only Uncle Ayau's vague stories of his ancestor, handed down through the generations, who had fought with the Union Army. But in the course of researching and writing THE SPY LOVER,  I uncovered  articles about  Chinese soldiers who had fought in our Civil War.

Two of the articles were about John Tommy, from Canton, China, and Hawaii, a brave soldier who hardly spoke English, yet  fought valiantly in many battles, including Gettysburg,  saved comrades lives, was promoted to corporal, and  imprisoned twice by the Confederates.  Eventually I uncovered his war records, and the grounds at Gettysburg where he is buried among the 'unknowns' with his comrades of the famous New York Excelsior Brigade.  I have even laid flowers there for him.

And so in my novel, his character was resurrected as Johnny Tom, who serves with the Union Army. And my ancestor, Warren Davenport,  was resurrected as the Confederate cavalryman, Warren Rowan Petticomb.  There is a third and pivotal character in the novel, a woman named  Era, born out of my imagination. A beautiful part-Cherokee, part-Chinese woman who searches for her father, Johnny, in the carnage of war.  Era is patterned on a nurse who tended Warren Davenport,  after he was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.

 In his  correspondence,s there were hints that the nurse, whom he fell in love with, had suddenly disappeared from the  hospital where she was tending Confederate wounded.  It had been rumored that she was a Union spy, and fled for  fear of being detected. In the novel the character, Era, lured into spying for the North while searching for her father, becomes torn by her love for Warren Petticomb. Still, she is forced to flee.

Warren Davenport  wrote of spending the post-War years  searching for this nurse he loved, eventually following her trail across America and up into in the Pacific Northwest Territories where so many Chinese men and women fled to, during the Chinese Massacres of the 1870's and 80's.  I do not know the ending of their story.  So here, I took authorial license with the novel.  I will not spoil it for readers.  

Sometimes writers gets so entrenched in a book, so buried in great themes of war and love and loyalties, we lose our way.  I did.  So I fell back on research, digging and delving, looking for clues and answers.  Research is seductive. You read and while away the days, the months, and ignore the  half-finished novel palpitating in the dark. Years passed as I delved deeper, discovering aspects of the War that I hoped would fascinate readers.  I read about Southern women collecting urine from which to distill niter for making gunpowder. And I read of the planting and harvesting of poppies, the scoring and gathering from  poppy pods the sap known as opium. I researched how opium was dried and mixed with chemicals and pressed into powdered tablets for the Confederate wounded when the South ran out of medicine.

Next,  I researched  books on spy-codes used in the War, what spies were paid, and how they were executed when caught by the enemy. I  researched the colloquialisms  of the South,  the vernacular of  the mid-1800s,  the language of prostitutes, and fighting men, and dying men. And on, and on. Now you know why THE SPY LOVER took five years to complete.  In the end I forgot how to hold conversations, unless they were about the Civil War. I lived and breathed the War, it engulfed my life.

Eventually, I slogged my way back into the actual writing of the book, and scenes and characters became real, thanks to the research I had done. When I finally reached the end, I was then shackled through twenty-four mind-numbing rewrites of the novel.  Every page. Every word.  I worked and slept in a metaphorical sweatsuit. I dreamed of Shiloh and Chickamauga and woke in the dark, hearing wounded soldiers crying out.  I wept for the women who were raped and slaughtered in that War, and for  the brave nurses who perished from soldiers' diseases. And I wept for the wounded soldiers known as 'skins' -  redskins, yellowskins, brownskins - who were carried last from the battlefields, then ignored and left to die unattended.  

I never planned to write an historical novel, or a love story, or a spy thriller, or a story about how brave Chinese  soldiers were used as throw-aways in the Civil War. I simply set out to tell the story of my ancestors, who fought on opposing sides of that War.  But as the book grew bigger and deeper (at one point,  1200 pages) I felt less and less confident. I wasn't sure who I was writing for. There were days when I wondered if there would be ANY readers for the book.  But there were better days, when I felt that the book would cause the RIGHT readers to materialize. Readers who cared about loyalty and love, moral choices, and redemption.

 I even began to believe that THE SPY LOVER might  alter the nerves and marrow of  readers because of  the naked horror of the War,  the unfathomable sacrifices, brother slaughtering brother,  the rampant racism, and inconceivable grief of women who were left to bury their dead.  But mostly I wanted to believe  that readers would hold the book to their hearts because the quality of the writing astonished them.  Thus do authors live on illusions,  believing  that the book we are working on is the best thing we have ever written, and that possibly it will change people's lives. Writers are children, eternal dreamers.  Dreams are our redemption.

I  sincerely hope you enjoy THE SPY LOVER!

Thank you!