In 1928, American journalist and activist Agnes Smedley left the United States for Shanghai. Rising quickly and travelling widely, she soon became the top correspondent on the Chinese Civil War for the Western world.
Author Marlene Lee explores Smedley's life in her new novel No Certain Home, published by Holland House this month. She focuses on her experiences throughout her time in Northwest China; it is believed that she was the only Westerner living amongst the Chinese Red Army.
I spoke to the author about her process of writing this novel.
Tell me about Agnes Smedley and why she interests you.
Like Agnes, I feel like an outsider and can identify with her. She interests me because she turned her personal weaknesses and unfavorable circumstances into useful work wherever she was. Her limited education (she dropped out of school at age 10) only spurred her to educate herself informally all of her life and to become a world-class journalist in demand not only for her writings but for her speeches about twentieth-century China. Her challenges to the status quo were sufficient to attract the interest of the American FBI and, earlier, British intelligence. All of this from the daughter of a Missouri tenant farmer/alcoholic coal miner! Agnes Smedley never forgot her origins among the underprivileged.
How did your research influence your writing?
My research, both reading and travel, allowed me to see Agnes in context. Because I visited Milan (Missouri), Trinidad (Colorado), Tempe (Arizona), San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Berlin, Truro (Denmark), and Shanghai, Xian, and Yen'an in China, I could write scenes that brought the facts of her life into vivid, fictional reality. She lived so many lives in so many locations! Following her through research was a breathtaking experience for me and put me in touch with the world, both outer and inner, that she inhabited.
What are your hopes for the book?
I'd like for readers to appreciate Agnes Smedley. She has almost been forgotten, and she deserves to be remembered because of her progressive activities furthering social and gender justice. Maybe readers of No Certain Home will think harder about how we view the weak and the poor among us. I'd like for people to know more about China's history, too. And I want people to enjoy Agnes' personality as well as the book itself!
No Certain Home is available now on our website.