Bestselling Author Explores Cultural Intersections
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:08
Jennifer Cody Epstein ’88
Asian Languages and Civilizations major Epstein always had a special interest in exploring different cultures.

What do you expect when you pick up a piece of historical fiction? A story about a young Revolutionary War soldier rubbing shoulders with George Washington or an aspiring female actress desperate to appear in one of Shakespeare’s plays? Novels set in well-known historical moments such as these are popular and engaging, but rarely do these works of fiction look beyond our own Euro-centric culture. It’s rare to find novelists who can create protagonists and situations that explore the intersection between the East and the West in a meaningful way.

Jennifer Cody Epstein ’88 is such a writer. She is the author of the 2008 international bestseller “Painter of Shanghai” and 2013’s “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.” Though she’s always had an interest in writing, Epstein’s liberal arts education was what enabled her to think critically, while writing poetically.

Early Explorations

Epstein was born in Connecticut but moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts at the age of three along with her younger and older brothers (both Amherst alumni in the classes of ’83 and ’93). She moved quietly through the Wellesley public school system, where she displayed an appetite for reading.

“I pretty much passed unnoticed,” Epstein said. “I was one of those kids who constantly had their face buried in a book.” Perhaps her most defining feature in those early years was that she was the self-described “worst player ever in the town soccer league — perpetually benched, even on the remedial-level team.”

But Epstein kept busy with her own pursuits.

“I wrote a lot of little things from the time I could write at all. I was obsessed with making ‘books’ with tape, paper and cardboard,” Epstein recalled.

Her fondest memory during those years involved a 12-page story she wrote about a magic swing set. This early work was chosen for her middle school’s “author’s corner,” earning her the honor of having her story and a “broody black-and-white headshot of me and my Dorothy Hamill haircut” stapled to the principal’s door.

That magic swing set continually inspired her. “Seeing my work out in public like that, and being read by fellow students and faculty pretty much confirmed for me that this was what I wanted to do in life,” Epstein said.

At Amherst, she continued to write. Embodying the spirit of the liberal arts, Epstein used her writing to not only tell stories but also to challenge controversial ideas. As features editor for The Amherst Student, she had the autonomy to engage with the cultural issues on campus she wanted to tackle.

“Amherst was the first place that I started writing seriously in a way that wasn’t just compositional for high school English classes. I could take on controversial stances, like race and gender, that I hadn’t taken on before,” Epstein said.

An Asian Languages and Civilizations major with a concentration in Japan, Epstein’s interest in Asian culture began from a simple desire to study abroad. Her father had done business in Kyoto and encouraged her to take Japanese. Despite the complexity of the language, she never looked back, and eventually had the opportunity to engage with her studies first-hand during a semester abroad in Kyoto her junior year. She described her experience as the beginning of a “life long passion for how cultures are constantly changing, merging in some ways and diverging in other ways.”

Inspired by her struggle to read literary texts in their original Japanese, Epstein’s senior thesis focused on the portrayal of Japanese women in English translations of Japanese works. This interest in the intersection and sometimes collision of cultures was a precursor for her career writing historical fiction.

“There’s always a dynamic between the two cultures. In the case of my thesis, it was very academic and very cerebral. In the case of my first book, it was really exploring how that interaction really took on very palpable results in terms of people’s arts and in terms of basic culture,” Epstein said.

Cultural Cultivations

Epstein was awarded the Amherst-Doshisha Fellowship during her senior year. This allowed her to travel back to Kyoto after graduation, where she taught two classes at Doshisha University.

“I was able to meet so many fascinating people at Doshisha,” she recalled. The experience continued to fuel her fascination with how cultures came together and actively shaped each other.

“Throughout the whole university network in Kyoto, I felt there was a really fantastic meeting of the minds,” she said.
In September 1999, Epstein pursued her passion for writing by enrolling in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Columbia University. During orientation, she felt an immediate connection with fellow student and now lifelong friend Hillary Jordan, one of only two self-described “middle-aged women” in the program.

Jordan remembers how crucial they were to each other’s development and sanity during that time. “In grad school, you’re getting comments from about 11 different people who are all over the map. Jen was great for putting things into perspective, and that’s something that we continually do for each other,” Jordan said.

Today, Jordan continues to admire the life Epstein breathes, not only into her protagonists, but into other cultures in other times.

“Her writing is driven by character, by humanity and her desire to illuminate our common humanity through characters,” Jordan said.

Epstein’s 2008 debut novel, “The Painter from Shanghai,” featured a protagonist based in reality. In the novel, Epstein paints her own fictionalized portrait of the life of Chinese painter Pan Yulian in the early 20th century. Yulian began her life as a prostitute and ended up as a well-regarded post-impressionist painter in Paris.

“She was somebody who was really at the crux of these two contradictory cultures and found a way to meld them in her art,” Epstein said.

Her second book, 2013’s “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment,” shifted her focus from art to war. Setting her novel during the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo at the hands of U.S. forces, Epstein uses her characters to explore the ways in which we dehumanize those who belong to different cultures. She asks the reader how we can rationalize devastating acts of cruelty on both sides.

“What I was exploring in ‘Gods’ was this myth or this fable that the Japanese were simply these monsters who committed inhumane atrocities while we were simply heroic,” Epstein said. “The firebombing of Tokyo killed several thousand civilians in the space of a few hours with one of the first uses of napalm, pretty much untested at the time.”
Asian Languages and Civilizations Professor Samuel Morse, who taught Epstein during her time at Amherst, has nothing but praise for Epstein’s cultural critiques in “Gods.”

“Her descriptions of the destruction are eloquent, but also very graphic, and I have a hard time reading them out loud to my classes — which I often do when I teach 20th-century Japanese art — without choking up,” Morse said.
Moving west, Epstein’s next book takes place in Germany during the lead-up to World War II. At the intersection of German and Jewish culture, she will explore how anti-Semitism took root at the beginning of the Nazi regime and led to the eradication of a society.

“At the beginning, it was a very small thing, something people didn’t take seriously. [That] it started in a small way and then went on to have dire horrific implications is both fascinating and horrific because even this dramatic example can happen again. There are a lot of lessons to be learned in that,” Epstein said.

Aside from her writing, Epstein applies her perceptive lens to editing. She and Jordan constantly provide feedback for each other’s works and offer fresh perspectives.

“Her strength is really in looking at the tapestry of a novel and saying where it looks rich and where it looks thinner,” Jordan said.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Epstein’s writing process is the very beginning. To truly explore other cultures and their intersection with our own, Epstein channels her inner historian. With a degree in Asian studies and international relations, she feels an obligation to provide a relevant and clear window into a different time.

“I could keep reading about them forever and discover these fascinating points in time but at some point you have to stop and just write the damn book,” Epstein said.

A self-proclaimed “avid reader,” Epstein admits that she can’t point to a particular influence.

“That’s like asking someone to say which ancestor they’re most genetically indebted to. I feel that we’re all a product of different pairings,” Epstein said.

Her Own Homecoming

Now working on her third book, Epstein lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Michael Epstein, her two daughters and a lovable, if needy, springer spaniel.

“It’s hard to imagine another place a writer would want to live than Brooklyn,” Epstein said. She compared the literary environment of Brooklyn to that of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s.

“In other parts of the city, saying that you’re writing a book can be a conversation stopper,” she said. “There’s just a ton of creativity and a tremendous place to be to meet other people trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do and frankly not feel like a freak.”

Ultimately, Epstein sees Amherst as her home and influence. Though her husband pokes fun at its size and elitism (both points she concedes), Epstein argues that the school’s small size makes it far easier to keep a connection to a place that welcomes her back openly, warmly and eagerly. “Whenever I come back, there’s this sense of homecoming for me,” she said.