A rogue elephant named the Gravedigger is the main narrator of “The Tusk That Did the Damage” (Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $24.95), Tania James’ imaginative novel exploring the ivory trade in the forests of south India. Orphaned at birth by a poacher, the Gravedigger seeks revenge for his mother’s death, killing humans he encounters in his attacks and then tenderly burying them.
James, author of the acclaimed “Aerogrammes” and “Atlas of Unknowns,” discovered the intriguing subject of her second novel after reading a book describing a real-life man-killing elephant, driven by deforestation to hunger and madness. Delving into further research, she discovered two other voices: Manu, the younger brother of poacher Jayan, and Emma, a 23-year-old documentary filmmaker, whose narration of the novel weaves in with those of the Gravedigger.
Jung Chang’s new biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) recounts the remarkable life of China’s Empress Cixi (1835-1908), who ruled China for 47 years and helped bring it into the modern age. (Interview on Asia Society blog)
What attracted you to the Empress Dowager as a subject?
I first got interested in her when I was researching Wild Swans. I realized it was she who banned foot binding. I had thought, somehow, foot binding was banned by the Communists because that was what my education told me. So that got me interested. And then, you know, after I wrote Wild Swans, after I wrote Mao: The Unknown Story, when friends suggested writing about the Empress Dowager, I looked her up on the Web and I found that her reputation was as bad as, you know, my brainwashing days when I was in China. The little bit I knew about her was completely different than her reputation. That made me feel that I could find new materials and have new ideas. I don’t want to write things that everybody agrees on. In other words, there is controversy about her — I like that.