Yay for book releases! Boo Covid-19!
Rumors from Shanghai tells the story of an American lawyer who goes to Shanghai in late 1940 because as a Black man, he cannot find work in his profession in the Pacific Northwest. There, just as has been true for countless others since the 1840’s when the British kicked off Shanghai’s transformation from an unimportant backwater to international-crossroads-meets-modern-metropolis lifeforce, he finds ample opportunity to explore his talents and relish the delights on offer for those with money in the “Paris of the East.’
Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen
“This is a story about the gifts that come with cultural exchange, the perils of refusing them, and what it’s like to lose them. An African American businessman finds freedom and respect in a city where money rules over race. His cosmopolitan life in Shanghai includes nights on the town with his beloved friends from China and Japan. As nationalism and war draw ever closer, the group’s public embrace of equality puts them in peril. By deftly shaping historical details, Amy Sommers has written a story for our precarious times.”
Stories in books are told by words, but for me, images are often a catalyst for thinking about story. In the case of Rumors, images that I first saw many years before I began writing somehow became lodged in my mind, resurfacing as I imagined the events leading up to the tragic loss of life on a beautiful Sunday morning in Honolulu on December 7, 1941.
When I started law school, the University of Washington’s law library had a version of this picture of early graduates:
My class of 150 students was almost exclusively white, so the fact that the University of Washington School of Law had a Black man in its second graduating class was intriguing.
Who was this man and what happened to him? More about that below...
Years later, Seattle Times Sunday magazine ran a Paul Dorpat article in his “Seattle: Now and Then” feature which included this reference:
Bill Gross not only gave Moran a breakfast on credit, but according to this 1902 article he offered the broke Moran a job at his restaurant, then found him a job cooking at a logging camp.
Seattle was where I grew up and was educated, but never had I heard of its early Black residents. The history I was taught focused on Native Americans and White Settlers, with an occasional reference to immigrants from Asia. When I looked into William (Bill) Gross (or Grose), I discovered he had been the second Black resident of Seattle, a successful entrepreneur and real estate developer. Before settling in Seattle, he himself had had extensive adventures in Asia, working on U.S. naval ships. When Gross died, he was among the wealthiest people in Seattle.
After 9/11, news reported that warnings of a potential attack had been received by U.S. authorities, but ignored. I wondered if there was a historical precedent. It turned out there was: in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. America’s political and military leaders’ hubris and bigotry led to their pooh-poohing the possibility of life-threatening danger from the myopic, technologically inferior Japanese (as
Americans then conceived of them).
I set out to write a historical fiction thriller that imagines a protagonist inspired by the man from the early UW law school class, William McDonald Austin, who as the imagined grandson of Bill Gross has received an education and opportunities rarely afforded at that time to African Americans. Unable to find work as a lawyer in Seattle, he heads to Asia to manage the operations of a successful businessman in the mold of Robert Moran, who owed his start in Seattle to the good offices of Bill Gross.
Long after I began writing my manuscript, I discovered what had happened to Austin after completing law school. From BlackPast.org, the stellar site founded by University of Washington Professor Emeritus Quintard Taylor, I learned that Austin passed the bar exam with a highly satisfactory score, However, he could find no open doors to work as a lawyer in Seattle and had in fact crossed the Pacific Ocean to seek work as a lawyer in the Philippines. Of course, these real events occurred in the 19th and early the 20th century, but Rumors from Shanghai takes place a few decades later.
In the course of my research, I learned more about African Americans engaging with Asia between World Wars l and 11. Most discussions of American expatriate experience in Asia (both historically and today) focus on white people, so the extent and quality of these undertakings by African Americans fascinated me. I’ve just written an essay for BlackPast.org about that topic and will link to it when it becomes available.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about threads that Rumors from Shanghai weaves together to tell the story of Tolt and his friends, including:
Seattle’s perch as a jumping-off spot to Asia that made it a connection point for influences from and to Asia;
Republican-era Shanghai -- brutal as life was there for so many -- as a place for reinvention and realization;
How since the 19th century, African Americans have realized their ambitions by engaging in intrepid adventure overseas in ways too often ignored;
How Asia has offered a fruitful field for those of African descent in pursuit of their dreams and contributing their talents; and
How bigotry prevented America from realizing the risk it faced in 1940 (a tendency I would argue is sadly still with us).
I’m so grateful to the many people who helped make my dream of publishing this story come to be, particularly Earnshaw Books. Stay tuned to read more about the real events that inspired aspects of Rumors from Shanghai.