Balancing on the Hyphen: AAPI Identity & Nationalism in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series

The Age of Revolutions has always fascinated me. After I first learned about the French Revolution as a child, I promptly decapitated my Princess Jasmine Barbie for crimes against the Republic. (My mother screwed her head back on, thus allowing Princess Jasmine to elude revolutionary justice.) This time period, roughly 1774-1849, encompasses some of the greatest shifts in Western thinking, and transformations of Europe and its colonies so seismic that, when asked about the influence of the French Revolution, former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is purported to have replied, “It’s too early to say .”

But for all these dramatic changes, these great increases of rights for the common man and citizen, the expanded world of the age of sail, it is one of the most whitewashed periods of history in contemporary culture. Period pieces—and the fantasies inspired by them—are pale as debutant’s white muslin gown. In the days before Hamilton suggested that people of color could own and be interested in the American Revolution as much as white students, I had the same historical vision of this time period as a 1950s Republican Senator. I had a vague understanding that the Indian muslins and Chinese silks Jane Austen characters wore had to come from somewhere, but someone like me, a mixed race kid with a Chinese mother and a white American father? I didn’t belong there. There was no place for me in this history.

Enter Tenzing Tharkay, from Naomi Novik’s alternate history Temeraire series.

And he has an amazing entrance in Black Powder War:

[A Chinese servant] was gently but with complete firmness being pressed aside by another Oriental man, dressed in a padded jacket and a round, domed hat rising above a thick roll of dark wool’ the stranger’s clothing was dusty and stained yellow in paces, and not much like the usual native dress, and on his gauntleted hand perched an angry-looking eagle, brown and golden feathers ruffled up and a yellow eye glaring; it clacked its beak and shifted its perch uneasily, great talons puncturing the heavy block of padding.

When they had stared at him and he at them in turn, the stranger further astonished the room by saying, in pure drawing-room accents, “I beg your pardon, gentlemen, for interrupting your dinner; my errand cannot wait. Is Captain William Laurence here?”

The Temeraire series poses the question, “What if the Napoleonic Wars included dragons?” and then sends its heroes careening across the globe to see how the introduction of dragons has changed each country and the worldwide balance of power. Black Powder War sees British Captain William Laurence, his Chinese dragon Temeraire, and his British crew end a diplomatic mission in China and head to Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs purchased by the British government from the Ottoman Empire. Tharkay, their guide to Istanbul across Central Asia, is half-Nepalese, half-white, and all sarcastic humor. I instantly loved him. I had never before seen another half-Asian person in anything set during the Age of Revolutions. He provided, as I joked to another Asian-American friend of mine, a sort of “cravat identification,” where for the first time I could see where I might fit into the time period I so loved to read about. Tharkay even points out the “endless slights and whispers not quite hidden behind my back,” he endures from white Britons, and explains that he prefers to provoke it, finding it easier to live with “a little open suspicion, freely expressed, than [to] meekly endure” an onslaught of microaggressions so very close to the ones I well knew. Tharkay is particularly bitter about the distrust with which white, British society views him, and so decides to provoke it, and pull it out into the open. When asked if he likes to be doubted, Tharkay replies, “You may say rather, that I like to know if I am doubted; and you will not be far wrong.”

To be mixed race Asian and white—in my own personal experience, with all the gendered, temporal, and class-based differences implied—is to exist in a state of continual distrust, but continual ambiguity. When “What are you?” is at the top of your FAQs, it’s difficult not to engage with the existential uncertainty it implies. Certainly, some people distrust your answer as soon as you give it, but it is less a matter of someone assuming you are untrustworthy, than someone paternalistically assuming they know who you are better than you know yourself. For me, at least, mixed race identity is a tightrope act balanced on the hyphen of your demographic information, when it isn’t some kind of Zen koan. Are you Asian, or are you American? Are you both, or neither, or some of each, or something else entirely?

The pandemic has me thinking differently about Tharkay’s response. As John Cho recently pointed out, Asian-American belonging is conditional. The doubt that Tharkay deliberately provokes does exist—just in a different form than Novik presents in Black Powder War. It is less that people of Asian descent can’t be trusted to do a job, or be a gentleman, or follow through on an oath. There is, instead, a pervasive doubt that you will ever be American, or British—that because of the body you happen to inhabit, you can belong or be loyal to any country other than the one that helped shape your genomes generations ago.

The nearly-but-not-quite match of the fictional Tharkay’s experience to my own caused me to dig deeper into the real history of Regency England, in search of other Asian people.

I didn’t have very far to dig. Even when one relies on sailcloth and oak alone to traverse the globe, people of color existed, and traveled, and interacted with Western Europeans—a fact I felt quite stupid not to have realized before. Regency London had massive Black and Jewish populations, Rromani people had traversed the English countryside for centuries, and the East India Company hired so many Lascar (Southeast Asian) and Chinese sailors, they contracted a Chinese sailor, John Anthony, and his British in-laws to help create a barracks to house these sailors in the East End of London. Antony himself is a fascinating figure. He appears in Old Bailey records as an interpreter for Chinese and Indian sailors, had been a sailor since the age of eleven, and had chosen to settle in England “since the American War.” He made a permanent home in England, marrying an English woman and eventually amassing so large a fortune he bought an estate in Essex. In 1805, he became the first person born in China to become a naturalized citizen through an Act of Parliament.

It shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, to know that people of color always existed. They had just been deliberately and purposefully excluded from the stories we now tell ourselves about the past. Knowing that also clarified, for me, just why I had been so drawn to the Age of Revolutions in the first place. A true happy ending for me, and for many who live within power structures built on their labor, yet also built to exclude them and erase them from the historical record, is revolution. It is not joining the order at the top of the pile and lording it over all those who sought to exclude you; it’s shoving the pile over entirely. Hegemony cannot bring happiness.

As Rousseau wrote, towards the beginning of the Age of Revolution, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Western Europe and its colonies all grappled with this understanding, this particular way of characterizing society, and, imperfectly and strangely and often with baffling intolerance for others in chains, it began to break the shackles on each citizen. It overturned the crushing constraints of late stage feudalism; it began the long and lengthy struggle for abolition. In this time period I see my own struggles writ large, and thanks to Tenzing Tharkay, I at last saw my place in it.

Elyse Martin is a Chinese-American Smith College graduate who lives in Washington DC with her husband and two cats. She writes reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, and her essays and humor pieces have appeared in The Toast, Electric Literature, Perspectives on History, The Bias, Entropy Magazine, and Smithsonian Magazine. She spends most of her time writing and making atrocious puns—sometimes simultaneously—and tweets @champs_elyse. She’s at work on several novels.

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