The Most Extraordinary Letter I’ve Ever Received From a Stranger
Recently, while writing at the Three Broomsticks, I received the most extraordinary letter from a stranger regarding PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD!
Here is the full text of the letter, with the person’s name and position, and some spoilers, redacted.
The novel was so fully realized and such a pleasure to read. Cannot believe this is Henry Lien’s first novel. I was instantly immersed in the story of Peasprout and Cricket, as well as Doi, Hisashi, Suki and her entourage, and the various sensei masters. There are so many powerful messages embedded here about class, being an outsider “peasant” in a world of wealth, about realizing one’s dream potential, finding home, honoring as well as defying tradition. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes—indeed! This story really embodies the hero’s journey, the search for the golden fleece, and I think it would make a fantastic film.
The place-making aspects of the book are extraordinary. I love the intro vision of the city of Pearl rising from the sea. It rises up, dreamlike, from the sea…as though it were an apparition—one resembling the set of an elaborate opera. A city that looks as though it’s made of milky porcelain…as though it was poured rather than built. Love it!
The notion that the pearl is living, has sentience, or is somehow the result of human manipulation—in the same way that birds spelling out newspaper headlines in the sky is likely the product of human interaction and conditioning—suggested to me an enlightened future place. Humans have not only solved climate change in this imaginary world, they have evolved to where the cities have been constructed using sustainable natural materials, rather than steel and concrete. The idea that the pearl has a quality where one’s skate blades can align with the grain and then their movements will be eased or amplified…and the pearl essentially “heals” itself after being skated on—this speaks to me of a world that has evolved beyond our present day concerns. A magical world where one’s personal chi is the ultimate fuel for success.
The bird trope was fabulous, by the way. I was reminded of something in the Hawaiian culture, in which Hawaiians view birds as gossips who will spread private news island-wide if they somehow manage to overhear something…so that Hawaiians are hesitant to speak too much truth in the presence of birds. Also, while reading Peasprout, I read a news story in the NYT regarding crows being trained to pick up garbage in a French theme park.
The idea that humans and other animals seek and find ways to live interdependently is fascinating. (But I also loved the menacing quality of the headlines appearing in the sky. They put me in mind of “Surrender Dorothy” from Wizard of Oz.)
The description of the city looking as if it were poured rather than built, or that its materials resemble milky porcelain, put me in the mind of the architectural work of the late Zaha Hadid, whose buildings have this sort of dreamy aerodynamic quality with gleaming swoopy surfaces that often have a biomimetic or hive-like quality. Hadid never designed pagoda structures to my knowledge, but I could imagine the forms in Pearl possessing a similar hyper-aerodynamic character. Pearl is a utopia…and the city itself is alive. It is magic, in this way, not unlike the way an enchanted forest is magic…although this one is urban.
I recently read a book, Cognitive Architecture, in which the authors identify a number of things we humans naturally gravitate towards in terms of built spaces. The book talked a lot about the idea of narrative and how humans gravitate to built spaces that are somehow imbued with story. Sometimes the story need be no more complicated than a sense of moving through a built environment and understanding that its component parts are like parts of a larger body. The “body” of a building or in this case the city of Pearl is, in itself, a narrative. I very much felt this while reading Peasprout. (And I loved having the beautiful illustrated map to refer to as I read.) The city of Pearl became a mappable, knowable place. I think it would be imperative to find a way to replicate this vivid story-telling in a film version.
I imagine that, in the film version of the story, the pearl contains a kind of swirling, ever-transmogrifying iridescence or pearlesence. I kept jotting words and phrases to describe it: spun sugar; pulled taffy, liquid mercury or quicksilver…gloss white rather than silver.
For some odd reason, I thought of the very strange and mostly terrible Olivia Newton John movie, Xanadu…and I thought of the movie version of The Wiz. It seems to me that the production design and art direction will be of paramount importance to creating a world that can live up to the wonderful descriptions of place we get in the novel. It can be a tricky challenge to replicate the wondrous sense achieved by the written world into a cinematic vision that is equally satisfying. Keeping human characters human in an invented landscape can be potentially tricky.
I also thought—much more positively—of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When the main characters compete in the first motivation, the Veneration of the Three Aunties—and they are essentially gliding out on the rails surrounding the city over water, I started to get this visual sense of the city of Pearl becoming like a sweeping, somewhat abstracted collection of iridescent white ribbons that form an almost psychedelic backdrop against which the players play. When the competitors compete, they enter an altered state that is very heightened—like the way in which humans and animals enter a state of play that sort of takes them out of the larger physical world and immerses them only in the play in which they are deeply engaged. In these moments, the city becomes a backdrop or a pedestal stage…and the competitors float in an ever-morphing and transmogrifying white space. Players have this martial ability to float and fly, which is magic, in the way that was depicted in Crouching Tiger.
It struck me that Peasprout could also be made into an animated feature. (I think it could also be transposed into a musical—even an opera.) But I most like the idea of it being a live action film taking place in a built world that is quite ethereal and dynamic and otherworldly. I’d be most interested in hearing Henry Lien’s thoughts on the subject.
Truly, this is an art director’s dream project. The dreamy depictions of the season of sprouts, for instance. Or the idea that pieces of the pearl jump when people jump…or that ornamental edges of building send skaters airborne. Or the vision of Pearl at sunset, when the white landscape takes on shifting colors. I thought of James Turrell’s artful meditations on color and light.
Strange gelatinous lanterns…wonderful fountains and plazas…seahorse gates…the conservatory of literature resembling scrolls that unfurl out of the sea…glassy pearl trees…the windflutes embedded in the conservatory of music, giving it its own sentience and respiratory aliveness…and the conservatory of architecture containing all sorts of novel appendages: “the wall is covered in adornments. There are fins, horns, paws, claws, tails, levers, prows and masts erupting from the surface, flowers and vines are carved everywhere.” This is rich, well-executed place-making and I think it could be wondrously translated into film.
My emotions stirred at the end of the book in a satisfying and very organic way…and it was triggered by a literary device I always find effective. There were many points throughout the text when the Pearlian greeting was used: “May we meet here in the New Year” responded to with “May we meet here in Pearl.” When Doi and Peasprout bid each other adieu in the Final Chapter, and they use the Pearlian greeting, I am not embarrassed to say I began to weep. Their friendship was so artfully drawn that I truly “felt” deeply for both of them, and the deep friendship bonds they’d formed. And the [redacted] was a brilliant way to cap the story.
The character arcs were so completely satisfying. The naming of characters was really effective, also. Cricket was not unlike how crickets symbolically are: sensitive, intuitive, grounded, centered, tiny bringer of joy. And Peasprout—one whose brilliance was fostered/incubated and harvested young, as it were, at a tender age, not unlike a pea sprout. She is “of the vine”, as it were, descended from mystery parents and forced to come to her own truth about herself and discover her true purpose in life.
It struck me that the characters were themselves pearls—borne out of adversity. Just as a pearl is formed when a grain of sand or some stray irritant finds its way into a shell, which then calcifies and then transmogrifies into a pearl, the characters seemed to themselves be pearls, likewise borne of adversity. Yet, even in the roughest most turbulent seas, a beautiful pearl is able to manifest.
Let’s see…what else…
I loved the various curses, aphorisms and prayers—ten thousand years of stomach gas…make me drink sand to death…my heart fills with a thousand throbbing fists…heavenly personage of Jade, etc. In a film version, one challenge will be to bring all of this rich internal dialogue to life.
Likewise, I loved the wu liu jargon. In a film version, I wonder whether we see Peasprout attain peony level Brightstar status at the tournament in Shin, at which we witness her employ a single-footed grasshopper, a double-knee tornado kick, an open-palm blossom foot single toe-jump, a third-gate nightingale loop and/or a kingfisher sporting in the Purple River quintuple jump. I simply loved all of the named maneuvers. Lien has such a marvelous sense of humor.
I wonder, also, whether we meet the Empress Dowager in the film version and are given a sort of foreshadowed inkling of her ill intentions. So much of the narrative exposition in the book is internal to Peasprout. The fun and challenge will be in finding ways to include all of the narrative richness in a film version.
I would be most interested in continuing the conversation if you’re so inclined. [redacted] Thanks again for sending me the book—it was a delight to read it…and I will look forward to hearing back from you.
All my best,