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Karin Tanabe's 'A Hundred Suns' Explores Indochina Of The 1930s


Karin Tanabe's new novel transports us to an Indochina in the 1930s - French plantations, pink drinks, the smoke of opium, rustle of silk and colonial masters who snooze away hot tropical nights into the breeze of fans while servants stay up all night to wave those fans. Her novel, "A Hundred Suns," and Karin Tanabe, once a reporter for Politico and author of previous historical novels, including "The Diplomat's Daughter" and "The Gilded Years," joins us from her home in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for being with us.

KARIN TANABE: Thank you very much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Your story opens with Jessie Lesage - American born, but she's lived in Paris - arriving with her husband Victor - a Michelin family member - and their daughter in a Hanoi that a character calls a city kissed by the French. Tell us about this place, if you could.

TANABE: Yeah. So that's a very poetic way to put it. I think the French thought it was kissed by the French and the Vietnamese thought it was being destroyed by the French. But it is very much a period - an interwar period where communism has been pushed underground by the government. And the French are really living the high life, and the Vietnamese are struggling as the French quickly take away all their natural resources.

SIMON: That's why they were there.

TANABE: That is definitely why they were there.

SIMON: Victor is a kind of - let me put it this way - half-star Michelin, isn't he?

TANABE: (Laughter) That is a perfect way to put it. He is a lesser Michelin. He is not in the seat of the company in the (speaking French). He is in Paris. He very much wants to be a big name in the Michelin family. But he's kind of been a (speaking French) and he hasn't been doing a very good job. And he sees the colony as a way that he could perhaps set himself apart.

SIMON: Jessie begins to tour Indochina on her own at Victor's insistence. And what does she see that a lot of French colonials and, for that matter, international tourists don't?

TANABE: Well, first of all, she feels very alone there. She's American, which is a little bit different. There were very few Americans at the time. And she starts dabbling in this, you know, fabulous world of expats - or so what the French think are fabulous. And then she travels south. She travels to her husband's plantations, the Michelin plantations, which she thinks are a wonderful place where the local people can find jobs. And she sees that it's actually a terrible place, that it's full of atrocities where a lot of the workers would rather die than work on the family's plantations. And she's very shocked but at the same time very loyal to her family.

SIMON: And she makes some significant acquaintances, doesn't she?

TANABE: She does. And she thinks they're pretty innocent. She becomes wrapped up with a woman named Marcelle de Fabry, who is a fabulous Parisian woman who has a Vietnamese lover named Khoi Nguyen who comes from a silk tycoon family. And through them she really learns about the colony and learns about, you know, the different groups there at the time - the French, sort of the richer Vietnamese, and then through the Michelins, the larger, poorer Vietnamese that were really most of the population of the time.

SIMON: To use a more current phrase, she finds her consciousness is raised.

TANABE: Yes, abruptly.

SIMON: Well, but opium also contributes, doesn't it?

TANABE: Opium, in fact, does contribute. Opium was a very big moneymaker for the French. They were very interested in having a lot of people get addicted to opium because they could make more money that way. So we do see her dabbling, and it does make her wonder if some of the things she thinks are real are perhaps not quite real.

SIMON: What drew you to this period?

TANABE: You know, I spend a lot of time in Vietnam. I myself am half Belgian, half Japanese, so two countries with sort of sordid colonial pasts. And I very much wanted to write something where I could do research in French. I grew up speaking French. But I wanted to write about Vietnam that wasn't at war.

SIMON: You are considered, at this point, a master of historical fiction. You've got a previous novel set in 19th-century Boston, the days following Pearl Harbor in a Texas internment camp. I have to ask, with your latest novel out now, are you spending time in any other historical period in your mind and heart other than the one in which we're living?

TANABE: (Laughter) I'm trying to leave the one in which we're living as much as possible. I think it's a time where people are wanting to travel through books. I certainly do. I just finished writing a book set in 1950s Manhattan. And it's funny, I wrote it and I was like, oh, this doesn't really feel like I'm travelling that much. But now that I'm stuck at home, I would give part of my right arm to go to 1950s Manhattan. And, you know, I really grew up very internationally. I grew up in D.C. but with foreign parents. I'm first-generation American, and I've always felt like a citizen of the world more than just a citizen of the United States. So really every place interests me. If I feel like I can write about a place respectfully, then I will definitely try to do it.

SIMON: Karin Tanabe - her novel, "A Hundred Suns." Thank you so much for being with us.

TANABE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.