Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Although there’s not much of a plot in Women of the Silk, the appealing characters, detailed descriptions of setting, and themes of women’s independence and communal living, kept me reading. The novel follows Pei from childhood as she leaves her poor family and joins a “sisterhood” of silk workers in a village near Canton, China in the early 20th century.

I enjoyed learning about the production of silk thread from cocoons, as well as the communal houses the girls and young women live in. Pei, along with several other women, decide to forego marriage and dedicate themselves to silk work. They even stage a successful strike for shorter working hours. The invasion of China by Japan changes everything, and Pei and her “sisters” must make some wrenching decisions.

The writing style of this novel is simple and direct. Shortly before two of the women undergo the “hairdressing” ceremony which marks their entrance into the silk sisterhood, Pei spends some time with her best friend, Lin:

When they reached the main road, Pei wished that she and Lin had walked in another direction, away from all the noise and suffocating crowds. Her mouth felt dry and sour. It was a week before Chen Ling’s and Ming’s hairdressing ceremony, and the girls had been given a rare day off from the factory while waiting for a new shipment of cocoons. Pei felt she’d seen so little of Lin in the past year that it was as if they had just awakened from a long sleep, still awkward and shy. (p. 83)

The author, Gail Tsukiyama, is an American of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. She became interested in the lives of women silk workers while researching southern Chinese history. The meandering feel of the novel could be attributed to the fact that Tsukiyama started the novel with “culture but no story,” according to an interview with Elizabeth Sherwin.

I was interested enough in the lives of Pei and her friends that certain inconsistencies bothered me. For example, when Pei first begins to work in the silk factory, her hours are from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm – 14 hours per day. Yet the girls and young women don’t complain about this, and seem to have plenty of free time to visit restaurants and pursue hobbies. Later in the book, the factory is said to increase the hours to 14, which causes the women to strike and demand a 10-hour work day.

Despite puzzling details like these, this quiet, lyrical book is a worthwhile read. Tsukiyama also wrote a sequel entitled The Language of Threads.

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