Giacomo Puccini's classic opera Madame Butterfly ends with the title character's lover, the naval officer Pinkerton, agreeing to raise their child with his American wife. Quite a few interpretations of the story have been done since then, but Raleigh resident Angela Davis-Gardner's fourth novel, Butterfly's Child, is the first to ask, "What happened next?"
Davis-Gardner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita at N.C. State University, says she originally got the idea for the story after a friend wondered during a performance of the opera what had happened to the child, last seen staring at the body of his mother, who has committed suicide over her broken heart.
"I thought it'd be a fascinating plot to follow him to America with Pinkerton and his American wife, and I figured he'd want to go back to Japan and find his mother's family," says Davis-Gardner. "And it was fascinating to me that the family relationships would be very complicated—he's the father's illegitimate child, and the stepmother would have to adjust to that."
The story utilizes multiple points of view to tell the tale of Benji, the child, as he grows up in the U.S. in the early 20th century and deals with his being a "bat between cultures," a biracial child who feels neither truly American nor Japanese.
Through this structure, Davis-Gardner seeks to bring a realistic context to the classic tale of Madame Butterfly, which has sometimes been accused of being racist and misogynistic in its depiction of an idealized, subservient Asian woman pining for an American. "It's a mesmerizing, tragic love story, and I think that the music had a lot to do with its popularity," Davis-Gardner says of the original story's appeal.
"It's kind of a universal heartbreaking story. The problem with the opera is that a geisha would not have necessarily fallen in love at first sight with an American naval officer, and I explored that while I was writing the book. One thing I was trying to do with this story is retain the passion of the original story beyond her suicide and the fate of that child while putting the character, as they go on, out in the real world."
Davis-Gardner's last novel, the acclaimed Plum Wine, also deals with conflicts between American and Japanese culture, a concept that has fascinated her since she was a visiting professor at Tokyo's Tsuda College. She's stayed in contact with many friends in Japan throughout the current crisis with the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear threat, and marvels at how some have been able to maintain perspective throughout the catastrophe.
"You hear about the stoic Japanese and the samurai tradition and all that, but what's amazing is there won't be any looting, and there won't be any complaining," Davis-Gardner says. "One friend was telling me that there've been a lot of blackouts, and she's talked about driving through the dark, and stopping at an intersection where there's no light, no police presence at night, and her house is cold and dark a lot of the time. But she says, 'I'm an optimistic person, and I have hope that this is all right, and I'm not complaining.'"
She credits her time at N.C. State, and her continuing work teaching writing, as a major influence on her work. "Retiring from N.C. State gave me much more writing energy and time, but I love teaching writing," Davis-Gardner says. "I learned a lot from my students, and about writing by criticizing manuscripts and reading them closely."
And of course she learned one thing that helped her in her continuation of Madame Butterfly: "There's only so many plots in the world, and so many variations on them, and the tragic love story is one of them."