The Wild Heart of the Continent: Love and Place in Sherry Thomas’s Silk Road Romance Novels

Eric Murphy Selinger (DePaul University)

Session 11.1: Subversions of Race, Culture and History


Chinese-American novelist Sherry Thomas sets two acclaimed books in the Silk Road regions of Central Asia: Not Quite a Husband (2009; RITA 2010), set in the Swat Valley during the 1897 Pathan Revolt; and My Beautiful Enemy, set partly in Chinese Turkestan, a region coveted by Russia and Britain during the imperial “Great Game.”

A “liminal zone” where egalitarian relationships and authentic selfhood flourish (Illouz, 92), each setting evolves from the “green world” that has been crucial to romance since the Renaissance (Frye), and the latter novel also invokes the Jianghu (“rivers and lakes”) traditions of wuxia fiction. However, interpreting these settings only in these structural/generic ways slights Thomas’s interest in history, and it occludes important differences between their representations of “the wild heart of the continent” (MBE, 136).

As Jane Stafford explains, “romance is the quintessential colonial literary form” (64). In Not Quite a Husband the romantic Silk Road, where wounded love can heal, is also a white-imperial setting where English wit, grit, and resolve shine forth in contrast to the anticolonial uprising led by the “Mad Fakir.”

In My Beautiful Enemy, by contrast, Thomas presents European imperialism as one more chapter in millennia of contact and contest along the Silk Road. She emphasizes the region’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious character, not least through the character traits that make the Rumi-quoting, Muslim-impersonating, Persian-disguised white English hero, Leighton, appealing to the Kazakh-disguised biracial heroine, Bai Ying-Hua. As they fall in love in a bodhisattva-carved cave that invokes the spatial metaphor of four Brahmaviharas, or “divine abodes” —mettā (lovingkindess), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy), and upekkhā (equanimity) — Thomas subverts the presumptively Protestant underpinnings of the white romance hero (cf. Kamblé, 131-156), complicates distinctions between East and West, and recasts “romance” as, at least potentially, a decolonized space of cultural exchange.


2 years ago at the IASPR conference [someone – I missd the name] asked provocatively asked what did it matter that the setting of Sherry Thomas’s book was set in Turkistan in The Silk Road.

Eric’s presentation is a response to that.

  • The setting is not just another liminal space, the importance lies in the specific place
  • Thomas was born in China. She moved to Louisiana where her mother was a grad student, then into the fictive space of historical fiction
  • Unable to sell her wuxia book, so created a new authorial voice
  • Described it as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets the Forsyth Saga
  • Didn’t sell for another 8 years

Needed a location for a historical book. Swat Valley was chosen for Almost a Husband:

  • Favoured by Osama bin laden
  • Full of armed men
  • History of resistance to colonial rule

While the book won a RITA and is #6 on best historical romances of all time, it did not sell well. Bantam said she had to take a pen name so she could be relaunched, and Walmart refused to stock her next book, wherever it was set

Thomas revisited the Swat Valley area for My Beautiful Enemy

  • Based on binary oppositions, contrasts, irreducibility plural
  • A Buddhist romance
  • Constant references to the this part of Turkistan/ the Silk Road as the Heart of Asia
  • Character Catherine is associated with the heart sutra
  • She is english / Asian / can pass as a Kurdish man
  • Leighton is english / can pass as Persian / can look feminine
  • The characteristics that make him attractive to her map poorly the traits that make him attractive to white Protestant readers

Both these books have ‘a long tail’

  • Don’t sell well initially
  • Sell well slowly
  • Eric Selinger just finished teaching a 10-week senior seminar on just My Beautiful Enemy
  • Discussed in 7 academic papers
  • How do we assess the ‘critical darling’ book, the niche and its place in popular romance

The dedication was to two wuxia novelists, who were in turn influenced by Ian Fleming and other thriller writers

Should read the companion prequel first – The Hidden Blade. This is about the childhood of the characters, is more wuxia story.

Consideration: Do these books function as a form of Chinese soft power?

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