Karin Tanabe’s fifth novel, A Hundred Suns, is an example of historical fiction at its evocative best. Set in French Indochina in the 1930s, the Washington Post called it, “A transporting historical novel, and a smart thriller.” Tanabe, a former Politico reporter, has made appearances on Entertainment Tonight, CNN and The CBS Early Show and her writing has appeared in the Miami HeraldChicago TribuneWashington Post and Newsday.

Because of her deft handling of a fascinating time and place, Stay Thirsty Magazine invited Karin Tanabe to participate in our One Hundred Words project with exactly one hundred words on topics we drew from her latest novel.

STAY THIRSTY: Historical fiction.

KARIN TANABE: Looking to do a little time travel? Thrilled to take a trip back a few decades or centuries while still enjoying modern medicine? Then turn to historical fiction. How else can you just pop on over to the Roaring Twenties, take part in the Civil Rights movement, burn your bra during the Sixties or check out Indochine? Through historical fiction, we can learn while kicking back, relaxing and enjoying a great story. It’s history/herstory—I’m partial to the latter—via entertainment. And it’s a lot more fun than reading about dead white dudes in history text books, am I right?

STAY THIRSTY: Indochine 1933.

KARIN TANABE: So often Vietnam is associated with war and I really wanted to write about the country during a time of peace. That said, it was certainly not a time of happiness considering French colonialism. It was smack dab during the anti-colonial movement. In ’33, the French had cracked down on all of the nationalist parties, communists and anti-colonialists. They were all forced to go underground. Two years later there were huge demonstrations against the French and ten years later massive revolution. This time was the calm before the storm, but it is not calm for the characters in my book.

STAY THIRSTY: Family dynasty.

KARIN TANABE: I was very interested in exploring two different types of family dynasty. The first is a big name. Michelin. Thanks to the tires, the restaurant guide and the chubby Michelin man, this name is well-known around the world. But what is less known, especially in America, are all the lives that were lost for the Michelin name, and how terrible the conditions were in their factories. I wanted to look at how generations of the family dealt with that. I also wanted to look at a Vietnamese family dynasty and show how different generations reacted to the French colonial rule.

STAY THIRSTY: Ex-pat lifestyle.

KARIN TANABE: When I first visited Hanoi, I, like so many, just fell in love with the French quarter. The architecture, the gorgeous hotels. It was my favorite corner of Hanoi. But when I went for a second time and actually read up on the French in Hanoi, everything looked different. The architecture was still beautiful, but the glean of glamorous expat life was gone. Because what was expat life except taking advantage of a people, their country and their natural resources? I started reading more than I had been – books by Marguerite Duras – and that changed the way I understood Vietnam. 

Karin Tanabe

Plantation workers.

KARIN TANABE: It was not good, friends. When I was writing this book, I ran down to my garage to see if I had Michelin tires on my car. Luckily, I did not. When I was doing research, I was all over the Michelin websites and none of them mentioned their plantations in Vietnam where thousands of Vietnamese lost their lives. I felt it was important to tell that story, and not have people just think of Michelin as givers of fancy restaurant stars. For a really good account of life on their plantations, I recommend Tran Bu Binh’s The Red Earth.


KARIN TANABE: Personally, I love them. There’s nothing that moves a plot like secrets. In A Hundred Suns there are so many. There are secrets from childhood, secrets from spouses, secret intents and secret desires. There are also darker secrets, like what was going on at the Michelin plantations. I did a deep dive into French government documents—sounds fun right!—and was appalled by the secrets the French government was happy to keep, especially from those who labored in terrible conditions. Aspects of French colonial Vietnam were very glamorous, but the not-so-secret truth is that it was only for the French.


KARIN TANABE: It goes without saying that if you’re up to no good, you should trust no one. But what if you’re in a new country and your husband leaves you alone? What if you’re desperate for friends and companionship and suddenly you’re very trusting because you very much need a community in your new world? What if you would rather trust than question because doing so will make your life so much more fun? That is the quandary that the main character in A Hundred Suns Jessie Lesage faces. She throws caution to the wind for a while, but learns quickly.

STAY THIRSTY: Hanoi rail station.

KARIN TANABE: In the book I named it the House of a Hundred Suns, and it also gave me my book title. In real life, the station that is in the book, that stood in Hanoi in the Thirties, is only partially still there. It was a really beautiful station, built in 1902, and Vietnam’s oldest. But now all that is left are the wings. The central hall has destroyed by a B-52 carpet-bombing during the Vietnam War. The middle was replaced in 1976 by a bright yellow modern building. I really love rail travel and highly recommend doing it in Vietnam.

(Karin Tanabe photo credit: Tim Coburn)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.