Serbian-born Milena Banks has always been fascinated by other cultures. It shows in her sweeping debut novel, Riding the Tiger, which chronicles multiple generations of interconnected lives in Hong Kong, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called a “spectacular novel of colonial China that should put this first-time author on the map.”
The idea for the novel came during her extensive travels, when she moved from Japan to Hong Kong. “I’d gone to finishing school for Japanese women, studied Japanese, become a Buddhist—just to get my head in the mindset. By the time I left, I thought I was Japanese,” she says. “I came to Hong Kong with that exhausted mentality, and hated it.” It was hot and noisy, she says, and many people were rude. “I locked myself in my apartment and thought, ‘I can’t stay here for three years in the air conditioning. I wanted to be in a Merchant Ivory film’—totally unrealistic, of course.”
The year she moved there—1997—was tense for Hong Kong, as the country shifted from British to Chinese control. Everyone was “freaking out,” Banks says, “wondering, ‘Where had the past gone? Where was it going? What was this Chinese identity?’ ”
Eager to find out what had happened to old Hong Kong and better understand its colonial legacy, she joined a local ladies’ club (which featured a picture of Queen Elizabeth II on its entry hall table) and began studying microfilms of old newspapers.
These experiences as an expatriate in Hong Kong at the end of British rule led directly to Riding the Tiger, which, in part, takes place in Hong Kong during the 1997 changeover. Its Chinese, 20-something protagonist, Jardine, shares a name with the intersection where a bus struck and killed her anonymous mother when she was a baby. When an elderly Englishman tells Jardine that he knows the secret of her parentage, it leads to a complicated story of past love, lies and betrayal, with Hong Kong’s fraught colonial history as its backdrop. The novel includes alternating sections set during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, and its historical and political scope brings to mind the sprawling works of Barbara Kingsolver.
Banks began work on the ambitious book after she moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn and later continued writing it in London. She says that Riding the Tiger draws from “all these different cultures” that she “just happened to enter into.”
Banks and her husband now live in Maine on a farm they renovated. There, Banks completed the book when a battle with Lyme disease left her nearly bedridden for six years. Her long writing process produced what Kirkus’ reviewer called “evocative” and “impressive” prose in “an engaging tale of forgiveness and the strength of familial ties, even when those ties have been frayed almost to extinction.”
Banks says she hasn’t promoted the book very much, although she does note that Riding the Tiger’s sales jumped after the book received a starred review from Kirkus. “That was huge—night and day, the difference.”
She recently spoke at the Newport Public Library about the novel. Her next book, which she’s “excited and supercharged about,” takes place in colonial Kenya in 1941 and centers on the real-life unsolved murder of a high-ranking British official. It also involves a “salacious group of expatriates who were all sort of a part of a sex club and a lot of other stuff you might not know about.” She adds that while there are a couple of dominant theories about who committed the crime, she’s planning “a completely different twist.”