Pitfalls in immigrant writer's road to becoming American

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:29pm

Born in Shanghai in 1957, Anchee Min was taught to write "long live Chairman Mao" before she could write her own name. Sent to a labour camp in East China at 17, Min endured three years of hardship before a talent scout from Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing's Shanghai Film Studios recruited her as an actress because of her ideal "proletarian" features. But when Madame Mao was sentenced to death soon after, Min was disgraced as a political outcast. Forced to perform menial tasks to reform herself, she left China for America in 1984 where she wrote her memoir about those years, Red Azalea . Praised for its raw, honest prose and historical accuracy, Red Azalea was praised by The New York Times in 1994 and sold in 20 countries. Since then, she has penned six internationally acclaimed historical novels about China, including Katherine , Becoming Madame Mao , The Last Empress and, most recently, Pearl of China . Now, two decades after Red Azalea , comes her follow-up memoir, The Cooked Seed. Min talks to Bron Sibree .

How did you come to write so many years after you came to America?

There are a lot of elements. After all these years working as a writer, I felt there was an angle that had never been explored because most of the Chinese people who come here to America have already achieved a college degree. But I came here without any English and so really mixed with America's poor and working class. I also wanted to write it for my daughter, Lauryann. I found the challenge was that she doesn't really know me, because I had never told her, those things that I think most Chinese women never tell, those terrible, awful, intimate memories. As an immigrant you tend to glorify things and as a Chinese woman I'm expected to stay silent about whatever embarrassing things have happened to me, even my divorce. But I feared that my daughter would end up like me. I never knew my mother and my mother never got to know me.

The Cooked Seed, like Red Azalea, is brutally, almost painfully honest.

It's the primitive thoughts, desires and emotions - the truth. I felt like until I could face myself, give a mirror-image description, I didn't think I was doing my job. There are some chapters that, in The Cooked Seed, I almost deleted immediately after I'd written them because I thought it was humiliating, embarrassing and shameful to share them with anybody. Yet I felt that without them, I couldn't convey, for example, the degree of an immigrant's crushing loneliness, the cruelty, the depravation of the human animal's basic needs.

Tell us more about the transformation from a Chinese into an American.

It mostly took place when I was talking to my daughter. I see this little person who came from me, but she's not me. I can't really talk to her, she doesn't speak Chinese, she looks Chinese, but I'm dealing with this American kid. So I thought, 'How will I deal with her? Do I deal with her the Chinese way or … the American way?' I found myself dealing with her in a combination of Chinese and American and, in the process, started to realise my own transformation.

You also write about the moment when American teenagers first directed racial abuse at you, as being the moment you decided to become a writer.

I think that was my American moment too. if I hadn't been living in America and hadn't seen a lot of good things about Western society, I probably would have just slunk back to Chinatown and just hated whatever's not Chinese. But I think the American me kicked in and I thought that there must be a reason. These kids are human beings, so why do they hate me so much? I concluded that there is a lack of information about China. It worked for us, we were taught that Westerners are evil. I was convinced Americans would do me harm until Mao Zedong died and the flood of Western literature came in. We devoured it, we started reading things like Balzac and Dickens, and all of a sudden our hearts just melted and we didn't see Westerners as our enemy, we saw them as our equals, if not better.

How do you feel about China now?

I'm not surprised China is doing well, economically, because of people like me. We have gone through the Cultural Revolution and suffered, so we don't take anything for granted and nobody can fool us. So we are politically mature. What I worry about is the next generation, the digital generation. We wanted to make sure they didn't suffer what we suffered and that has backfired. I think it is just like in America. You want your kids to have quality and warm showers and enough to wear and birthday parties, and you don't know you're depriving them of certain character-moulding experiences. Spoiling the next generation is a form of deprivation and I think China is doing that with the current generation. You will create a kingdom where there are smart students and kids who can score really high, but is there a distinct human soul inside them? Or will they just be jerks?

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