Lisa See and the roots of her success
By AKSHITA NANDA
An author’s search for her Chinese roots has led her to write critically acclaimed novels set in her ancestral land.
CHINESE-AMERICAN author Lisa See watches about 100 movies a year, but the one film she is too afraid to catch is based on her own best-selling novel of 19th-century China, Snow Flower And The Secret Fan (the movie opened in Singapore last month but there is no Malaysian release date yet).
The story of foot-binding and female friendship is brought to the screen by Chinese-American director Wayne Wang of Joy Luck Club fame. Chinese actress Li Bingbing and South Korea’s Gianna Jun play the main roles of two devoted friends.
In a recent telephone interview, See, 56, confesses that during the July screening of the movie in New York, she posed for photographs with the director and actors, then sat outside the theatre for the duration of the film.
“It made me too nervous to sit in with other people,” the California native, whose father is Chinese, says over the telephone from Colorado, where she is on vacation. “Now I understand why actors, during interviews, say they have not seen their movies!”
Snow Flower And The Secret Fan, published in 2005, is the first of See’s works to be adapted for the big screen and is among the most popular of her four evocative literary novels of China.
She declined to write the script – “I’m a novelist, not a scriptwriter” – but was insistent that the period details in the movie be accurate, down to cooking rice in a pot, without stirring.
See’s latest book, Dreams Of Joy, tackles the Cultural Revolution in China and topped the New York Times’ bestseller list when it was released in June.
She has also written three thrillers about Beijing detective Liu Hulan, and a biography of her Chinese-American grandfather, On Gold Mountain (1995, Vintage).
That family history inspired a five-month exhibition at Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now the Autry National Centre) in 2000 and an opera from the Los Angeles Opera company that same year.
Right now, See is working on a book about the “chop suey circuit” of night clubs in 1930s America. These clubs were known for their Asian dancers and performers, often touted as “the Chinese Fred Astaire” or the “Chinese Ginger Rogers”.
The daughter of Washington Post book critic Carolyn See and anthropologist Richard See, Lisa says her desire to learn more about her roots inspires most of her writing.
“I’m Chinese in my heart,” she says, even as her red hair and freckles, legacies of her mother’s Irish ancestry, give some pause.
Her parents divorced when she was three but much of her childhood was spent with her father’s family, at the antique stores her grandfather Fong See established in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
“My mum and I moved a lot because of her work and the Chinese side of the family stayed where they were. To me, that was a part of my life that was most secure,” she recalls.
To this day, rice is comfort food for her two grown sons and she translates family conversations in Cantonese for her husband, lawyer Richard Kendall, though she insists that she is not fluent. “I think something happens in families, where you can understand one another,” she says.
Influenced by her mother’s choice of career, See, a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, turned her bachelor’s degree in humanities towards writing.
She was industry magazine Publishers Weekly’s West Coast correspondent for 13 years, wrote freelance for magazines such as Vogue and also wrote three books in the 1980s under the pseudonym Monica Highland with her mother and her mother’s partner John Espy.
“It was great fun, it was like an apprenticeship,” she says of historical novels Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road, and art book Greetings From Southern California.
It seemed natural then to tell the actual story of her father’s family in On Gold Mountain. She also wrote her first detective novel, Flower Net, set in modern Beijing, partly to provide a window into Chinese culture.
“I get to go so much deeper into the traditions and holidays that are so much a part of life that we’ve forgotten their meaning,” she says about her books. “Even though the books are not about my family exactly, they continue my family’s traditions.”
See is no armchair researcher. She first heard about nu shu, the women-only alphabet central to Snow Flower And The Secret Fan, while writing a review of a book about foot-binding. In order to find out more, she headed to China in 2002. With a translator, she visited villages in Hunan province via car, cart, boat and foot to interview women who might know of the language.
For Dreams Of Joy, her newest novel, she headed to China’s Anwei province and interviewed elderly folk who remembered the famine and hardship of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961. They shared stories of starvation, of families trading babies for food and in the hope that the child would fare better under foster care.
Asked if she was surprised by how easily the survivors opened up to her, she says no.
“I have found that people who are older want to tell you their stories. They have this attitude – ‘What can they do to me now?’ With my own grandmother, she felt that she had outlived her husband, friends, she could say whatever she wanted to say.
“People are willing to share their life stories with you if they know they are never going to see you again,” she adds.
Her research adds depth and texture to her novels, which are lauded by book reviewers and honoured for adding to the Chinese-American story.
The Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum gave her its annual “historymaker” award in 2003, while the Organisation of Chinese American Women named her its 2001 Woman Of The Year.
Academics are also starting to pay her the sort of attention so far granted to the doyenne of Chinese-American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston, author of the 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior. Perhaps the only popular author ranked with Kingston in academia is Amy Tan, whose 1989 tearjerker The Joy Luck Club turned the sub-genre into a mass-market success.
Now See’s critically acclaimed 2009 novel, Shanghai Girls, is seen by some as a seminal work. The prequel to Dreams Of Joy and set during the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1940s, Shanghai Girls was also set last year as a text for a post-graduate class in Chinese-American literature at the National University of Singapore.
The university’s literature professor, Walter Lim, 52, is also including See in a book on the history of Chinese-American writing.
“She is part of the community of Chinese- American writers who are fashioning themselves into communicators and purveyors of history,” says Dr Lim, who has taught Chinese-American literature for more than two decades.
The author herself puts it this way: “I’ve always been interested in stories that are lost or have been covered up. It’s not always horrifying, like the Great Leap Forward, just something that people would be interested in.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network