In “Red Azalea,” her best-selling 1994 memoir, Anchee Min told the compelling story of her childhood and early adulthood in China during the Cultural Revolution. The daughter of former teachers who were reassigned to jobs as manual laborers in Shanghai, Min grew up all but starving, and was sent to a collective farm before being reassigned herself — as an actress in Madame Mao's propaganda films. But Madame Mao was deposed, and anyway, Min had no talent for the cinema. By her mid-20s, she was considered a “cooked seed” (“no chance to sprout”), and grew desperate to the point of exploring various means of suicide.
Finally, with the help of one of her former colleagues at the studio — who had escaped to Hollywood and renamed herself Joan Chen — Min managed to immigrate to the U.S., where she gradually learned English (with which she still struggles from time to time in her speech, with verb tenses especially pesky) and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually she became a writer, producing "Red Azalea" and several novels, including "Becoming Madame Mao" (2001), "The Last Empress" (2007) and "Pearl of China" (2010).
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Now Min returns to her own history in her engrossing new memoir, "The Cooked Seed," in which she recounts the alternately frightening and funny tale of her new life in Chicago in the 1980s and '90s. Life in the Windy City tested her — she once worked five jobs at once to pay her bills, and at one point was raped and nearly strangled by a roommate, leading to an abortion — but it also gave her the freedom to pursue her ultimately successful goal of "making it," as she often puts it, in America. Printers Row Journal caught up with Min, now 56 and living in California, for a lunchtime interview during a recent visit to Chicago, where she spoke at Loyola University Chicago and visited the Art Institute. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You've been writing novels for the last several years. What was it like writing a memoir again?
A: Well, I just call the past books "novels" so I don't get sued. But a lot of the books are basically nonfiction. The life of Madame Mao, for example — so dramatic! Of course I have the license to make up things, but I think a lot of what's written about China is misleading, and most Americans don't know much about China, in-depth, even though China is such a crucial business partner, rival, whatever. So I do what I can do, which is to be accurate about China. I just present it, preserve it. It's dramatic enough, as is. So for me, from fiction to nonfiction, it's not a big jump.
Q: But why another memoir now?
A: I wrote a second memoir right after "Red Azalea" was published, but I just killed it. At the time, I had 35 years of knowledge of living in China, but only a couple of years living in the U.S., and I didn't trust my judgment about America. The publisher offered me a contract for a sequel to "Red Azalea," because of its success. But it was too early. So I put the manuscript under the bed and just take notes all these years. In the end it takes me 25 years to write it.
Q: Why so long?
A: There are a lot of things that immigrants, especially Chinese-Americans, want to share with their children, but there are a lot of things they don't want to share. Right now I'm having a great difficulty with my siblings. They say to me, "Why do you reveal these things about yourself?" I just recently convinced my father. I said, "Dad, if I die tomorrow, I want my daughter to have this legacy." You know, I tell Lauryann the stories of what happened to me — to a certain point, and then I stop. So I know, without this book, my daughter will never have a true picture. She went to Stanford and is educated, and she came to me and said, "Mom, you have a platform. You should be honest." And I said, "Do you mind if it makes us look bad?" By the Chinese cultural standards, you know, people like me should stay silent.
Q: The arc of the book is about your evolution as a person. Early on, whenever something bad happens, you assume that it's your fault. Over time, you begin to challenge things, to stand up for yourself.
A: Yes, even when I got choked by my roommate, and my friend came to pick me up at Wallace and 26th Street in the middle of the night. She sees the marks on my throat and says, "We're going to the police station. The son of a bitch could have murdered you!" And the first thing I say is, "I don't want no trouble, please. I survived." So you're right. But on the other hand, the fact that I'm writing this shows the transformation. I am an American woman now.
Q: You had to deal with some tough people, though, like the owner of a Chinese restaurant where you were a waitress.
A: Yes, when I would walk faster, she'd say, "Is there a fire?" And when I slowed down, she'd say, "I didn't hire you to be lazy." But I like her, because she let me know what's wrong with me, so I can improve. In China, I wouldn't know what's wrong with me. At the movie studio, they would denounce me, but would never say why, or they would say, "You're Madame Mao's trash." The real reason (she was denounced) was the old actresses (who were afraid she would take their jobs). They were supposed to be my teachers. So they make sure they teach me nothing.
Q: The School of the Art Institute didn't have a writing degree when you were there, I think.
A: If they had, I would never have pursued it. My goal was to do anything that would lead to a job. I know that writing would not lead to a job. It's too fancy for me. My biggest goal was to be an office receptionist, answer phones. I didn't expect to go beyond that.
Q: But as part of learning English, you did read some interesting books — by Virginia Woolf, for example, which must have helped you later on.
A: Oh sure. But reading Virginia Woolf for me was mainly learning about the existence of a self, an inner self. It was a strange concept — an American concept, I thought.
Q: Because in China, you didn't have a self, or weren't supposed to have one?
A: Correct. Everybody was "a bolt in the Communist machine." That's a famous slogan that's instilled in the children. You are a bolt in the machine. So when Lauryann was born, my first thought was, "Wow, she does not belong to the Communist Party — she belongs to herself!" (Her voice chokes with emotion.) What a glorious thing!
Q: The book is also very funny, which is unexpected, given how grim so much of the story is.
A: Thank you! Thank you! That's the best compliment, because so many Chinese have no sense of humor. You made my day!
Q: There's a moment, for example, where you're first using American toilet paper, and you say that in China you often had to wipe your bottom with newspaper. In fact, your mother once accidentally wiped hers with some newsprint with Chairman Mao's face on it, thereby committing a crime.
A: (Laughs.) You know, some Chinese people tell me, "Your story is that of a billion Chinese. You are so average." But the people who say that are educated people, not from the class I came from. They didn't have to use newspaper to wipe their behinds. You know, Pearl S. Buck (the Nobel Prize-winning author of "The Good Earth," set in China) once had an argument with a Chinese professor. The professor says, "Why didn't you write about the elite class, the best of the Chinese?" Pearl Buck says, "Thank you for pointing that out. I'm interested in the peasants, who are 90 percent of the population."
Q: Of course, your parents were teachers before they were reassigned to menial jobs during the Cultural Revolution. Are they still alive?
A: My mother passed away, but my father is still alive and lives in Beijing. You know, he has American teeth now! He visited and I sent him to the dentist, and now he cannot help himself, constantly smiling and showing them off. He's 82 years old, an age when most men in China have no teeth. He tells people, "American dentist build a fortress in my mouth!" (Laughs.) I say, "Dad, you know you still need to go to the dentist for maintenance, for cleaning." He says, "I don't want them to touch it. Americans build the best things."
A: When I first came to America, you know, I would look at the newsstands and see the women on the magazine covers. I had never seen anyone smile the way these girls smile! It's like they have nothing to worry about! That stuck with me, and I thought about Chinese not smiling, because our training, our literature is all about misery. But we have that quality, that potential to smile, in the right environment. In my case, it was the writing, the freeing of the soul, that gave laughter back to me.
Q: You don't exactly flatter America — or Chicago — in the book, but on the whole it seems you appreciate it in comparison to China.
A: Chicago at that time was both heaven and hell. But I had the option of seeing the glass as half full. Someone does something bad to you, but then someone else does something nice to you, so it balances out. It's all about the individual here, and that's what America is about.
Q: So on balance, coming to the U.S. was a good thing?
A: It saved my life! I'd be dead in China today.
Q: You wouldn't have survived there?
A: Do you know how many times I tried to die in China? You can't even buy sleeping pills to kill yourself with. I went to the drug store and they get suspicious and say, "Why do you need to buy 10 sleeping pills? We're going to report to your Party boss that you're doing this." I actually went in the middle of the night to jump into the Huangpu River, and I found it was a place for lovers, because they don't have anyplace at home to be together. So at midnight, after the lights come down and the security leave, the lovers come out. They are on the park benches, two couples facing this way, two couples facing that way. And in the morning you see all the condoms on the grass, looking like flowers. So I couldn't jump into the river there, because they're going to see. I investigated electrocuting myself, but they say you can burn. You can hang yourself but your tongue is hanging out all ugly. Not a very good image.
Q: You really covered all the bases.
A: Yes. So in America, I had nothing to lose. But I couldn't give up, because I kept thinking, my feet are already on American soil. You know, I lied through my teeth to get here —
Q: You claimed proficiency in English, which wasn't true —
A: And to get my passport, I had to promise to promote revolution in America, which I never did.
Q: Once you got here, you learned English in part by watching "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." You particularly loved Mr. Rogers, who seemed so kind. There's a wonderful moment in the book where he says, "The best gift you can offer is your honest self." And that's what you're doing now, with this book.
A: Thank you! You know, after "Red Azalea" came out, I sent Mr. Rogers a copy of the book. He was dying of cancer, but I didn't know that then. And he read the book and said, "I feel so good that my work has touched a soul like you." And those were the last words he wrote.
Anchee Min will appear at Lit Fest, June 8-9.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
The Cooked Seed
By Anchee Min, Bloomsbury, 361 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, CT Now