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!