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.
The Cooked Seed
By Anchee Min, Bloomsbury, 361 pages, $26