Interviewing Lisa See for the release of her first novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a no brainer. I have always been a fan of Chinese historical fiction and after visiting Beijing a few years ago I wanted to read as much about China as possible. This lead to a long and enjoyable detour through the books of the stellar Pearl Buck, the truthful and stark books by Anchee Min, a native author who survived the Cultural Revolution and came to the US to write about her life in the propaganda machine known the opera, Madam Mao Zedung and a Chinese imperial dynasty and finally to the story of Lisa See's Snow Flower, a story rich in the historical lives and communication between Chinese women.
Below is an interview I did over two years ago with Lisa See who, as you will see, is a wealth of information about Chinese history and culture. It is important to note that while the most recent book by Lisa See at the time of our interview is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - her most recent novel is Peony in Love. As the interview ends See writes a great deal about Peony in Love which she had already finished at the time.
Kelly Hewitt: Your most recent novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is based around nu shu ("women's writing") which has been noted to be the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world. When did you first learn about this form of communication? What led you to base a novel around it?
Lisa See: I first heard about nu shu when I reviewed a book for the L.A. Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three or four page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and I didn’t know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret themselves for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I have to say I became totally obsessed.
But it took me a long time before I realized I would write a novel based on nu shu. I read all this academic stuff written by scholars and I went to southwestern Hunan province to learn what I could. What I discovered was that the scholars—as brilliant as they are—always seemed to leave out the emotions inherent in the secret language. It was something used by real women who had real emotions. I thought a novel would be the best way to explore that.
Kelly: I imagine that you spent quite a bit of time doing research about your family for you first book On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, during that process did you ever discover something that surprised you?
Lisa: I worked on On Gold Mountain for five years. I interviewed friends, relatives, business associate, and even some enemies of my family. I spent a lot of time in people’s attics, basements, closets, and garages looking at ephemera. I went to Waterville, Washington, where my grandmother was from, to Central Point Oregon, where my great-grandmother was from, to my family’s home village in China, and to a lot of national, state, and local archives of various sorts. It’s hard for me to pick one thing that surprised me, because I was surprised so many times.
I guess the thing that really got me though had to do with my great-grandmother. In my family, everyone always talked about my great-grandfather, Fong See, but rarely about his wife. She was the mom, so I guess not very interesting. I knew she’d been born in Central Point, that her mother died when she was a baby, that her father died when she was seven, that she was raised by brothers who were reputed to be quite cruel to her, and that she ran away from home when she was seventeen. That’s it! I contacted the historical society in Medford, OR, and got a very good researcher. Periodically, she would send me things she’d found – a clipping about Ticie’s father’s death in a horse-racing accident, when her brother got married, the homestead claim for the property. The researcher drove by the homestead and saw that the barn was still there.
I decided to go up and see what I could see. I went to the property and walked around, and then I drove to the cemetery, which was just down the street. I knew Ticie’s father’s name, but not her mother’s. I walked through the cemetery until I found John Milton Pruett’s gravestone and next to it the one for his wife, Luscinda. I now knew when she was born and when she died. About a half hour after that I was at the historical society and I asked if it ever snowed in Medford. (It was 120 degrees that day, no kidding, so it wasn’t a crazy question.) The researcher told me that, yes, it snowed, but they were also known for their fog and heat. In fact, she didn’t live in Medford and kept an 1877 copy of a diary written by a man who was a farmer by day and a preacher on horseback by night. He always made a notation of the weather and the researcher now used it like an almanac so she would know how to dress for work. Would I like to take a look at it? Sure!
I had just learned that Luscinda had died on April 9, 1877. I turned to that page in the farmer’s diary and he was there with her when she died. It turned out he was the Pruetts’ next door neighbor. The whole diary was filled with anecdotes about the Pruett family—how they traded butter for lard, how they traded peaches for pears, how much the reverend paid the Pruett boys to do hauling for him. And it tracked when Luscinda first got sick, when the Reverend Patterson’s wife made her special homemade cough syrup, that when Luscinda knew she was going to die the Bible verse that she asked him to read at her funeral, and, finally, what the weather was like on the day she was buried.
Kelly: I was fascinated to learn, when researching for this interview, that your grandfather, Fong See, was the patriarch of Los Angeles' Chinatown. How has your grandfather's legacy shaped your life?
My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I have about 400 relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are about a dozen that look like me. They were my mirror, so how could I believe I was different than they were?
All writers are told to write what they know, and this is what I know. And when I don’t know something – nu shu, for example – I love to find out whatever I can about it and then bring my sensibility to the subject. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, but perhaps the American side of me is able to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too "exotic" or "foreign."
As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunt and great-uncles in Chinatown. As I said, we have a big family. There were lots of Chinese weddings and one-month parties. Recently, I’m sorry to say, there have been too many funerals. All of these things have been very traditional Chinese. Pioneer Chinese American families really hang on to tradition and culture in a very old-fashioned way. In China, traditions changed and evolved over the last 100 years. That just wasn’t the case with the families who came to America. They held on to their traditions as though they were frozen in time.
Many of my memories are about food. My grandfather loved to cook. Because our family was so big, we had lots of banquets. When my oldest son went to college, he was very homesick. He would visit the girls in the next room, because they had a rice steamer. The smell reminded him of home and helped him with his homesickness.
Anyway, to answer your question, the influence has been in everything in my life. It’s in how I raise my children, in what I eat, in how I remember the people in my family who’ve died. It’s in what I plant in my garden and how I decorate my house. I have a western doctor, but my main doctor is from China and practices traditional Chinese medicine.But because of how I look I will always be "outside." In Los Angeles Chinatown, people know me. But when I go to other Chinese communities or to China, people see me as an outsider because of how I look. When I go into the larger white community here in the U.S., people look at me and talk to me as though I belong, but inside I often feel very foreign. In both worlds, I’m a bit outside. I think this has made me a better – and certainly more interesting – writer, because it really makes me look and feel.
Kelly: Having designed a walking tour of LA's Chinatown yourself, what places and sights would you recommend for visitors?
Lisa: I love the Chinese American Museum, which isn’t in Chinatown proper. It’s at El Pueblo, where Olvera Street is, in one of the last of the original buildings of the original Chinatown. They’ve done a great job with their permanent and temporary exhibits. I also highly recommend walking the length of the two walk-through streets from Broadway up to Chungking Road. My family’s stores—the F. See On Company and Fong’s—are in the block west of Hill Street. Stepping into them is like stepping back in time. They have great antiques, but also wonderful people, if I do say so myself. My great Uncle Kuen is at Fong’s. He’s 96 years old, sharp as a tack, and filled with great stories.
Chinatown is interesting today because of the juxtaposition of the old and then all these trendy art galleries. It’s fun just to poke around. I love Realm, which has a contemporary take on curios and home décor. Somewhere in there, you need to eat, so I’d recommend the Empress Pavilion for dim sum, the Mayflower Restaurant on Spring Street for dinner, and the Phoenix Bakery for some take-home goodies, especially the strawberry and whipped cream cake.
Kelly: You are a woman of many talents, involved in your writing as well as the community. What kind of projects are you currently working on?
Lisa: I liken what I’m working on now to a reverse mirror image of Snow Flower. It doesn’t have a tile yet, but I’m guessing Peony might be in it somewhere. Unfortunately there’s no short way to say this, so I hope you’ll bear with me. The new novel is set in the 17th century in the Yangzi Delta. The women there were from the elite class, highly educated, but also lived in almost utter seclusion. More women writers in that small area were being published than anywhere else in the world at that time. This is another one of those things that made me think, why didn’t I know this and why doesn’t everyone else know this? It’s really remarkable. No other country in the world comes remotely close to how advanced China was in this regard.
There was a subcategory of these women writers called the lovesick maidens: sixteen-year-old girls who were obsessed with the opera, The Peony Pavilion, caught cases of lovesickness like the heroine in the opera, and wrote beautiful poetry as they wasted away and died. The new novel is based on a true story of three of those lovesick maidens who were married to the same man, who together wrote the first piece of literary criticism written by women ever to be published in the world. Wu Wushan’s Three Wives Commentary of Mudan Ting stayed in print in China for 300 years, and yet almost no one knows about it today – either in China or in other parts of the world. I’m writing it as a ghost story within a ghost story, and I’m using the richness and magic of the Chinese afterlife to explore the different manifestations of love—mother love, romantic love, erotic love, deep-heart love—and how they can transcend death. Ultimately the story is about female friendship, the cost of expressing creativity under oppressive circumstances, and the desire and need for women to be heard—all as timely and pertinent today as they were three centuries ago.
I’m also working on two other China-related projects. The first is a young adult book on the history of the Chinese in America. This is a completely different kind of project and lets me look at photographs, archival materials, and other types of ephemera to help tell the history in a way that will be captivating to kids. The other project is a calendar for 2008 of photographs from beautiful places in China. I’m writing the text.
Kelly: I am one of those people who can't help but fill their shelves with books, CD, and movies. What is the one thing that loads down the shelf of Lisa See?
Lisa: These days, the things that are literally loading down my shelves are the foreign editions of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It’s being published in thirty languages, in hard and soft covers, and in some cases large print, on CD and on tape. It’s the most of any one thing I have on any of my shelves, and it’s kind of embarrassing. But I bet that wasn’t the answer you were looking for.
I’ve got lots of books on Chinese art, history, and culture. Most of them have long been out of print, so I’ve spent a lot of time surfing the web to find them from all over the world. It’s always a treat when a new one arrives. I’ve also got tons of music – lots of Bob Dylan, soundtracks, Mexican and South African music, hip hop, operas, everything really. But I’m not a big movie collector. I love to go to the movies and I probably see about 100 a year, but I rarely feel a need to own them. The ones I do own are Top Hat, Aliens, The Matrix, and Jules et Jim.