Anchee Min is an expert at reinvention. To survive the travails she was forced to endure in Maoist China, to be here at all, living in a modest house in the L.A. suburbs, she has had, time and again, to break with her past. Writing with passion is Min's secret weapon, and in her first two books, her New York Times Notable memoir Red Azalea (Pantheon, 1994), and Katherine (Putnam, 1995), a novel, she defiantly takes responsibility for who she is, refusing to put the blame on the Cultural Revolution, party bosses or any of the other scapegoats she sees her countrymen turning to to explain away what she calls the corruption of their souls. Now, with Becoming Madame Mao (Houghton Mifflin, she is embarking on an even more ambitious quest--to reconceive history's view of modern China's most powerful woman.
"It is the Chinese tradition that every dynasty's downfall is the concubine's fault," she says. "Madam Mao is considered a white-boned demon. But how could she be all evil?" Standing in her all-American kitchen, casually dressed in black pants and a shiny silk Chinese tunic, Min points to a black-and-white wedding photo of Mao and his bride, the actress Jiang Ching. "In Shanghai we knit these little sweaters, and here she is, wearing her favorite little handmade sweater. The whole writing process for me is to go backwards. I was never capable of seeing her as I can now after my research: as simply a young woman."
Going backwards is Min's way of achieving catharsis, and reclaiming her childhood. Born in Shanghai in 1957 as the eldest of four children, she went through elementary school reciting from Mao's Little Red Book, singing Madam Mao operas, sleeping four to a bed and denouncing her favorite teacher at a rally. After high school, she toiled in the isolated Red Fire Farm labor camp as her middle-class family's state-designated peasant.
Three years later, through a combination of luck and sheer determination, she was chosen from among the hundreds of millions of toiling peasants to return to Shanghai and be groomed as an actress for Madam Mao's final opera, Red Azalea, only to be politically discredited when Madame Mao fell in 1976, and condemned to sweep the stages as a set clerk. "That was when I almost killed myself," she says. "The Party secretary said, 'You will never go to university. You will be a set clerk for the rest of your life."
But at the studio she befriended Joan Chen, later the star of the film The Last Emperor, and with Chen's encouragement, Min made it to the United States. "She gave me the idea and helped me with the college applications. But none of the schools would accept someone without a minimum of 500 on the T FL, and I got a zero." The only exception Chen turned up was the Art Institute of Chicago. Min arrived in September 1984, but she got stuck at immigration right away. "I was given six months to learn English, and when you're desperate, you do. I started from Sesame Street."
Art school gave Min a vocabulary of visual imagery, and she often uses artistic references to explain her work. She briefly experimented with being a photographer, and one of her own photographs graces the cover of Becoming Madame Mao--it depicts a woman draped in the bright red Communist national flag and covered with Mao buttons. "At the time," she recalls of the days when she collected the buttons--850 of them--"I wanted to paint them on my flesh, so deep was my worship of Mao--and that was instilled in all of us by Madame Mao."
Writing, however, was her true calling, even though her medium--the English language--still tripped and tricked her. "I write because I have to," she says. Red Azalea began as essays and compositions she wrote for class as she learned English. "Back in China," she explains, "we are told to bury the Cultural Revolution. But I couldn't bury it. When I first got here, everything I wrote was this, because I didn't have anything else."
Her teacher told her she was a lousy writer, but she had great material--and even tried to steal some of it. Min didn't care, for her compositions just poured out of her. . She turned to her classmates for language help, and she thanks several of them in the acknowledgments, and even the dedications, of her books.
Ironically, English, though awkward, proved a wonderfully liberating language for Min. "In Chinese, we don't have the vocabulary for intimate feelings," she says. "That is why Red Azalea is so passionate." Writing in English also released her to trust what she calls her "most primitive self" and break out of the accepted Chinese mode of blending in. "What I learned from the history of art is that you have to be original. If you want to be a Picasso, you have to have a voice." Even today, though, she acknowledges it is a tedious process to get it right--"like a long line of ants walking for blocks carrying one crooked cricket leg"--and she feels challenged to add new flavor to the English language, "like adding Chinese tastes to Western cuisine."
At the urging of Qigu Jiang, her then-boyfriend and later first husband and father of her daughter, Lauryan, Min submitted a story to the Mississippi Valley Review's 20th anniversary competition. She laughs suddenly at the memory. "I was too poor to buy an envelope, so I handmade one with brown paper and Scotch tape, and it was full of English
mistakes, I'm sure." Still, her story "White Chrysanthemum," won first prize. Publication in Granta followed, as did a letter from agent Sandy Dijkstra.
Min had already sent Sandy Dijkstra some material at Joan Chen's suggestion, who knew of her through her friend Amy Tan. "I think her assistant turned it down," she says without a trace of malice. Today, it is clear she thinks the world of Dijkstra. "If I don't feel good about my work, and it g s to Sandy, she's going to kill it. She's a killer. But she saved Madame Mao." When Min completed the manuscript, neither of her previous publishers wanted it. "I told Sandy, I don't want to know anything about it. Don't tell me who's bidding, who's not. I am prepared fully to accept that this thing is not going to be published. I did it because I had to. I told her to put it in the trash can."
Dijkstra has been the one constant in Min's publishing career. Min's first book was bought by Julie Grau at Turtle Bay Books. But the imprint was closed down, and Grau brought it to Sonny Mehta, who bought the book, but gave it to Dan Frank to edit. "The second one [Katherine] I felt I had to give to Julie, so I moved [to Putnam]" Min explains. "I told Sandy I didn't want an advance. It makes me nervous. I live modestly. I need $15,000 a year for me and my daughter. I always compare here to China, and I live in heaven here."
Although Grau was interested in Min's next book, Wild Ginger, about Min's high school years as a Mao zealot, she didn't want Becoming Madame Mao, and it finally went to John Mueller at Houghton Mifflin. Mueller later offered Min a two-book contract, the first for Wild Ginger, which she has already completed and is due out in spring 2001, and the second for The Last Empress, her second historical novel.
Min brings out a ring notebook to show how she organizes her research. Every page is crammed with Chinese characters in several different colors of ink and pencil. "This is how my father taught me to write," she says. The outline, the book's skeleton, is in black ink. In red are the details of characters, setting, mood. In a separate file, Min keeps research material and expanded notes--a line of dialogue, a paragraph she's written on the train or while waiting for a plane. These fragments are represented by circled numbers, in green ink. The overall construction is in Chinese. But when Min sits down to write, she writes in English, and says that by the end, the story is distilled inside her, and she d sn't even use her notes.
Min is a stickler for accuracy, whether she's charting facts or emotions. Red Azalea took her eight years to complete. "I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it," she says, each time peeling away a layer of emotional protection--describing one character's role, and then another's, until finally, she had to face her own. "I got closer and closer, and I kind of knew that what I'd put out was not quality, because the real quality was to reach inside and show how I had acted. But I didn't have the guts to face the shame and the responsibility."
The speed with which Min can now turn out books about her past is a testament to how completely she has examined her inner landscape and emerged from it a different woman. Katherine, which in novel form chronicles her emigration from China, only took a year and a half, as did Wild Ginger. The Last Empress and Becoming Madame Mao, however, each took five years, in part because of the extensive research they are based on, in part because she created a whole new way of looking at these powerful, vilified women, forcing the reader to reexamine the Chinese consciousness using the same process she used to reexamine her own in Red Azalea.
"I was so glad that the experts who read Madam Mao could not find any flaws," she says. "And I was proud of myself for being able to write it in an entertaining way while staying faithful to the facts.'" One of her greatest challenges was to invent convincing dialogue for Mao--any one of the billion of her countrymen who read the book would know in a heartbeat whether it sounded real, since all had grown up chanting his slogans and his p try. "I asked Mo Yan, the master of the Chinese novel and author of Red Sorghum, how he thought my Mao sounded, and he agreed that was the way he talked: talented, without making sense," she says, clearly pleased.
Praise also came from Ha Jin, author of last year's National Book Award winner Waiting, whom Min considers like "old China" and with whom she appeared on a panel at the L.A. Book Festival in April at the kickoff of her 10-city tour. Still, she speaks of these fellow Chinese authors as though there were a great distance between their outlook and hers. "When the book came out, I told my editor, don't send it to anyone Chinese, because they will criticize it," she says. Min sees the inspiration for her writing coming not from contemporary Chinese authors, but from Tan Xian-zu, a 13th-century opera composer she calls the Chinese Shakespeare, and describes as possessing a much more rounded view of women than current authors. She also draws from the tradition of Charlotte BrontÃ«, "specifically Jane Eyre," which she first read in Chinese as a youngster, and later realized had strongly influenced Madame Mao.
It has been 15 years since Min first arrived in America. Every year she g s back to Shanghai to visit her parents, imprint the language and sense of place upon her daughter, who is now seven years old, and research her next book. But as the years pass, she feels she is becoming at least "half half" American. "America allows me to feel at peace," she says. Last December, she married Lloyd Lofthouse, a tall, ex-marine Vietnam vet who teaches English at an L.A. public high school on the "wrong side of the tracks." Still, the boxes piled high in her garage and dining room give the impression that she is still in transit, though she has lived in the house for more than a year. The main decoration on the spare walls are oil paintings she and Lauryan have done together, and a striking photograph of the two of them swimming in turquoise water in China.
"My time is for my daughter, my husband, and my writing." She sips a glass of green tea and quickly scans a love note her daughter has slipped onto the kitchen table during the interview. It is hard to imagine her in her previous life, dreaming of becoming a Madame Mao heroine, feeling frustrated that she wasn't sent to Vietnam to fight American soldiers. But unlike Madame Mao, who according to Min progressed from innocence to corruption, Anchee Min herself has emerged from the morass of Maoism cleansed, able to feel and express enormous innocence.