Lisa See grew up in the back room of the F. Suie One Company, a Chinese antiques business founded by her paternal great-grandparents in Sacramento, which later moved to Los Angeles. While she is one-eighth Chinese, the one-time PW correspondent, daughter of novelist Carolyn See, and now a novelist in her own right, says she never gave much thought to her biracial identity until she was working on her first book, On Gold Mountain(Vintage), a memoir that traces her family history back to China. She might not have thought much about it before then, but identity—particularly Chinese women's identity—figures prominently in her three detective novels and in this latest one, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, just published by Random House.
Snow Flower represents a significant departure for See. In the first three novels—Flower Net(Ballantine),The Interior (HarperCollins) and Dragon Bones (Random House)—a male American FBI agent teams up with a female Chinese counterpart to investigate murders that span the two countries in modern times. Inher new book,she delves into the inner lives of two women in 19th-century China whose mother and aunt arrange for them to meet at age seven to become "laotong" or "old sames," a relationship that is even more binding and intimate than a marriage. Through secret women's written language called nu shu that existed for centuries in a remote part of Hunan province, the two girls communicate their most private thoughts. The story takes them through the painful process of foot binding, in which they are literally locked away with women relatives in upstairs chambers, where they are taught embroidery and other female pursuits until they are married out.
Writing about foot binding—if seen through the prism of modern judgments—could be treacherous terrain for any writer, but as with her identity, See did not give it much thought before embarking on the subject. "I didn't worry about it," she says. See attributes her intrepid nature to the example of strong women in her family.
Her great-grandmother, who was white and an orphan, took over the antiques business after divorcing her Chinese husband. With her oldest sons, she built a thriving company. Her youngest son, Eddy, never took to the business but met a resilient woman much like his own mother—not only white, but right off the American frontier. They had a son, Richard See, who drifted in and out of the arts till he met a disenfranchised woman of his own, Carolyn Laws, who was not unlike his mother—short of good luck and the daughter of two alcoholics who was kicked out of the house when she was 17. Carolyn fit the mold as wife to the See men: she was scrappy and talented. She worked her way through college. Richard, an aspiring playwright and an early, accomplished drinker, courted her. They married in 1954, and had Lisa a year later. Divorce followed in 1959. Carolyn and Lisa moved around quite a bit thereafter, but the still-thriving F. Suie One Company remained a constant in Lisa's childhood—as did the message that the women fought to survive.
"It had never occurred to me that I was any different than anyone else," says See. After the publication of her memoir, she went on to write a libretto for an opera based on the book and to curate (with her cousin) two exhibits based on her family's immigrant and settling experience. The first exhibit traveled to the Smithsonian in 2001 and the second is at L.A.'s Autry Museum of Western Heritage as an interactive story told through the eyes of Lisa's seven-year-old father living in 1930s Chinatown.
When people ask See if she's Chinese, she says no. "Well, look at me," she says. "But, when I am in Chinatown, I feel very much at home; and when I am in China, it is just a larger Chinatown to me."
See, who is married to an international lawyer, has traveled to China with her husband and on her own to research her books. For Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, she ventured into one of the most remote areas of the country where women once used nu shu. While she knew she wanted to write about the secret women's language, foot binding and the extremes to which mothers will go to secure their daughter's future, many of the details fell into place during the trip. For instance, as the two "laotong" girls grow up and marry, one's stature rises in society while the other falls. "I didn't know one would be married to a butcher until I saw the giant pot on a doorstep that was used for boiling the skin off of pigs," See says.
"Someone told me, 'You really understand the secret language of sorrow,' " See says. She calls sorrow one of those "ancestral emotions," along with love, hate, jealousy and desire, that we all understand. "People enjoy reading the particulars, but the story is universal," she explains. "Everyone has a mother."
See finds her own mother's story inspiring. Far beyond her days living in boarding houses and putting herself through school, Carolyn See, author of the acclaimed Making a Literary Life, The Handyman and other books, is still writing; she just recently retired from teaching creative writing at UCLA, where her workshops were very influential for many would-be writers. Still, no professional jealously exists between this writing mother and daughter.
To the contrary: See views her childhood as an apprenticeship; she started reading her mother's work from a young age. "I don't know why my mother asked me to read her stuff, but it made me feel like I was part of the enterprise," recalls See. "Writing is thought of as such a solitary thing, but for us it's a family business."
Before diving back into family business in a memoir about her white foremothers and their difficult lives in the American West (which is under contract with Random House), See's next novel will return to women and China. A ghost story of sorts, it is based on a 17th-century true story about young women who fell so in love with the ill-fated protagonist of an opera that they would waste away and die. Known as the "Lovesick Maidens," they wrote and published insightful commentaries on life and love.
To be still learning things about these other literate Chinese women from centuries ago surprises See. "How could I not know about it?" she wonders, claiming her Chinese identity in the process, and her womanness as well, something she has shared with her mother in the not-so-secret language of fiction.