Thursday, March 31, 2011

China in the Pages of a Novel--Anchee Min at Boswell on April 13, 7 pm.

I've been reading Anchee Min for years. This should not be shocking to readers, as they should not that my sister Claudia teaches Chinese and is interest in all things Sino. Back when I first read Katherine (it's out of stock indefinitely so alas, I am not linking it), we discussed how Min had totally captured the experience of an American immersed in Chinese culture. It was hard to believe it was a novel.

It was equallly difficult to believe that Min's memoir, Red Azalea, was real. So many amazing things had happened to her, growing up in Shanghai under Mao's reign. As a teenager, she was sent to live in a collective farm. And though most folks in this situation would wither, Min was picked to train as an actress at Madame Mao's studio.

Since Katherine, Anchee Min's novels would be classified as historical. I particularly enjoyed Becoming Madame Mao, a fictional treatment of the life of Jiang Qing. Also popular were two novels on Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, The Empress Orchid and its sequel, The Last Empress. It was a thrill to get the call from Bloomsbury to host Anchee Min for the paperback of her newest novel, Pearl of China. Our event is at Boswell on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 pm, and yes it is free!

If you haven't seen Min before, you're in for a treat. No boring talk/reading/signing at this event. Just ask anyone who had attended one of Anchee Min's events. While Buck was awarded numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer and the Nobel, she was villified by some after she refused to kowtow to Mao Tse Tung. Min created this novel to return Buck's stature to that of a hero of Chinese culture. There is an exploration of the political machinations that drove such doctrine, which Min explores not just through Buck but through Willow and her husband, Dick Lin, who found themselves on the receiving end of the red wrath.

Anchee Min explores Pearl Buck’s life from the vantage point of a Chinese woman, Willow Yee, a mash-up of various friends from Buck’s life. I think this sometimes throws people off, as they want a biographical novel to be a biography, so they can quote facts. Sometimes this just doesn't work. It would have been much harder to tell Buck's story through four or five different Chinese observers. Not impossible though. Might have made an interesting, but possibly less accessible story.

The daughter of missionaries, Buck was immersed in Chinese culture at a young age, and when she finally was forced to leave the country, found herself more Chinese than American. She wrote her life experiences into a series of novels, most notably The Good Earth, and was awarded the Pulitzer for that novel and the Nobel prize for her body of work. And of course there is the tragic love triangle with Hsu Chi-mo; the affair has never been proven, and the triangle clearly didn’t exist (Yee is not a real character) but you have to remember that this is a novel.

The straightforward, heartfelt narrative and wonderfully realized Willow, balanced by the Chinese history and politics, could well appeal to readers of Lisa See and Jamie Ford. And reading about China can get you in the mood for the Milwaukee Art Museum's summer collection of China exhibitions, including The Emperor's Private Palace: Treasures from the Forbidden City.

To summarize, Anchee Min is appearing for the paperback release of Pearl of China at Boswell Book Company on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 pm. Discuss!

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