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Lisa SeeDescribe your latest project.
Shanghai Girls opens in 1937 in Shanghai the Paris of Asia, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, artists and warlords, patriots and revolutionaries, and the Chin sisters. Pearl and May are "beautiful girls" models for advertising and calendar posters but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls' savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages to a pair of Chinese brothers who've come from America to find brides.
That gets you started on the plot, and suffice it to say that the sisters go through all kinds of adventures, traumas, tragedies, and triumphs before they get to the last page. I wanted to write about three main things: arranged marriages as they played out in an American Chinatown, China City, and sisters. We had a lot of arranged marriages on the Chinese side of my family, so I know a lot about them and how hard they were for the women. China City was one of four Chinatowns in Los Angeles at the time. It opened in 1938 as a kind of theme park. It was supposed to be an "authentic Chinese city." It was surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and, inside, it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth, so it wasn't too authentic. It had a lot of charm, though, and many of my relatives, who worked there, remember it fondly. Finally, I wanted to write about sisters. I'm a sister myself, and I know how sisterhood can be both loving and fraught. I consider Shanghai Girls to be the closest to my heart and experience of all my books.
Years ago, when I still did magazine pieces, I had an assignment to write an article on whatever happened to Buffy Sainte-Marie. She lived on Maui, so off I went. After I was done with the interview, I went to Oahu to visit a college friend and her husband for a couple of days. I slept on their couch. I was supposed to stay only a night or two, but they wanted me to stay longer. However, I had a big problem. I didn't have any money. Then Bill had an idea. I don't remember exactly how this came together, but he must have worked for or knew someone who worked for a liquor distributor. There was going to be a big liquor convention in Waikiki, so I was given a temporary job as Miss Jose Cuervo. I wore a Miss Jose Cuervo sash and poured a lot of free samples of tequila. I ended up staying for about three weeks and came home with more money than I'd gone to Hawaii with. Not bad! I still have that sash somewhere, and when my husband wants to shock someone I'm a writer, but I'm also a lawyer's wife he'll say I was once Miss Jose Cuervo. People cock their heads and try to imagine how his sweet, sophisticated, intimidating, take your pick wife could have ever done anything so wild. If they only knew that being Miss Jose Cuervo is just the tip of the iceberg. Thank goodness they don't know any of my other stories or adventures! (And neither do you.)
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don't completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while...
I used this quote as the epigraph for my first book, On Gold Mountain, which is about the Chinese side of my family. For that book, I spent five years going through papers, letters, government interrogations, and all kinds of things to learn about my family. But that process didn't stop with On Gold Mountain. With my last three books Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and now Shanghai Girls I've been trying to go back and find lost women's projects, their creations and voices, and bring them out so we can learn from them, experience them, and finally hear those women for who they were and what they did. I hope that those stories are as inspiring to others as they are to me. But on a deeply personal level, I'm really happy when I get to spend time going through old papers and trying to imagine myself as the writer of those words. Yes, I'd like to live in their clothes a while.
How do you relax?
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Right now, I'm on a plane coming back from China, where I was on a research trip for the next book. When I was in Shanghai, I went to Lu Xun's home in the Hongkou district. Back in the 1950s, it was a big pilgrimage site for domestic tourists. Now, no one goes there. A guard unlocked the door, and there I was, alone, in Lu Xun's home. I saw the table where he wrote. He had given the largest and brightest room to his little son. The house had a Western-style bathroom, which was pretty rare for those days. I saw the bed where Lu Xun died. It had a wrought-iron frame with a beautiful hand-embroidered linen canopy. (My Shanghai girls have almost identical canopies on their beds, although theirs are embroidered in a wisteria pattern. It's odd how you can write something from your imagination and then see the real thing after a novel is finished.)
I next went to the place where Lu Xun held the inaugural meeting of the Chinese Left-Wing Authors Alliance. No one was there, either, but it was interesting to see the room and imagine all the writers long dead, now who were so full of political and artistic enthusiasm, even if much of it turned out to be misguided or wrong.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
It seems like I should have a list that has something to do with China, and I'm happy to do that. I wouldn't call these the must-reads if you're going to China, but these books have made me think about China in new ways, pressed me to be more critical (and sometimes more forgiving) of the country, have captured a moment or a subject in a unique way, or have knocked my socks off with the audacity of the subject or the skill of the writer.
Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker: To my knowledge, this is the most complete and thorough examination of China's Great Leap Forward, when 30 million people died of starvation caused by Mao's attempt at utopian agricultural policies. It's rare to read a book so well researched, thoughtful, and provocative. I can't stop thinking about it.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang: People often ask me what it's like for women in China today. Here's the answer. Millions of young women leave their home villages to go to work in big foreign factories to make our tennis shoes, t-shirts, toys, Christmas ornaments, and all the other things we can't seem to live without. They live in factory dormitories, some of which house 80,000 women.
Selling Happiness: Calendar Posters and Visual Culture in Early-20th-Century Shanghai by Ellen Johnston Laing: I've been collecting Shanghai calendar girls for years. Now I've written about them! Ellen Johnston Liang's book is not only beautiful but also paints a portrait of the lives of the artists, their cultural and social influences, and how the images they painted were used to transform everyday lives.
Women Writing in Modern China: An Anthology of Literature by Chinese Women from the Early 20th Century edited by Amy D. Dooling and Kristina M. Torgeson: Often in the West, we are told that in the past there were no women writers. But of course there were! Only so much of what they wrote has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. China has a different tradition. There were a lot of women writers who have remained in print not only in China but also in this country. There are several anthologies of Chinese women writers. The Red Brush is probably the most comprehensive, and covers over 2,000 years of women writing in China. (Try to beat that, Western canon!) I also like The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, but my favorite is Women Writing in Modern China, which covers the early 20th century. These women write about the same things women write about today love, children, family, heartbreak, war, the economy, and all the things that bind us together as human beings.
Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun: Since I've written about Lu Xun here, it seems only right to include one of his works. Although written in 1918, long before the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward, this would be a good companion piece to Hungry Ghosts, since this book also delves into the desperation and madness that accompanies starvation in a country that has known hunger for millennia.
Lisa See is the New York Times-bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.