The National Writers Series is a yearlong literature and book festival in Traverse City; the Series recently hosted author Anchee Min for a symposium at the City Opera House in April, 2014. The following reflection comes from MyNorth contributor Jacob Wheeler, who attended the Northern Michigan event featuring Min.
Anchee Min laughed when she told a National Writers Series audience about her wedding night, when she married Lloyd Lofthouse, an author and former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran. “I hope I don’t have flashbacks,” Lofthouse confided in his new bride. “I should have told him, ‘I hope I don’t have flashbacks,’” Anchee joked to a packed crowd in Traverse City, as she stood on stage and mimicked the act of bayoneting an American soldier.
Anchee, a native of Shanghai, was indoctrinated as a young girl by the teachings of Mao Zedong, the father of China’s Communist revolution. At age 17 she was sent to a collective farm where she worked and learned to search the rural rice paddies for invading American soldiers (and bayonet them). But she didn’t find the enemy, she joked, only fellow comrades making out.
While at the collective farm, Anchee was discovered by talent scouts looking to capitalize on her model good looks to promote Maoist ideology, and she worked as an actress at the Shanghai Film Studio until fellow actress Joan Chen helped her immigrate to the United States in 1984. Anchee came to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, penniless and without speaking a single word of English upon arrival.
Since arriving on American soil, Anchee has written two memoirs, the New York Times notable book Red Azalea (Pantheon Books, 1994) and The Cooked Seed: A Memoir (Bloomsburg, 2013) and also penned six historical novels. Her fiction emphasizes strong female characters, such as Jiang Qing, the wife of chairman Mao, and Empress Dowager Cixi, the last ruling empress of China.
The Cooked Seed, which NPR called “the ultimate immigrant story” recounts Anchee’s struggle, and eventual triumph, in her adopted country. She taught herself English by watching the PBS children’s shows Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She kept herself afloat by working five jobs at once, slept in unheated rooms in desolate neighborhoods, married badly to keep her visa from expiring and then divorced, and raised her daughter, Lauryann, as a single mother. The Cooked Seed is an immigrant story that illuminates what many of us take for granted. In the memoir, Anchee is also not afraid to criticize the United States and American culture. As she told guest host Ron Hogan, The Cooked Seed is also about raising her daughter amidst American consumerism and trying to keep Lauryann’s eyes open to Chinese tradition.
“In China, we were told ‘people suffered so you can eat,’” Anchee joked. “In America, we’re told ‘finish food on your plate, because people in China don’t have food.’”
Hogan briefly recounted Anchee’s family history and how they faired under China’s Cultural Revolution, how Anchee was indoctrinated and encouraged to denounce her favorite teacher for criticizing the government, and how she was sent from Shanghai to the rural labor camp and taught bayonet warfare under the Red Guard movement. Anchee repeatedly turned the interview into a theater performance. She took to her feet and demonstrated how she was taught to stab the first American soldier she encountered, then remove the blade and hit the second one with the butt of her rifle. “We’d do that over and over again until the process was smooth,” she said.
However, Anchee’s family fell out with the Communist Party. Her father was an astronomer who talked of spots on the sun. Since Chairman Mao was considered to be the sun, itself, her father was perceived to claim that Mao had spots on his face, and thus considered anti-Mao.
Anchee Min’s National Writers Series appearance quickly took on a humorous tone. She joked about the sexual repression in the labor camp and how she and other girls were given no sex education. Nevertheless, intercourse between a man and a woman was considered the highest revolutionary act.
At one point, Anchee departed from Hogan’s questions and stood up to sing a lovely, melancholy song in Chinese about a girl pining for her lost love. Later in the program, she offered a poem, also in Chinese, that included beautiful imagery about snowy cliffs and blossoms in the spring. And just before taking questions from the audience, Anchee sang a series of popular musical hits, ranging from songs of Shanghai to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” before leaving the stage to jubilant applause.
Peppered with audience questions about her books, her journey, and if she encountered resistance from her publisher for criticizing American culture, Anchee continued to use humor as the sharpest instrument in her toolbox.
Since young people in China today didn’t grow up with the Cultural Revolution, how do their parents relate to them, she was asked.
“Well, kids there basically tell their parents to ‘eff off,’” just like they do here,” Anchee answered.