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Lions Roar : September 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2011 19 Lisa See’s great-great-grandfather emigrated from China to the U.S. to be an herbalist, serving workers on the transcontinental railroad. Then, after a series of jobs washing dishes and working in the fields, he established a shady business selling crotchless underwear to brothels. Later, his son joined him in California and fell in love with a Penn- sylvania Dutch woman but, since intermarriage with Chinese people was prohibited in California until 1948, they weren’t allowed to wed. These were the sort of stories that See grew up listening to in her family’s antique shop in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Now, as a bestselling historical novelist, she shows readers that history happens to real people and their families. If we can connect with people who suffered injustice and tragedy in the past, perhaps we’ll be able to connect with people facing similar situations today. And there are always people facing similar situations. The author’s mantra is the William Faulkner quote, “The past is not over and done. It’s not even past.” At the heart of See’s novels is love. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which has just been released as a movie by Fox Searchlight, is the story of a deep friendship in nineteenth-century China. Peony in Love is the fantastical tale of a seventeenth-century woman whose love for a man endures beyond death. And Dreams of Joy, her newest novel, is fore- most about mother–daughter love. The heroine is Joy, and the setting is China during the Great Leap Forward. —ANDREA MILLER Your fiction deals a lot with love. How would you define love? There are so many different aspects. I can say, I love to travel, I love my children, I love my husband, or I love hamburgers. But I love them differently. In English, we have one word to describe love, but in Chinese there are many different words that express very different aspects of it—gratitude love, pity love, respectful love, deep-heart love, romantic love, plus that love of hamburgers. If I say all those kinds of love you know exactly what I’m talking about, right? So, I wish I had one great definition for it, but I don’t. In Peony in Love you talk about how in traditional Chinese thought there are seven ancestral emotions—joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate, and desire. As I was writing that book, I came across the concept of the seven ancestral emotions and I thought, oh, wow, these make a lot of sense. They seem to be the main emotions that drive us and really make us human. They cross over time, they cross over culture and gender and ethnicity. They are the emotions that all of humanity shares no matter where we come from or what time we live in. To me that’s powerful. In my writing, I don’t know that I’m necessarily going back to those seven, but I think that there are certain emotions that I do go back to again and again. Mainly, I would say, it’s different aspects of love, and what you could call the corruption of love. Hate, jeal- ousy, envy—aren’t they just love that’s been corrupted? In what ways did Mao’s regime try to control the ways that people loved each other? When Mao took power, one of the things he outlawed was arranged marriages. Yet the new marriage ideal was still not based on love. It was based on being comrades and building the country. You had to get permission to marry and, often, married couples didn’t live together. They lived in dormitories, attached to their factory, or wherever it was that they worked. Maybe they lived in the same city, but maybe they lived in different provinces. Maybe they would get to be with their spouse on certain holidays. It’s estimated that 45 million people died during the Great Leap Forward. That’s too many for me to imagine. Yes, that’s the thing—it’s too many to imagine. But when you can bring it down to one person, one family, then you can connect to it. Like in Dreams of Joy, you can connect to what happens to Joy and the people in her family. You can relate to it as a person, as opposed to a number that’s just incomprehensible. I would never compare my work to The Diary of Anne Frank, but if you think about all of the books that have been written about the Holocaust and World War II, what’s the one we all remember? It’s The Diary of Anne Frank because it’s one girl, one family. Was there anything else that made you decide to write historical fiction about the Great Leap Forward? The West doesn’t really know that much about China and we certainly don’t know much about those early years of the People’s Republic of China. You can’t just say, “China’s the next global economic super- power,” or “China’s going to be our new enemy,” or “China is the best Q&A Not Even Past LISA SEE PHOTOBYPATRICIAWILLIAMS