Anchee Min came to St. Louis last week to talk about The Cooked Seed, a memoir of her immigration and life in the United States. It is a follow-up story to The Red Azalea, about her life during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I went to our impressive, newly-renovated St. Louis Public Library and saw a multimedia performance, unusual for an author event. Anchee Min showed us clips of a video documentary, interspersed with readings from her book and a smattering of stories and explanations. It was like a theatrical performance with Q&A afterwards. This woman was definitely not a “cooked seed,” a Chinese saying meaning someone with no future.
The Cooked Seed is the story of a nearly-cooked seed who broke free of everything she had been taught to believe. There was no future for her in an impoverished life in restricted China. By the time Mao died, she knew she had been told lies. As China cracked open, she watched the news clips allowed in from the U.S. and saw “how good the poor people looked—so fat!” The U.S. was her hope, but she would have to rely on a lie, and ingenuity, hard work, and driving ambition to succeed in this new world.
One day while at a park with her baby daughter, Anchee was verbally accosted by three teenaged boys. She wondered why they would say such ugly things to her, and figured it must be because they didn’t know her or any other Chinese. This was a turning point in her life. With Pearl Buck as her hero, Anchee told us, “I wanted to introduce China to America, to defrost the ice in the hearts of Americans.” She turned to memoir.
Red Azalea was published in 1994. Anchee thought, who was she to tell her story? She had to learn “how to tell the truth without shame or fear of punishment.” The truth about her youth in China was harsh. So harsh that Chinese critics lambasted her book as a shameful embarrassment and said she had exposed herself for Westerners. Anchee said even the younger generation was distainful. They don’t want to talk about that period in history. She told us she had become American enough by then to ignore the comments, but every author, especially every memoir author who laid bare their life, understands how painful that must have been. Fortunately her Western audience loved her memoir as well as her historical novels set in China that followed. None have been translated or published in China.
The Cooked Seed is also getting good reviews. Skimming through the book, I found the writing good and the reading fast and easy. I can’t wait to read it, especially after hearing details and anecdotes at the presentation. Anchee gives a voice to the many voiceless, struggling, lonely new immigrants in this country. Her daughter encouraged her, saying, “I want you to leave me your stories, but not sugar-coated.” I didn’t find any evidence of sugar, rather open and honest pictures of what it’s like to navigate a strange place without knowing the language well, of the dangers that lurk, and of how being Americanized affects relationships with those back in the home country. Anchee can also step back and tell us how she sees us and our culture.
Anchee said she is grateful for the opportunities America offered her and her child. She wants to “repay with a well for a drop of water in a drought” and also wants her daughter “to give back.” By the end of the evening, the audience left in awe of all this determined woman had lived through and all that she had become. Anchee is also a photographer, painter, musician, and dabbler in film. And she can dance a number from The Nutcracker Suite. This seed has sprouted and grown many branches.