When I met author Lisa See, it was when her book, Dreams of Joy, was released. She was in Atlanta amidst a whirlwind book tour and I had just finished her first book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, because I had seen that it was coming out on film. After reading that, watching it and following her since, I can’t brag on her enough to fellow Asian-American literature fans. And, as some of you’ve fallen victim to, I’ll push it on even those who aren’t into Joy Luck Clubbing.
Well, she’s written another one, so I jumped at the chance to highlight China Dolls as my book for the spring. And, when she flew down here from her sunny California home base, I also got to chat with her. She’s fascinating, with a fascinating family tree and history. And, if I remember correctly… she’s a redhead. Yep, a red-headed Chinese-American.
How does that even happen?
“Well, I have about 400 relatives living in California,” Lisa explained. And, as an eighth Chinese, you know her melting pot of heritage had to get a little colorful somewhere down the line. “About a dozen look like me and a dozen look Chinese… all as a result of my great great grandfather coming to this country to help build trans-continental railroad.”
See describes his journey as one that helped him become sort of “the godfather of china town california.” And he had the story to back it up – four wives, lots of children and a lot of business to do. In contrast, See’s maternal side is very small, so her writing is birthed out of her own curiosity. “A lot of what I’m doing when I’m writing is more about my personal journey. It’s more ‘what do I know, what do I not know,’ and why do we do these things in my family? I learn and write, trying to set my own place in the world.”
It’s funny, because even though she’s related to so many people, only a very small part of the population actually knew who she was a few years ago. “I was a critically acclaimed writer (which basically means nobody reads you) before I wrote Snow Flower. People told me no one would read that book. I was ok with that, but it turned out everyone was wrong.”
See said it was because there are certain things she knows readers connect to – the relationships. She writes about female relationships, so she touches on the best friends for life, the sisters, the mothers and daughters. “Everyone has those relationships, no matter where we live in the world,” See said. “Those are universal. Your family is the coffee pot and [someone else’s] is the tea pot, but we both have mothers… We both long for love.”
China Dolls fits right in here. The story is centered around a group of three girlfriends. It’s still treacherous, but See said that because Dreams was so dark and unrelentingly sad to write, a goal for China Dolls was to write a happy ending. Not to spoil too much.
“When I was done [with Dreams of Joy], I was completely wiped out emotionally. If I’m sick, I’ll watch an old Fred Astair and Ginger movie, so I remember thinking I wish I could live in that movie.”
Of course, she admits she knows it’s a total fantasy and that world never existed, but because so many people have thought that, or dreamed that, that was the motif she wanted to bring to China Dolls. The young women are trying to live out a fantasy as well. Of course, it’s also a shout out to her family, specifically in the thematic about being tolerant, about how to stand up for something – something her grandparents were adamant about when she was growing up.
Speaking of growing up, See notes one of the pieces of literature that inspired her most as Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. “I always end my talks with lines from him that I used in Gold Mountain. They’re the words that inspire me to this day… they go something like, fooling around in papers my grandparents left behind, I get glimpses of lives related to mine in ways I recognize, but don’t completely understand. I wish I could live in their clothes awhile.”
See says that’s how she approaches all of her writing. And as she describes her grandparents as hoarders of sorts, she knows she sits on a goldmine of inspiration, fascinating history and a constant window in the world that resulted in this creative, funny and ultimately talented Chinese-American redhead.
Up next? Scraps of paper and hotel napkins abound in See’s purse while she works on The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. And with 400 relatives, I bet she has plenty more stories to tell.