Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Pearl of China"

Anchee Min was born in China in 1957 and came to the U.S. in 1984.  Her literary debut "Red Azalea", a memoir of growing up in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, established her as a popular and respected author. Her subsequent books include memoirs and historical novels. "Pearl of China", her most recent book is historical fiction and tells the story of Pearl Buck, the Nobel-prize winning American writer whose best work portrayed the people and the land of China in the twentieth century.

In an author's note in that book, she explains:

"In setting out to tell Pearl Buck's story I faced a number of challenges. I wanted to convey the full sweep of Pearl's life, but I wanted to see her as my fellow Chinese saw her."

She accomplishes this by telling "Pearl's story through her relationship with her actual Chinese friends."

The result is a warm, respectful look at the life and experiences that became distilled into Pearl Buck's books, admiring but also attentive to the contradictions and ambiguities of Pearl Buck's life and her relationship to China. In describing Pearl's Chinese friends from childhood on, Min also is able to tell the story of China in the twentieth century, including the decades after Pearl returned to the United States in 1937.

As I engaged this book,  I became fascinated by the many facets of cultural identity and cultural translation that it contains. Anchee Min, a Chinese daughter of the Cultural Revolution who came to America and became a best-selling author, in English, of books about China tells the story of a woman from her parents' generation who was American but grew up in China and became famous telling the world about China in English. Not only could I appreciate the appeal that Pearl Buck had for Anchee Min but I also enjoyed Min's exploration of the Chinese world in which Pearl lived and wrote.

I learned much from Min's book about how it came that Pearl Buck was ultimately rejected by China's communist culture, suspected in the United States for what were seen as leftist views, and marginalized by the literary establishment in the United States. Pearl Buck's treatment by the Chinese communist political and cultural leaders is part of a larger story of Chinese authors and intellectuals who had helped bring about a revolution but who were subsequently rejected and silenced.

As I read, I began to wonder how and when Anchee Min learned about Pearl Buck? Had she encountered her work in China? In Chinese? Or was it only after Min came to the United States and became proficient in English that she encountered Pearl Buck's China?

In the Author's Note that follows the book, Anchee Min explains that as a teenager, she was made to denounce Pearl Buck as part of Madame Mao Tse Tung's campaign to discredit Pearl Buck while she was still alive and was attempting to visit China with the Nixon-Kissinger visit in 1971. Min followed instructions as she copied lines from the newspaper like, "Pearl Buck insulted Chinese peasants therefore China" and "She hates us therefore is our enemy." Of course, she knew very little about Pearl Buck and noted that  she was not permitted to even read "The Good Earth" to understand what she was denouncing.

Years later, at a book reading of "Red Azalea" in Chicago, a woman came up to Min and presented her with a copy of "The Good Earth", explaining that Buck had taught her to love the Chinese people. Min read the book on the flight from Chicago to Los Angeles and was moved to tears. "I couldn't stop myself because I remembered how I had denounced the author. I remembered how Madame Mao had convinced the entire nation to hate Pearl Buck. How wrong we had been! I had never encountered any author, inlcuding the most respected Chinese authors, who wrote about our peasants with such admiration, affection, and humanity."

Read "Pearl of China." You will meet two remarkable women, Pearl Buck and Anchee Min, who didn't meet in life but who now meet through art and history and who, together, have important stories to share with us.