Not Even Past: A Q&A with Lisa See

Andrea Miller interviews author Lisa See about her novel, Dreams of Joy, a historical fiction set in China during the Great Leap Forward.

Andrea Miller
2 August 2011
Great Wild Goose Pagoda (Tang Dynasty), Xi’an, China, 2001.

Andrea Miller interviews author Lisa See about her latest novel, Dreams of Joy, a historical fiction set in China during the brutal Great Leap Forward.

Lisa See’s great-great-grandfather emigrated from China to the United States 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 Pennsylvania 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 aims to show readers that history is something that happens to real people and their families. If we can connect with the 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 in all its forms. 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 foremost about mother–daughter love. The heroine is Joy, and the setting is China during the brutal Great Leap Forward.

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, jealousy, 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. Usually in arranged marriages—at least to start—love is not part of the equation. Love can certainly grow in arranged marriages, and statistically they appear to last longer than Western marriages that come from love. But in an arranged marriage, love is not something you take for granted or expect. So Mao outlawed arranged marriages, and 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 superpower,” or “China’s going to be our new enemy,” or “China is the best country in the world .” Whatever you want to say—whatever it is— you can t really say it unless you have some knowledge of the country And, just like any place, Chinas past is part of its present.

There’s something important about knowing what happened in the past because history does repeat itself. There are places in the world right now where people are starving on a mass scale, and do we in the rest of the world do much about it? Not really.

After all these years of communism in China, how much of Buddhism still remains there?

After Mao died, people gradually started going back to traditional beliefs. It took a little while—it wasn’t an overnight thing. But if you go to a Buddhist temple in China now, you will see people making offerings, bowing, and lighting incense. Younger people too.

In your fiction there aren’t many references to Buddhism. Do you personally have any connection or experience with Buddhism?

My family is Chinese American, and was very traditional in the sense that they borrowed a little from Maoism, old folk traditions, Buddhism, and whatever other things were from their area, Guangdong province. Of course, there are Chinese people who are 100-percent Buddhist or 100-percent Christian. But, I think, the vast majority of Chinese borrow from everything.

You grew up in a bicultural family. How did that affect you?

More and more, I’m trying to explain to myself who I am and how I fit in. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “Who am I and how do I fit into the larger society because I’m in a biracial, bicultural family?” You just don’t think about it. I didn’t realize how much I’d been affected until writing the nonfiction book about my family, On Gold Mountain. In the prologue, I wrote a line that said something like, “Even though I have red hair and freckles, I feel Chinese in my heart.” Of everything I wrote in that book, that’s the one line that people kept coming back to. They asked, “What did you mean by that?” So all of a sudden I had to really think about it in a way I never had before.

I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider. I don’t look like everyone else in my family, and when I go to Los Angeles’ Chinatown it looks very familiar to me—I know every street, I know a lot of the people—but I also know that a lot of the time people look at me and think, “She doesn’t belong here.” And when I go to China, in many ways it’s like a larger version of Chinatown. I get it. I understand it. Yet I know that because of how I look I’d never be completely accepted there. So I’ve always been a bit of an outsider and I always will be, and I think that’s the perfect thing for a writer.

Do you have any ideas for a future book?

I would love to write about Kuan Yin and actually follow her path. It would be a fictional autobiography. I love the idea of the goddess who hears the cries of the world. My editor said, “Who’s the villain? Who are her friends?” And I said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll find them.”

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.