Lisa See Talks Books
by Tif Sweeney, Walrus Contributor
Author Lisa See has written a multitude of novels born of her rich Chinese ancestry. From Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that focuses on the expired tradition of foot binding and a form of secret writing among the women to Shanghai Girls featuring sisters who flee China in the midst of war to brave a new life as immigrants in the United States, See brilliantly takes on hard historical issues in fictional form.
As a tried and true fan of See’s work, I was thrilled to experience a bit of book chatter with the author at the March 12 session of “Maryville Talks Books,” the local university’s literary series presented in partnership with Left Bank Books. See’s St. Louis appearance comes during the paperback release of Dreams of Joy, the much-anticipated sequel to Shanghai Girls.See began the evening by sharing her unique (and risqué) family history. Her great, great grandfather came to the United States from China to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, but found he had a great liking for gambling and girls. Her great grandfather started their first family business in California, selling crotchless underwear for brothels (what the family fondly refers to as “fancy underwear for fancy ladies!”).
To spice things up even more, Great-Grandpa fell in love with a Caucasian woman. Unfortunately, until 1948, it was illegal for a Chinese and Caucasian to marry. This did not stop the two lovebirds, who, after getting a lawyer to draw up a legal contract, illegally married. The family eventually switched to the antiques business and their little shop still stands today.
Recognizing that traditional “history” is generally told from the perspective of men on the front lines, See says she seeks to tell the stories of the women, children and families behind them. And although this “forgotten” history is her inspiration, See believes that her work is truly about relationships and emotions, as seen in these four aphorisms upon which she based her latest novel, Dreams of Joy:
- The dead can claim the living.
- Suffering will overcome attachment by wearing it out.
- Mothers suffer; children do what they want.
- There is soft happiness in sadness and deep sadness in happiness.