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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-02-25
- Reviewer: Staff
In her excoriating examination of the legacy of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, novelist Min (Pearl of China, etc.) offers a sharp, moving contrast between American and Chinese attitudes about human worth and dignity. Raised in Shanghai in a hardscrabble family of four children and educated parents who were denounced as “bourgeois,” Min was plucked as a teenager from a labor camp in 1974 by Madame Mao’s henchmen to appear in propaganda films. Min was thought to have “proletarian looks” (weather-beaten face, muscular body). However, with the swift change in the political wind, Min and her family were publicly shamed and thrown into years of poverty and ill health, sharing one room and a bathroom with 20 neighbors. Min, a hard worker, natural caretaker, and loyal to friends, managed to convince the Art Institute of Chicago that she was an artist and spoke English, though she nearly got deported once she arrived in Chicago at age 27 in 1984 because she spoke no English at all. Her memoir methodically reconstructs those painstaking first years in Chicago, living on a pittance, scrounging for work, amazed at what she considered luxurious dorm living, and guilt-ridden at her inability to rescue her family back home. Along the way, she offers candid observations on American naiveté, casual waste, and lack of Chinese stick-to-itness, yet writes poignantly of being treated with decency and warmth, inspiring her to work harder. Watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and reading Jane Eyre helped pave her yellow brick road to literary success, as she delineates captivatingly in this work. (May)
The perils of a promised land
On August 31, 1984, Anchee Min hurtled through the night into the unknown, flying alone away from the familiarity of family and home into an uncharted territory full of adventures and challenges. “Sitting in the airplane crossing the Pacific Ocean, I felt like I was dreaming with my eyes wide open. I tried to imagine the life ahead of me, but my mind went the other way.”
In her powerful and compulsively readable new memoir, The Cooked Seed, Min pulls back the curtains on her most intimate fears and hopes, inviting us to join her as she travels from her life in China, by turns wretched and loving, to her life in America, often miserable yet ultimately triumphant. Desperate to escape the privations of life in Communist China, where she toils in a labor camp as a young girl and is shipped off like a package to work on propaganda films in Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio, Min tirelessly and haltingly learns English in order to seek a new life in America. Despite her lack of a secure grasp of the language, she applies for a visa, fearful of being turned away and surprised (yet secretly excited) when her application is approved.
Woefully underprepared for coming to America—she is not fluent in English, and she has no friends or family in this new place—Min faces one challenge after another when her plane lands in Chicago. She is almost turned away at customs, but a kindly translator recognizes Min’s talent and potential and allows her through; her first roommate, Takisha, teaches her lessons about the racism and poverty that exist even in the midst of wealth and plenty in American society. She struggles constantly with her inability to understand English, her lack of money—she works five jobs—and her dream of discovering her true identity and embracing it. About a photo taken during her first months in Chicago, she writes, “I looked confident and attractive. . . . The real me was depressed, lonely, and homesick. I craved affection, and I dreamed of love.”
Looking for love and acceptance amongst the harsh realities of her new home, Min falls into an unhappy marriage, becomes pregnant, almost dies giving birth and gets divorced. “I was broken yet standing determinedly erect. I could be crushed, but I would not be conquered.” In the midst of all this, she discovers her talent for telling stories and blossoms as a writer, going on to write six novels in English as well as a previous memoir about her life in China (Red Azalea).
Min’s soulful tale of despair and hope stirs our hearts and souls with its moving, harrowing and often heartrending stories of one young girl’s coming of age in a land of threat and promise.