Lisa See was on the road promoting her new book, "The Interior," when she stopped in Sacramento last weekend. She was trying to have lunch with some old friends when she had to leave the restaurant to conduct a cell-phone interview from the parking lot. She called me in Davis exactly on time. Hey, Lisa, you could have finished your lunch! I would have waited.
She has been making a name for herself writing mystery novels set in modern China. Her first novel was "Flower Net" ( HarperCollins, 1997, $24) followed by her most recent "The Interior" (HarperCollins, 1999, $25).
But her first book was a nonfiction memoir, "On Gold Mountain," focusing on her great-grandfather, Fong See, a dirt-poor Chinese peasant who came to America and first settled in Sacramento. Fong See did very well in America. He had four wives, was the first Chinese to own an automobile, and lived to be 100. He made his fortune in curios and antiques and moved down to Chinatown in Los Angeles where he settled, making frequent trips back to China. In 1982 the antique store moved to Pasadena where it remains today selling and renting out Chinese furniture for movie sets.
Through the years, the See family married non-Chinese. Lisa See is only one-eighth Chinese. She is the daughter of writer and reviewer Carolyn See, to whom she dedicates "The Interior."
Lisa graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. "My mother was teaching there and the tuition was free," she said. She was convinced that she never wanted to marry, have children or write. She wanted to travel. Since then, she married a lawyer who specializes in international business law, had two sons and published three books. She travels extensively and also worked for 13 years as the West Coast correspondent for Publisher's Weekly.
"The Interior" is not a flawless book, especially in terms of its plot, which is unnecessarily confusing. But the book is compelling for the look it provides into China.
One in six people on the planet is a Chinese peasant, she says. But that life is fast changing as international companies set up factories in the boondocks and hire young women from the local villages.
(Two novels that similarly look at the lives of women who work in factories come to mind: "Unravelling" by Elizabeth Graver describes a young American woman in 19th century New England who leaves her village to work in a factory and Gail Tsukiyama's "Women of the Silk" focuses on a silk factory in China.)
See tries to visit China once or twice a year to do research for her books. "I understand quite a bit of Cantonese and have been studying Mandarin with my son," she said. "I can get around in China. In fact, I feel very comfortable there after growing up in LA's Chinatown."
She raised her voice to compete with the traffic.
"I was just in South Hadley, Mass., on this book tour and driving through that area was very unfamiliar and strange...like the Amityville Horror. Yet I can travel anywhere in China and I don't get the creeps."
She finds that fiction is a good writing vehicle, too, because as her plots unfold she can take the time to write about history, politics and the economy.
"I think some of the nicest compliments I've gotten about this book are from people who read it and then realize that the things they wear and buy are from China and are made under some of the poor working conditions that I describe," she said.
But what appears to Americans to be an outrage is nothing of the sort in China.
"The women making $24 a month in those factories are changing the face of China," said See. "They are making enough money to open up small stores in their home villages. These women are working at a free market economy and are providing an economic value they never had before." She says the year 1997 was an important year in China because it marked a growth in the birth rate of Chinese girls, an event that would not have occurred unless females were seen as providing an economic value.
"The government would like a free market economy with no freedom," is the way See explains the changes in China. Everyone has an opinion on what the future of China looks like, but no one knows.
"I just read 168 non-fiction books about the Pacific Rim," said See, who was a judge for a book award. "They were almost all very difficult to read. Valuable, yes, but hard to get through. They were written in the language of urban planners or political scientists or sociologists.
"I am trying to describe how life has changed in China and almost no one is writing about it today in a, I almost hate to use this word, popular way."
Her next book is "Dragon Bones," which will be about the building of the still-uncompleted Three Gorges Dam in China.
"More than 2,000 archaelogical sites will be lost forever when that happens," she said. Stay tuned....
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