Author Anchee Min and the cover of her memoir, "The Cooked Seed." (Bloomsbury; Naishi Min…)
By the time Anchee Min made it to America in 1984, she was "considered a 'cooked seed' — no chance to sprout." As she explains in her new memoir, "I was 27 years old and life had ended for me in China. I was Madame Mao's trash, which meant I wasn't worth spit."
Min's unforgettable first book, "Red Azalea" (published in 1994), chronicled the hardships of her childhood during China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the simple, straightforward declarative sentences of someone new to the language, she wrote about how her teacher parents — considered "bourgeois sympathizers" requiring reeducation — were sent to work in factories, and how she, at 17, was sent to a farm labor camp. In 1976, she was plucked from a cotton field by talent scouts to play proletarian roles in Madame Mao's propaganda films. Mao's death later that year, followed by his widow's subsequent disgrace, extinguished Min's prospects.
"The Cooked Seed" picks up where "Red Azalea" left off. Some 20 years and six novels later, Min's English is more sophisticated, though some awkward phrases remain, such as her expressed determination to live below her means as opposed to within them. She writes without a filter, sometimes startlingly frank about herself and those closest to her, but she is at her visceral best when describing the difficulties encountered on her arduous path to American citizenship. Her book is far less compelling when, after her literary success, it turns into a "tiger mom" tale of her strident efforts to bring out her daughter's "full potential" — and get her into Stanford.
Min's story is of course a variant on the classic immigrant saga of guts, grit, and gradual assimilation. No English? No money? Scant education? Prolonged and perhaps permanent separation from family? Bafflement with aspects of a foreign culture? All standard, though Min conveys them with fresh intensity. Americans, she learns when she's improbably granted a student visa despite her obvious lack of English, "like people with crazy determination."
Min never forgets what she's fled, and her recollections of her desperation at the prospect of a lifetime of menial work at the Shanghai Film Studio and her risky decision to follow her friend Joan Chen (who later starred in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor") to America fuel both her book and her life.
"No one with common sense, or who had anything to lose, would do what I was doing," she writes." But I didn't have anything to lose. I was a caught frog, kicking my last kicks. I jumped the hurdles in front of me."
The far stronger first half of "The Cooked Seed" is all about jumping hurdles. Nearly deported on arrival for her deficiency in English, Min was given six months to learn the language before matriculating at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and friendly dorm-mates who taught her to say "What's up, dude?" instead of "How do you do?" proved more effective than expensive classes dominated by other "language cripples."
Propelled by fear of deportation and debt, Min "lived like an ant crawling on a hottening wok," juggling several low-paying jobs while attending classes. When hired to work for tips only in a Chinese restaurant and cheated of a fair wage at a fabric-painting job, she chalked up her exploitation to "capitalism at work." Ever on the prowl for low rent, she moved into a basement apartment with a nasty fellow countryman who raped, impregnated and nearly strangled her. She describes her homesickness and loneliness and relying on a sex video for release.
But something unfortunate happens to "The Cooked Seed" after Min receives her green card: It devolves into a series of complaints about her incompatible first marriage to a Chinese artist who is as laid-back as she is driven. Then, after her post-divorce move to Los Angeles, the book's focus shifts not to her unexpected literary career (surprising, given her difficulties with English) but to the trials of being a slum landlord and her determination "to influence and mold" her daughter, Lauryann. She finds the perfect partner for this latter endeavor in her second husband, a teacher and Vietnam veteran who shares her unbending, controlling parenting philosophy.
Yes, the "tiger mom" scenario highlights a profound difference between Chinese and American culture — as did the fierce mothering style depicted in Maxine Hong Kingston's 1975 classic, "The Woman Warrior." It also captures the classic immigrant template of shifting hopes onto the next, American-born generation. But stories about drills to elevate Lauryann's SAT scores just do not have the force of the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution or scrambles for legal status.
"The Cooked Seed's" richest addition to the ever-budding literature of the culturally transplanted are Min's excavations of her traumatic youth and fraught transition, and her explorations of the immigrant's "permanent sense of loss and dislocation" — all of which continue to define her as both an American and a writer.
McAlpin regularly reviews books for NPR.org and the Washington Post, among other publications. She also writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.
The Cooked Seed
By Anchee Min
Bloomsbury: 362 pages, $26.