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Anchee Min’s Novel About Pearl S. Buck

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Aired 4/8/10

Bestselling author Anchee Min's new historical novel is about the early life of Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, who grew up in China. The book is called "Pearl in China" and tells a story of a life-long friendship between Buck and a peasant girl. Through riots, abusive husbands, fame, jealousy and the Cultural Revolution, their powerful friendship allows Min to explore Buck's compelling life and China's early 20th century history.

"Pearl of China" by Anchee Min.

Above: "Pearl of China" by Anchee Min.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Writer Anchee Min loves to write about the history of China. But, if you're expecting tales of famous battles or a list of important dates, you'll have to look elsewhere. Min writes about history through the eyes of the people who fascinate her, like Madam Mao or Empress Orchid. This time, Anchee Min has written a story based on the life of Nobel Prize-winning American writer Pearl S. Buck. Through a series of novels, the most famous being "The Good Earth," Buck introduced a generation of westerners to Chinese politics and culture. Anchee Min is my guest. Her new novel is called “Pearl of China.” Anchee, welcome back to These Days.

ANCHEE MIN (Author): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Talk about the appeal of writing about Pearl S. Buck. Why does she interest you?

MIN: Because I have a personal experience. I was taught to—ordered to—denounce Pearl Buck when I was a teen back in China in 1971. I was going school in Shanghai and the only thing I wish I was be – the opportunity I was given was to be able to read “The Good Earth” so I – at least I know what I was denouncing for.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MIN: We denounce everything American and Pearl Buck because we were told that she wrote a book and put down Chinese peasants, therefore she’s our enemy. And it was something that we did, everybody did, just to put down America, you know, just – We were in fear of Americans because Americans were in Vietnam and we believed China was going to be the next.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And, of course, that was during the Cultural Revolution in China. And then when you got to America, though, you actually did get a chance to read Pearl S. Buck. And what was it about her writing that impressed you?

MIN: Well, it was more of a emotional hit than the writing. It was 1996. I was promoting, doing a reading of my memoir, the “Red Azalea” in Chicago. And afterwards, a lady came up to me. She asked me, she says Anchee Min, do you know Pearl S. Buck? And before I could answer the question, she said, I just want to let you know Pearl Buck taught me to love Chinese people and here is her book as a gift. And that book was “The Good Earth.” And her words hit me first because as far as I believed that Pearl Buck hated Chinese people. Here this person told me that she taught Americans to love Chinese people. And so I read the book and finished the book on the airplane from Chicago to Los Angeles. I embarrassed myself because I was sobbing. I couldn’t help it, sobbing on the airplane because I have never seen any writers, my favorite Chinese writers, write – wrote about our peasants the way Pearl Buck did with such admiration, affection and humanity. And it was at that very moment “Pearl of China” was conceived because I believed – I say I, in my life, I want to celebrate Pearl Buck’s life and I wanted to show her role in Chinese history.

CAVANAUGH: How is Pearl Buck thought of in China today?

MIN: Today, she’s considered China’s friend. And the interesting thing was I just got back from her hometown for doing this three-minute video to go with my book. I put it on ancheemin.com and in the video they are restoring the – her childhood setting, the home, and they built Pearl Buck bridge, Pearl Buck Culture Center, Pearl Buck Museum and Pearl Buck house and Pearl Buck Road. Pearl Buck Square, and Pearl Buck shopping center probably in the future. But – and she is a local goddess right now. The only thing was that she was the first time, two months ago, officially acknowledged by the Communist Party as Friends of China and they gave her an award. Her hometown people, the director of Pearl Buck Museum, went to Beijing to receive the award on Pearl Buck’s behalf as her Chinese relative and she came back, she told me that – he told me that he was—am I allowed to say this word? The ‘p’ word? Pissed?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.

MIN: And he says – Well, he – Pearl Buck was no – I don’t – We don’t consider her Chinese, our friend. She’s our daughter, our daughter married to American and all of a sudden she is a friend? She’s not daughter anymore?

CAVANAUGH: Ah. I’m speaking with Anchee Min and she is the author of a new novel called “Pearl of China.” This is a fictionalized version of Pearl S. Buck but it’s based largely on what actually happened. Tell us a little bit, for people who are unfamiliar about Pearl Buck, how is she in China in the first place, and why did she start to write about China?

MIN: She was three months old when she was brought by her parents, who were both missionaries, to China. And she grow up there. And she spent 40 years in China and in her own words, if I’m allowed to quote her, and she said, ‘I belong to China for I have lived there from childhood to adulthood. Happy for me that for instead of a narrow, conventional life of the white man in Asia, I lived with the Chinese people and spoke their tongue before I spoke my own, and their children were my first friends.’ So based on that, I created Willow, this character, because there’s so – she has friends there and they’re not just one so I have to make a combination of several actual friends into this Willow character.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, Willow is, as you say, is a sort of amalgamation of all of – all the really good friends that Pearl Buck had in China and in the novel Willow follows – and Pearl are friends from childhood all the way through into, you know, going through marriages that are perhaps not terribly successful and tell us about some of the things they experienced together.

MIN: Well, I would say that the most fascinating thing was the – Pearl Buck’s – the love affair. And it was in China, the town, they talked about it, but it wasn’t like approves. And I got this from an American biographer that Pearl Buck wrote to her friend and she said she was once madly in love with someone and she was in a very unhappy marriage at that time. And then another British biographer, very excellent one, wrote that Pearl once said if given a choice, she says I would like to marry somebody like Hsu Chih-mo.

CAVANAUGH: And who was he?

MIN: He was the China figure, a poet we call – he was called China’s Shelley.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

MIN: And Pearl Buck had a fascination with him. And the way she wrote about him in her book, this sense of very strong bonding because this man was educated in Oxford and also Columbia University in America. He went back to China. (phone rings)

CAVANAUGH: Somebody’s trying to reach you. I’m speaking with…

MIN: Oh, I’m terribly sorry.

CAVANAUGH: That’s quite all right. Anchee Min has written a book called “Pearl of China,” and it’s based on the life of Nobel Prize-winning American writer Pearl S. Buck. And you were just explaining to us that this admiration that she has for this renowned Chinese poet actually in your novel becomes more than admiration.

MIN: Right, because the two women, Willow, her – they’re the best friends. Willow was fascinated with Hsu Chih-mo and she would want any chance with him. She basically followed Hsu Chih-mo and then when Hsu Chih-mo met Pearl, they connected. Hsu Chih-mo did not love Willow, Hsu Chih-mo was more fascinated by – so it’s a triangle in a way.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

MIN: But you can see why they got connected, and the incident was that Hsu Chih-mo was trying to – he brought a India poet, a Nobel Prize poet, named Tagar (sp) and when he was on the stage presenting, translating, and he stole the show because Tagar, although he was not old but he had a big bear and the claws, the wrap, his shapeless body, so he didn’t get the girls’ attention. And everybody else attention…

CAVANAUGH: I see.

MIN: …went to Hsu Chih-mo so as Pearl. And afterwards, there was a record that she invited Hsu Chih-mo to lecture, give a talk, in her class.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now I know that you spent an awful lot of time in the town that Pearl S. Buck grew up in. What was that experience like?

MIN: It was very easy in a way for me because I grow up in my grandmother’s house, which is across the Yangtze River. Every summer for 17 years, I spent there. And it’s only one hour and a half a distance away from Zhenjiang, Pearl Buck’s hometown. So in front my house, there’s a branch of the Yangtze River, it’s the river where I drank, washed my rice, my vegetable, my dishes, and my chamber pots and my clothing, swimming and with the boat people. And a lot of things that I lived that Pearl Buck described in her book, “The Good Earth.” For example, during the rainy season my floor would swell and the water would turn the floor into liquid mud.

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

MIN: And these kind of things is like – was something that’s convenient.

CAVANAUGH: It’s a bond that you have between her and your real life.

MIN: Yes. And also I think in seeking of my mother’s past because I did not know why my mother was a Christian. I only remember during the Cultural Revolution, I – one middle of the night, I got up to go to the restroom, I stumble over my mother in the dark and she was on her knees. I did not know she was praying because she didn’t share with me her faith because I would’ve reported her. She would’ve been imprisoned.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

MIN: But I was turning into a monster, like denounced Pearl Buck…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

MIN: …doing things like that, and my mother was really concerned and she – When I get award from the principal for being Mao’s Best Child, I brought back the certificate, expect my mother to hang it on the wall. Instead my mother said, Anchee, if you dare to do this again, I will disown you. So I feel that something – my mother’s very different. She had this faith that – so later, and it’s already too late. My mother pass away. I never got a chance to ask who was your teacher? Who converted you? Who gave you that faith?

CAVANAUGH: Because Pearl Buck was over – was the daughter of Christian missionaries and I know that the Christian presence in China has been controversial. I mean, you know, not just during the Cultural Revolution but many people thought that it was not the best thing to take the Chinese culture, the religion, and kind of change it and make people Christian. But you’re saying that there was also some very good things to come out of that.

MIN: Yes, I think because of the brutality during the Cultural Revolution. And when I go back to – for the research, nobody wanted to talk to me and I have to keep returning. I wanted to be as accurate as possible but it was very frustrating because they – the memory of the prosecution was still fresh. Until one day I was referred to a dying pastor who said – who was ready to see me because he was told by the doctor that he would not have more days to live and he said he can afford to tell the truth because he can escape the consequences.

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

MIN: And I feel terrible to steal the dying man’s last moment but the pastor insist on seeing me. It was through him I learned not only the Pearl Buck story and more about her family, her father who’s into converting people and who’s not welcome. Her mother was into talk to – disliking the idea even being in China but she did her best to help healing the people, giving advice to local people, and she end up loved by the local people and she refused to take any compensation so the local people say what do we do? We do something for her husband so he get to go meet his gods after he died. So they sign up for the church.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Pearl Buck loved China so much. Why did she leave?

MIN: She was forced almost to leave during the war that – after the Boxers and…

CAVANAUGH: The Boxer Rebellion?

MIN: Right. And after the – it’s like a warlord and civil war and the – because people believed that the Empress Orchid Tzu-His, the last empress of China, she failed to get foreigner out of China and they come in to sell opium and they have missionary come in. And China believe foreigners were the evil, the source of misery of Chinese people, so they tried to force them all out.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

MIN: And it was no longer safe.

CAVANAUGH: For Pearl S. Buck to be there.

MIN: Right. But she wanted to come back so bad and she almost made it in 1972 with President Nixon. She was scheduled to be on board. When everybody else got the visa, her visa was rejected by Madame Mao. So you see, 1971, Henry Kissinger and Premier Chou En-Lai was working the Nixon trip. 1972, Nixon made the trip. 1973 Pearl Buck died…

CAVANAUGH: Umm…

MIN: …of heartbroken. And her daughter told me that days before her death she was in this Chinese robe standing in front of her China window. It’s the window that she stood by very often. Outside, it’s the landscape that she – she turn it into a landscape picture of Zhenjiang so it was – China was the last thought on her mind.

CAVANAUGH: Anchee Min, you have written “Pearl of China.” It contains so much about Pearl S. Buck and it contains so much about yourself. I do appreciate your coming in and speaking to us about it. Thank you, Anchee.

MIN: Thank you. I will be at Warwick’s tonight.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes, you’ll be at Warwick’s tonight, signing copies of this book.

MIN: Right, if you can’t see me, you just go to ancheemin.com.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much and anyone who’d like to comment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the Weekend Preview on KPBS.

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