Novelist Anchee Min grew up in Communist China, where she learned to write “Long live Chairman Mao” before she learned to write her own name. At 17, she was sentenced to work in a labor camp. At 27, in 1984, she came to the United States. She’s written several novels and a best-selling memoir, Red Azalea, all based on her experiences.
Min—who was trained as an actress after she was deemed an ideal-looking proletarian worker and summoned out of the labor camp to star in Mao’s propaganda films—will present a performance and talk Tues., Feb. 22, at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center, 925 Riverside Drive. The free presentation will begin at 7 p.m.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on The Last Empress.
Is that a novel?
It’s a novel, but it’s a historical novel, and it’s very much based on a real character, the woman ruler who ruled China for 50 years, and who’s considered by the communist government as the enemy of the human race. That’s [what] I grew up to learn from the textbooks. But like everything else in my life, before I left China, I believed it, but then when I came here, I found out that my life itself was a lie. … That’s why I wrote Red Azalea, my autobiography, just to try to have that account. That’s when I started working on other subjects that carried the same mission. I [wanted] to find out what else is a lie.
Have you been back to China?
Yes, I try to go back to China as often as I can, once every two years at least. As long as my books are not translated in China, I’m safe. … My book has sold in 27 translations, except Chinese.
Have you gotten in a lot of trouble for dealing with politically sensitive topics?
That’s a fact that I deal with every day. I’m banned in China, and that’s the way life is.
Do you think people in China would want to read your books if they could?
I heard they’re selling well underground. I obtained some of the manuscripts of the translations. The irony is that they’re very well done, and you can tell this person has gone through the labor camps themselves, because it’s their story, too. It’s not told in China.
So the unofficial translation ended up being something of a collaboration?
You don’t mind that your work was altered a bit?
No. It’s a way to communicate.
What about young people in China right now? Are they hungry for this kind of information? Do they want to hear social critique?
Actually, they don’t. I think that in China right now the pendulum is [swinging] to the other side. Because during our time of growing up, our youth was stolen, completely. For example, the price of dating was death. The man could be executed. … The way to do that was—the party would get the girl and have her denounce the man as a rapist, and the man would be executed. That was a way to keep us in the labor camp, and in our own lot.
Now it’s going the opposite. The children and the teenagers feel that their parents are stupid, so they’re kind of saying, “How can you be so stupid … to do that?” They’re experiencing what Americans had experienced in the ‘60s, the free sex and the free dissent. I think it will be some time before China finds its balance.
Do you think it will happen?
Yeah, I think so.