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Festival of Books: Susan Straight, Lisa See tell stories of the invisible

Festival of Books: Susan Straight, Lisa See tell stories of the invisible
Lisa See, center, on a panel with Susan Straight, left, and moderator Patt Morriso (Bret Hartman / For The Times)

For Susan Straight and Lisa See, their novels are not just their stories. Both authors use their books to tell the stories of the invisible.

In a conversation with Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison on Saturday afternoon at the Festival of Books, the authors discussed their characters' place in history as well as their own.

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See's most recent book, "China Dolls," tells the story of Chinese American nightclub performers "going out on the chop suey circuit" in the 1930s. Straight, the recent winner of the 2013 Robert Kirsch Award, focused her book "Between Heaven and Here" on one family's struggle to survive in a poor Inland Empire town.

Though their styles and subjects differ, both women said their work hinges on revealing the lives of people who would be ignored in history books and who would be invisible on the streets.

"It's not that you are rewriting history, but it is that we are trying to go into history to find that real person," See said. "History doesn't only happen to people on the front lines."

See said she looks to the women, children and minorities typically ignored by historians for inspiration -- including her own relatives.

She told anecdotes of her family's struggle with discrimination against Chinese Americans in the 1930s. Like some of her characters in "China Dolls," her parents learned to either emphasize or disguise their accent, depending on whom they were speaking to.

In "China Dolls," See follows the stories of nightclub performers who billed themselves as the "Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers" rather than making a living as performers in their own right.

"China Dolls" references a time many would rather forget. Chinese Americans could not own land until 1948. Hospitals would not take in the sick if they were not from the right neighborhood or social class. The California of the 1930s seems far removed from what we experience today, but See said the threads of discrimination still exist.

"You don't necessarily see those divisions, but we come from a history of them," See said. "It is just under the surface."

A Riverside native, Straight said people in her community growing up all felt invisible. In "Between Heaven and Here," she said, she hoped to make their lives real for readers.

She remembered her mother's constant advice to her as a teenager: "The most you can do is be a secretary, because they will never let you be more than that."

Straight saw her neighbors and friends struggle against the same preconceptions. Whatever their ethnicity, her friends and the characters she writes about from the Inland Empire dealt with the same problems.

"I probably used to spend 50% of the day when my children were little making sure everybody survived," Straight said. "For the women, it is always 'How are we gonna feed everybody? How are we going to survive?' That transcends race."

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Both authors' books illuminate the immigrant experience in California. See described "California's grand salesmanship" as the draw for so many people from all over the country and the world -- fairs and festivals, legends of wealth and free land seduced them.

"You want the piece of land, or you want the World's Fair, so you come for that, but then you stay because you fall in love," Straight said, including both her characters and her own family in her description.

California history, family anecdotes and deep emotions run through both authors' books. Though See and Straight differ in their writing style, writing processes and even tastes in reading, both write to achieve the same end goal.

As Straight said, "The reason we write fiction is to make you feel something."

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