Finding a New Path, a New Voice of Her Own

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the eve of the publication of "Katherine," her second book and first novel, Anchee Min drove to the Pacific Ocean.

Playing on the car tape deck was the newly completed audio book of "Red Azalea," her highly acclaimed 1994 memoir about coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution. She peered out over the water, in the direction of the country where the events she was now listening to took place.

It was a moment when her two very different lives came together.

"This is my second life," Min says, accompanying her fluent, lightly accented English with ballet-like gestures in a restaurant near her new home in Torrance. That second life began when she came to America in 1984, and has blossomed with her recognition as an important new literary voice.

Min's first life began with her birth in Shanghai in 1957. She grew up an ardent Maoist, a Little Red Guard leader by age 11. At 17, she was sent to Red Fire Farm, a labor collective, where she spent years working the barren land with backbreaking, menial tasks. Eventually, she was "discovered" by the Shanghai Film Studio, and sent back to the city to star in a film version of Madame Mao's propaganda opera "Red Azalea."

The movie was never made; Mao died, Madame Mao was arrested, and anyone seen as sympathetic to her fell into disgrace. This included Min, who was demoted and spent years as a set clerk. The ensuing loneliness left her beaten and suicidal, until she got a call from actress Joan Chen (best known as Josie in "Twin Peaks"), a friend from the film studio, who had left China for the United States. With Chen's help, Min was able to obtain a passport and visa.

Min attended the Art Institute of Chicago, earning a master's degree in fine arts. The contrast between the suffocation of her homeland and the candid freedom of America made her angry and drove her to write her story. She began "Red Azalea" (just out in paperback from Berkeley Publishing) her second month in America, as a classroom essay assignment.

"I felt I had to write it down or I won't be able to go on living," she says. "I think the best kind of writing comes from that. You are so desperate, and that desperation makes the best kind of inspiration."

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Although a novel, "Katherine" (Riverhead Books) is a follow-up of sorts to "Red Azalea." According to Min, it depicts the post-Mao reconstruction of the Chinese mind, brainwashed and then disillusioned by the Cultural Revolution. It's a difficult process.

"China needs some time to recover spiritually," Min says. "It's like medicine: It takes some time to take effect in a sick body. And it doesn't always taste good. And it can make you lose your hair."

The title character in "Katherine" is an American woman who has come to China to teach English to a group of students who include Zebra, a young woman clearly based on Min. Although the book is a continuation of her own experiences, it was written as fiction because Min was concerned about controversy, possible lawsuits, and even uglier consequences from the negative portrayal of certain events and attitudes. "My parents are still living in China," she points out.

Consequently, Katherine is a composite of a number of English teachers (and others) that Min actually had in America. But many of Zebra's experiences are taken from Min's own.

Zebra and her friends are stunned by Katherine's way of conducting and presenting herself, how open, free and womanly she is. It's shocking after years of the Cultural Revolution turning the sexes into "a neutral person." The students can't decide if they admire and wish to emulate Katherine, or if they are horrified by her behavior.

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As for Min, raised in a country where everyone pretty much dressed alike, she says she went crazy when she came to America.

"I thought, 'I have to look modern. Joan Chen is meeting my plane; I have to look good,' " she recalls, amused. "I curled my hair, put thick blue on my eyes, heavy red lipstick. And here's Joan, the beauty of China, and she doesn't look like a movie star. She's got long straight hair, like a peasant girl. And she sees me and says, 'Anchee, you look like a prostitute.' "

Because Min's first book was "not accepted" for publication in China (for fear it would "disturb" the citizens, which Min considers a high compliment), her parents were not able to read it until recently. But finally this year, Min's father borrowed a copy smuggled in by "a friend's friend's mother." His English is limited, but armed with a dictionary and a father's determination, he struggled through, and finished it in about a month.

And his reaction?

"He said, for the first time in his life, he cried," Min says. " 'I'm proud of you,' he said."

Min's mother had more problems with it, specifically the revelation that a friend of Min's used her porch for a sexual liaison with a lover. Min says her father eased her mother's mind by pretending the incident was dramatic license.

The friend in question was Yan, Min's group leader at Red Fire Farm. Min fell in love with her during that time, entering into a relationship she says was vital to her emotional development. Before, she thought she could--and should--love only Mao. But at the farm, she learned there was another kind of love.

As important as this relationship was, conquering embarrassment in order to write about it was another matter altogether. Min found help from an unlikely, though quintessentially American, source.

"I was studying English all day long," says Min, recalling her early days in Chicago, "and watching children's shows like 'Sesame Street,' because I could follow along. After the children's shows, there was Oprah Winfrey. And these people had all these shameful things to say, and Oprah was telling them it was all right. So actually she influenced me that it was all right to tell these kinds of things."

And now, coming full circle yet again, Winfrey is Min's producer, having optioned the movie rights to "Katherine." The Samuel Goldwyn Co. previously optioned "Red Azalea," and Min is writing screenplays for both.

"I wrote scripts to get myself into a better job," she recalls of her studio days, "and learned the technique. One was made into a mediocre TV show. So I think I'm better than most novelists to turn my material into a screenplay. But writing screenplays for me is more like mathematics. You have to solve 2X plus Y equals. You need the details--you can't just say, as I do in 'Red Azalea,' 'She looked like an iron goddess.' How do I show that? It's scientific technique, not the poetic side of things."

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Min's recent move to Torrance was not motivated by a desire to be closer to the action in Hollywood, but simply because she got tired of the weather in Chicago.

All those years on Red Fire Farm made her an outdoors person and, like generations before her, she came to Southern California for the sunshine, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter. The father was a Chinese art student she met and married in Chicago. They have since divorced and he has moved back to China.

"Some people like America for what it can offer," she says, stating over and over her deep pleasure with a country that could give a "nobody" a chance. "But some are afraid of it because you have to compete for your bowl of rice. That was the major difference between my husband and me."

So how does the former Communist die-hard feel about capitalism?

"I think communism is a very beautiful notion, but human nature is against it. It's too pretty a reality." As for her adopted country's system, "It's better than where I came from. It's the best thing on Earth."

But blind political devotion was something she lost years ago, and Min is eager to share views on certain social and political flaws here. She was disappointed to learn that U.S. women do not earn equal pay for equal work. Even with a Communist dictatorship, Min says, women competed equally with men, because it was considered revolutionary to destroy the traditional notions of a woman's place.

She also has firm beliefs about the need for welfare reform ("I'm very right-wing about it") and, as someone from the most crowded country in the world, is strongly pro-choice.

"The abortion thing is simply stupid," she says bluntly. "Those people who kill the doctors--you should send them to China to see what an overflow of human population does to you."

In addition to working on her screenplays, Min says she is "cooking"--beginning research for her next book, as well as working on two CDs of music inspired by her books. To illustrate, she sings part of one traditional song, in a clear, lovely voice that stops nearby conversation in the restaurant.

Despite her achievements and ambitious schedule, there is something she rules out--a return to acting.

"I'm too old," she says.

She then pauses and reconsiders.

" 'Too old' is not the real reason. The real reason is I'm not a good actress."

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