Seeing history: A glimpse into the mind of 'Shanghai Girls' author Lisa See

Seeing history: A glimpse into the mind of 'Shanghai Girls' author Lisa See

As Lisa See starts her book tour she takes some time to discuss storytelling, Chinese women and (not) working with Hugh Jackman

Lisa SeeLisa See captures slices of Chinese life in her novels. "Shanghai Girls" tells the tale of two sisters in 1937 who must leave their beloved city, known as the "Paris of Asia," to come to America and enter arranged marriages.

For Lisa See, it is the first book she's written that she can sum up in one sentence.

"You just don't know how nice that is," says the 55-year-old author at a recent signing for the bestselling novel, which was just released in paperback. See has received glowing reviews and literary honors for her intricate stories set in China's past, many of which uncover pieces of history that have been masked or forgotten. Filming has begun in Shanghai for the Wayne Wang-directed "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," based on See's novel of the same name. 

At the start of her 10-week book tour, See spoke to CNNGo.

CNNGo: Where does your love for storytelling come from?

Lisa See:
My mother, Carolyn See, is a writer, so much of my love for stories comes from her. But also my father's side, the Chinese side -- they were such storytellers. It was a big family and they'd all get together and it was like, "Remember when ..." "No, it didn't happen that way!" There were certain stories they liked to tell again and again, with different variations. It was sort of a communal act of storytelling. Writing [my memoir] "On Gold Mountain" was a way of taking my family's stories and looking at them in a different way.

CNNGo: Did your mother offer you lots of writing advice?

Lisa See:
Yes, she did and she still does. When I was 12, she started asking me to read her manuscripts. It was a nice thing she did. I couldn't possibly have had anything to add except maybe, "Well, I learned in sixth grade that you should have a comma there." We have continued to do that for all these years. I read her manuscripts, she reads mine. It's like a lifelong apprenticeship.

CNNGo: In "Shanghai Girls," sisters Pearl and May are "beautiful girls," who pose for artists who paint them in advertisements. You have a collection of these types of Chinese ads. What do you find so fascinating about them?

Lisa See:
First of all, they're beautiful. But beyond that, they really represented how lives of women were changing. They weren't their grandmothers. They didn't have bound feet. They expected to marry for love and not go into arranged marriages. They were selling things like powdered baby milk, products that were changing people's lives. This new modern Chinese woman was going to help transform China.

CNNGo: The novel tackles the Confession Program. What was that?

Lisa See:
It was a government program that ran from 1956 to 1965 and was targeted at the Chinese. It asked people to "confess" their paper-son status. In return, they would be given their legal citizenship. However, it wasn't enough to just confess about yourself. You also needed to rat out your friends, your neighbors, your own family members. It just ripped people apart. It's something that even scholars have written very little about because people don't want to talk about it. There's still so much shame and embarrassment and guilt. Time is running out to get those first-person accounts. I wanted to talk to people before their stories disappeared.

CNNGo: Your novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is currently being made into a movie. Are you heavily involved in the creative process?

Lisa See:
Not at all. I have nothing to do with it.

Shanghai GirlsShanghai Girls: Two sisters go to America to enter arranged marriages.CNNGo: How does it feel to just let it go?

Lisa See:
Well, it's part of the business. You have to hope that they know what they're doing. It will be different from the book and there will be different considerations. The book takes place in the past but in the film, they put in a modern part. Some people will really love it and I think some people won't like that at all. I don't have any say one way or the other.

CNNGo: Hugh Jackman has joined the cast. How do you feel about that?

Lisa See:
Well, it's a really funny thing. There's no place in the book for Wolverine. [Laughs] But that's not to say that what they're doing isn't going to be good.

CNNGo:  You are one-eighth Chinese but have said that you've always felt Chinese in your heart. Can you expand on this?

Lisa See:
I have about 400 relatives in my family and there are only about a dozen that look like me. I never realized they had seen me as different until I was working on "On Gold Mountain" and I'd be talking to a relative and they'd be like, "Oh, you should talk to so-and-so. He's Caucasian just like you." Growing up, I didn't pay much attention to how I looked because who's your mirror? It's the people around you.

CNNGo: Why do you think people around the world are so interested in these stories set in China?

Lisa See:
First of all, it's China. It's the world's biggest superpower, there's no question about it. People wonder, "What does that mean?" We don't know very much about China and what we see on TV is not very accurate and is designed to be scary. So yes, people have a fascination with things they don't know. But I think the reason people read my books is that they can relate on a human level -- "Oh, I have sisters, too" or "Oh, my parents were immigrants, too" or "Oh gosh, you should just meet my mother in law." People are looking for similarities in cultures.

CNNGo: Are there challenges specific to those writing about the Asian experience?

Lisa See:
Yes. People will say, "Not every woman in China's story is like this," or "That's not my family's experience so it has to be wrong." Well, that's just the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Say you watch "Sex and the City." Do you think all American women are like Carrie? Of course not. The other thing people will say is, "This puts us in a bad light." But what writers are doing is showing that life is life. They're not trying to show all of life, just a slice of life. People seem to forget that when they're worried about how they're going to look. 

CNNGo: What authors have had the biggest influence on you?

Lisa See:
Well, my mom, of course. And there's Wallace Stegner, author of "Angle of Repose." I used an epigraph from that book in "On Gold Mountain." “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while." That so sums up what I've been doing.
Michelle Woo is a journalist and blogger, whose work has appeared in USA Today, The Arizona Republic, Detroit Free Press, Orange County Register and on CNN.com.
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