Anchee Min Wrote to Avoid Restaurant Work


Becoming Madame Mao book jacket. Image: Houghton & Mifflin

Anchee Min didn’t speak a word of English when she first arrived in the United States, yet she has written five U.S. bestsellers in her adopted language. Her early life was spent on a farm in a Shanghai suburb, until she was discovered and made a movie star by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing. After falling out of favor when the Gang of Four fell from power, Anchee Min came to the U.S. in 1984 and studied at the Chicago Art Institute. Eight years later, her first novel, Red Azalea , became a New York Times bestseller and was published in more than 40 countries. Her other books include Katherine , Becoming Madame Mao , Wild Ginger , and Empress Orchid . She spoke to Kaleidoscope , the weekly arts program broadcast by RFA's Mandarin service:

No English on arrival

"I had no choice because I didn't speak English when I first got here. I got stopped at customs and kicked out of school. I faced deportation if I didn't learn English within six months and get admitted [by the school] again. I think anyone in the same situation would do the same. After graduating from an art school, I was unable to land a job. So I tried my hand at writing. My teacher told me I was a lousy writer but that I had wonderful material. I wrote about my own experiences. Actually, I wrote because I wanted to get a better job than working in a restaurant."

I waited by the elevator for my classmates and asked for their help. I felt like a beggar. I was begging for knowledge.

"My agent told me the only way for my work to get published is for me to win first prize in a literary competition. I could only afford contests with an entry fee of five dollars. But later I realized the more prestigious contests, like the Mississippi Valley Review , actually cost less because they are national competitions."

"I had to get other people to help me edit my work. People were a little annoyed. Like my teacher, who found me pacing outside the classroom and disrupting his break time asking for his help. He later allowed me only half an hour each day of his time, so I waited by the elevator for my classmates and asked for their help. I felt like a beggar. I was begging for knowledge. And, that's how my story that won first place came about."

Confession of responsibility

Anchee Min. Photo: Houghton & Mifflin

"The story was about this girl, Xiao Qing, in rural China who was caught having a relationship with a young man and was forced to accuse him of rape. She went crazy after they executed him in front of a firing squad. She was a girl who worked alongside with me picking cotton. She was the most beautiful girl before she ended up in an insane asylum in Shanghai. I saw myself as an accomplice who was responsible for her misery and the story was my confession."

"I initially believed the Gang of Four was guilty of the Cultural Revolution, but I later realized every one of us was just as responsible for what happened. It is very important for us to acknowledge that fact and come to terms with it."

"When I first started, I thought I needed to 'Americanize.' But after reading many books, I realized the American literary world needs a different voice and perspective."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Mo. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han. Please continue to send contributions for RFA's "Women in Their Own Words" project to .


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