Anchee Min, who was featured at the first International Women Authors Event for The Women's Connection in 2007, is most famous for her book "Red Azalea," about the harsh conditions and treatment she endured in her native China.
Min returns for the eighth edition of the Quad-City event — Thursday night in the Rogalski Center on the campus of St. Ambrose University in Davenport — and her most recent book is also a memoir, "The Cooked Seed," which was released 1½ years ago.
In a telephone interview last week from her home in California, Min, 57, talked about the books:
Q: Stylistically and emotionally, can you compare writing these two memoirs?
A: It's different. It's like "Red Azalea" was Chinese life, and this is American life. ... In the first, I spoke with a Chinese voice, and this is sometimes Chinese and sometimes English. It's kind of a weird existence where I will go in and out sometimes.
Q: What kind of expectations did you have when you came to America?
A: I had no expectations because I dared not to expect anything. I just hoped, to use an American expression, to "jump the hoops."
First, I was dealing with trying to avoid getting caught by immigration, but I got caught by immigration right at the spot because I did not speak English and I was coming to America for college. They sent me for deportation, and that was the first hoop. They put me in a room and interrogated me and questioned me and told me they were going to deport me.
I broke down. I was begging for an opportunity to learn English for three months, the same way anyone caught up in that situation would beg. It was useless. Luckily, the translator discussed it with the officer, and they looked at my papers, and on the I-20 form (a certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant student status) they have a clause that says if I had a culture shock that I could "shock back." I had six months to learn the spoken language. ...
They said, "You have six months to return to the school that gave you the I-20." If you're still not functioning as an international student, the school was responsible to the immigration bureau.
Anybody in that situation would learn the language, just like you would learn Chinese in six months. ... That was life and death for me. I just had to keep going. I had no money, no family, no nothing. The only thing I had was the will to survive.
(During those six months) I didn't even want to take off my clothes at night. I wanted to spend the time buttoning up my buttons on memorizing one English word.
Q: You obviously got into college (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and graduated. What were the years following that like?
A: Trying to get a green card. In order to get a green card at that time, a company has to hire you from at least 600 other candidates, and they have to prove why the job has to go to you. You have to be a gold medalist. That's what I told my daughter, if you make yourself gold-medal material, America's gonna want you. I was trying to figure out a way to be useful to this country, and that's why I tried to become indispensable. So I entered the writing competition and got a book contract.
Q: Was there a certain point where you felt like you could say, "I am an American?"
A: That's a very gradual transition. Although my life was really hard, I lived at the bottom of American society. Looking back as an author, I was blessed with that circumstance. Very few authors get a chance to go without a choice. ... Hemingway would go and try to get some life experience during the war, and he knew he could always fly back to the States. For me, it was a one-way ticket. I had no choice but to live through that. ... As an author, I benefit from that experience.
Q: Was it painful bringing up those memories again to write about them?
A: Yes, yes. But in a way, it's painful, but it's also exhilarating. I still had a dollar to buy a six-pack of noodles, and I can live off that, and I have a chance to look at the flowers and feel the sunshine. The people back home, the people I left behind, don't have that chance.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm catching up. Now I have a lot of options. I'm more American now (laughs), but I still want to be useful. ... America needs to get to know China right now. China is our partner and rival. America knows nothing about the essence of China and Chinese culture, at least not as much as they think they know. They don't know my China. I see a niche where I can contribute, and that pleases me. That makes me feel useful.