Anchee Min's memoir charts her arduous path from a labor camp in
China to art school in Chicago.
The Cooked Seed. A Memoir. By Anchee Min. 361 pages. Bloomsbury,
$26; Pounds 14.99.
Chicago, the mid-1980s: Anchee Min, newly arrived from Shanghai
to study at the School of the Art Institute, was invited to a
meeting of the college's Communist Club. "Tell us about Red China!"
urged the ardent U.S. students. "Tell us your firsthand experience!"
How to reply? Her vocabulary was small and her story was vast and
bewildering, straining the confines of any language. "It didn't
work," was all she could think to say. Baffled, the club members
went on to watch a movie glorifying a Chinese peasant girl's heroic
takeover of the university system. They ignored Ms. Min's protests
that the film was pure propaganda. Hers was not a perspective these
Mao-worshiping students wanted to hear.
In the years that followed, Ms. Min remained in the United
States, mastered English, and became a writer, finding a way to tell
the story for which she had originally had no words. In 1994, she
published "Red Azalea," a memoir about her coming-of-age during the
vicious cataclysm of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
Since then, she has published six novels, most of them about
women who were influential in Chinese history. But in that moment at
the Communist Club her survival tale was trapped inside her,
thwarted by her "baby English" and buried under her immediate dread
of deportation and mounting debts.
It has taken almost 20 years since her first book appeared for
this follow-up memoir, detailing the story of Ms. Min's
transformation, to emerge.
In some ways, her newcomer experience resembles that of so many
others who have fled totalitarian regimes for refuge in the United
States -- the post-traumatic stress, the survivor's guilt, the
perplexities of learning English and finding a job. Yet it's also
stamped with the particular circumstances of her birthplace and
By age 27 she had already endured at least a lifetime's worth of
suffering: a hungry Shanghai childhood; 18-hour days in freezing
rice paddies at a labor camp where she had been sent for "re-
education" at 17; and a remarkable stint at the Shanghai Film
Studio, where she was chosen for her "proletarian beauty" to
audition for a role in Madame Mao's propaganda movies, only to be
demoted to a studio flunky when Chairman Mao died and his wife was
overthrown in 1976.
At this point Ms. Min was convinced that she had no future in
China. There she would always be "a 'cooked seed' -- no chance to
sprout." She thought seriously and repeatedly about suicide. Then
came the glimpse of another way out, in a letter from a film-studio
friend named Joan Chen, who had become a movie star in China and was
now attending college in America. Maybe Ms. Min could also find a
way to study abroad.
Through a long process of wheedling, subterfuge and absurd luck,
Ms. Min was accepted at Chicago's Art Institute. …