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Female Trouble

Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Lisa See, whose red hair and pale skin obscure her Chinese ancestry, arrives at the F. Suie One Company in Pasadena bearing dim sum — bao buns, shumai, stickers. A mysterious and rarely open Asian antiquities shop, F. Suie One has been in See’s family for a hundred years. As a child, when the shop was still at its original Chinatown location, the author played in the rickshaw and in a great carved wooden bed — as large as a small bedroom.


Over lunch, we discuss her fourth novel and fifth book, the enchanting Snow Flower and the Secret Fan . Some years ago, See learned of the secret women’s written language nushu , and her fascination with it took her to Hunan’s Jiangyong County for research. The book is the story of a friendship between two young women who communicate through nushu in this remote, agriculturally lush and culturally repressive region during the 19th century.


L.A. WEEKLY: Where does this book sit in your oeuvre? On Gold Mountain is a memoir. Then came the three mysteries. And now a literary novel?


LISA SEE: What I’ve been trying to do with this work overall is to write about one-fourth of the world’s population and get beyond the stereotypes and misconceptions and preconceptions that people have about China and the Chinese. I’m not trying to say this is how it is; I’m just trying to open a window and let people look through. This book is more about people, about these two Chinese women, but it could be any two women. The circumstance and particulars are different, but these are people who have mothers and fathers, all the human emotions, the love and desire, regret, and the ancestral feelings that transcend culture, time, country.


When you went to Hunan, you interviewed the last surviving nushu practitioner, a 96-year-old woman with bound feet. Just out of curiosity, how big were her feet? And what did she say about them?

She was wearing a little child’s kung fu slippers, and I could see she had stuffing in the toe. She didn’t talk about footbinding in terms of how painful it was, but in terms of this is what your mother did, this is what you had to go through so you could get married. What fascinated me is that, clearly, footbinding was something the whole culture endorsed. It’s easy to think that men forced it on women because they thought it was sexy, they liked to hold them, and liked the smell. But in fact it was also perpetuated by mothers.


The relationship between mothers and daughters in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is intriguing because of that kind of apparent heartlessness, almost as if the mothers intentionally try to make their relationships with their daughters as loveless as possible. Of course, the daughters were so culturally devalued, plus they were soon to leave the home, and a tenth died in footbinding. So possibly, the mothers were protecting themselves from a lot of grief and anguish.

And yet, how could mothers not have some emotional attachment? I thought — maybe I’m wrong — that the mothers, despite knowing better, still have feelings. So that was an interesting dynamic. How can you have no feeling when you’re raising someone?


The central issue of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is really female friendship. Here are women who move into loveless arranged marriages. They’re confined to the upstairs apartments with their mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. They’re basically servants. It seems at once a miracle and completely understandable that they created nushu .

Yes. The women were living in cultural isolation, and no one expected them to have an intellectual thought, to be creative, to show any kind of emotions, and yet through nushu they were able to fly out of those windows and go to another village where they would find somebody who would listen to them. There is a whole tradition in Chinese culture of young wives complaining. In the big cities, they used to have something like a daughter-in-law corner where these women could stand on the street corner and complain. So I think nushu is part of the tradition of complaint, but also a way for those women to write about what was going on in their lives.


As girls, Lily and Snowflower actually join in a committed female friendship — a contractual lifelong arrangement called laotong or “old sames.” Such a formal commitment to friendship has no counterpart in our culture. And it will be interesting to see how many readers respond to this book by saying that Snow Flower and Lily are lesbians.

I was really trying to think about friendship — what makes it work, why do we need it, and what do we get out of it. The few men who’ve read this novel have all said to me, “I love that, you know, that scene, I just loved that scene.” And I go, “What scene?” And they go, “You know, that scene,” and now I do know which scene because they’ve all told me (laughs). It’s the one scene of girl-on-girl sex!


What you present so well about adult friendship is the kind of rupturing that can occur over a trifle that then can cause lifelong regret. Lily, who is prosperous and fairly happy, grows irritated and intolerant with the way Snowflower gives into the violence and abuse of her marriage. Lily’s like, c’mon girl, you’ve got to rise above it!

I think that’s something that happens with friends. We think, if only they would do x, y or z, then everything would be better. Like, gee, why don’t you just go enroll at Pasadena City College, just get out, do something different, whatever. But sometimes, people just can’t. They can’t, they won’t, they just don’t have it in them any more, and that causes of a lot of ruptures.


Are things better for women in China now? Is the birth of a son still the key to happiness?
In China now, one million fewer girls are born each year through abortion. Now there are young men wanting to get married and there are one million girls too few. So females now have an emotional value that they didn’t have before. Women have also left their villages to work in foreign factories and raised enough money to come back to their villages to open a little kiosk to sell bottled water, cut hair, sell T-shirts. So they now have an economic value that they had never had before. Between this new emotional value and economic value, the birthrate for girls had gone up for the first time in recorded history.


When I was in China, I had a driver-interpreter and, because it was a closed area, we had an official travel with us, a deputy mayor. We three had breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. The official brought his daughter to dinner every night because his wife worked — and he adored her. And the driver had a little girl and his watch had her picture in it. These two men obviously loved their daughters. In all our time together, we talked about a lot of stuff — 9/11, Bush, the economy. The last night they said they wanted to ask me a question. Could they ask me anything? I said, sure, thinking, they might ask me to sponsor them to come over to America. Here was their question: Is it true that, in America, people adopt Chinese girls so that they can raise them until they’re old enough to harvest their organs?


They said, we’ve seen it on the news, we’ve read it in the papers, everybody knows that’s what happens.


No matter what I told them, they didn’t believe me.


What really hit me was, there were people willing to give up their daughters for adoption thinking that her adoptive parents are going to harvest her organs. That was really beyond me. Girls may have more value now, but there’s still a ways to go.


See Readings for upcoming Lisa See appearances




SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN | By Lisa See | Random House | 272 pages | Hardcover $22


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