Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lisa See and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

The Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan, hosted author Lisa See this week. I quickly bought her latest book, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and read it in two days.

The author series has brought some great writers to the local public, including Elizabeth Berg, David Maraniss, and Emily St. John Mandel. 250 people signed up for See's presentation, the largest crowd yet!

A few years ago I read Lisa's earlier books Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. This latest book focuses on a minority ethnic group, the Akha, who live in a biodiverse area comprised of parts of China and Laos. The book opens in 1988 when the Akha were still cut off from the modern world.

The Tea Girl is about mothers and daughters, a culture in transition, the "grateful but sad" experience of Chinese children adopted in the United States, and the history of Pu'er tea. We meet Li-yan and follow her story of sorrow and loss, self-reliance and renewal. 

See believes fiction should address what it means to be human, allowing readers to occupy another world and experience other realities. Her writing has certainly provided that experience for thousands worldwide.
With Lisa See and her new book at the
Troy Community Center, Troy, Michigan
I found the novel to be very interesting and engaging. I particularly responded to the section where the adopted girls discuss their experiences. Our son was friends with a boy adopted from China and he often related to us his concern for this boy's sadness and his feeling of alienation as the only Chinese boy in school.

I am a tea drinker and enjoyed learning about tea production and how it has changed. I was fascinated by the Akha culture and how the commercialization of Pu'er tea offered the advantages of electricity and sanitation while impacting their traditions.

"No coincidence, no story," the novel begins, quoting the main character's mother. The novel is filled with coincidences but so was the birth and development of the novel, See told the audience.

See knew she had to write about Chinese girls adopted into foreign families; being of American-Chinese heritage, she understood their question of identity. See found her story through several serendipitous experiences, from the sight of a girl's swinging ponytail as she walked with her parents to a fortuitous connection with a purveyor of Pu-er tea offering a chance to see the Akha people and experience the harvesting and processing of the tea.

When asked if she enjoys research or writing best, See admitted she loves the research aspect and talked about how the research impels her writing.

A comment was made on the nonjudgemental quality of her books, and See talked about "living in their clothes for a while" (a favorite quote from Wallace Stenger in his novel Angle of Repose) as her motivation for writing.

Another in the audience asked why See did not use her writing to make social statements. For instance, one novel she wrote about foot binding and in The Tea Girl the Akha view of twins as "human rejects" involving infanticide. See stated that telling the story is all that is needed, for no one is going read her book and think killing twins is a good idea! I agree. Great writing engages the reader's mind and heart; the story should be all that is needed.

See avoids reading fiction while writing to protect her voice. While on tour these past months she has enjoyed reading many genres, including South American writers and currently is reading House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, which I have been reading.

See has written a book on her family, On Gold Mountain, and a mystery series. Her next book is set on a small island off Korea in a dying society where woman free divers are the 'breadwinners'.

Read about See's favorite novels at Off the Shelf here. She includes several of my favorites, including Howard's End by E. M. Forster and, of course, Wallace Stenger's Angle of Repose.