While she is technically one-eighth Chinese, celebrated author Lisa See, whose novels have landed on The New York Times bestseller list, has always felt a deep connection to her Asian roots. Many of her works, such as the most recent Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (which was turned into a Hollywood movie), as well as Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy follow the perspectives of strong, young female characters overcoming various hardships and challenges. And through her beautifully written stories, See sheds light on the unique and fascinating aspects of Chinese culture, all while spinning compelling hook-line-and-sinker stories.
It was only natural for See’s unique ethnic background and upbringing to serve as inspiration
for her novels. As the great-granddaughter of Fong See, who is known as the godfather of Los
Angeles’ Chinatown, and with a large extended family of over 400 Chinese relatives, she grew
up immersed in Chinese culture. “You identify yourself by the people that are around you,” See
said. “This is what I grew up with.”
Like other authors, See’s writing reflects the influence of her family, but what’s especially inspiring is that she uses her writing as a means to learn more about herself and her own background. In order to give her stories such a realistic touch, See conducts extensive research on the story before she begins, whether it’s to paint a picture of life in Communist China in Dreams of Joy or in the Manchu period in the 17th century in Peony in Love. She even traveled to a remote part of China—where she was apparently only the second foreigner to have visited—to research the art of nushu, or the secret form of writing she had her main characters communicate with in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
“As I’m writing these books, I’m looking at some aspect of myself,” she said. “That was a way for me to explore that part of my family that I didn’t know.”
As far as inspiration for the characters goes, See explained that part of it is simply the direction that a story takes her, where it might turn out that a young female voice best fits. But she also draws from her own experiences to craft what words and thoughts the character might use. “I fall back on what I was like—when I was still innocent, a little naïve, idealistic, stubborn, optimistic and feeling very open,” she said, citing the character of young Peony from Peony in Love as an example. “I find those attributes in myself, to reach that part of myself.”
See’s prose flows so gracefully that readers may be surprised to know that she initially didn’t have her sights set on becoming a writer. Before she realized she wanted to write, she had dreams of being a costume designer. “I was 19, and thought I really knew what I wanted,” See reflected. “There are those things that you’re so sure about when you’re younger.”
In encouraging inspiring writers, See takes a moment to pause before highlighting the importance of keeping an open mind, since her own life didn’t necessarily go as planned.
“Be more open to new ideas and change,” See said. “When I was young I was very scared, very nervous … so I had to do one thing a week that made me nervous. I had to build courage. That doesn’t mean doing crazy stuff—just trying stuff that you’ve never tried, and tasting the world.”
Going forward, See’s influence is widening beyond just her readers. The film version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, one of her most-loved books, recently came out in July.
“A novel is one kind of art; a film is its own work of art,” said See of having her own novel on screen. “There were some major, major changes in the film, so I thought it was better to let them tell the story they wanted to tell. I certainly told the story that I wanted to tell.”
See’s continued exploration of the unknown and her own background has led to her eye-opening and engrossing novels. While fictional and entertaining, these stories are based on historical fact and careful research and reveals incredibly nuanced details about Chinese society for the closet history buff in all of us. And through her writing, See passes on not only the joy of a good story, but also the knowledge and insight of Chinese traditions to millions of readers around the world.
Photo Header: Patricia Williams