The Cooked Seed: A Memoir by Anchee Min
The Cooked Seed, the second memoir by best-selling Chinese-American author Anchee Min, comes almost 20 years after the publication of Red Azalea, Min’s powerful first memoir, and follows six historical novels that feature historically significant Chinese women.
Red Azalea, a hard-edged coming-of-age story, is a tough act to follow. In it, Min tells the story of her childhood in Shanghai and her early womanhood, when she was “sent down” to a work camp in the country. She describes her affair with a female fellow laborer and later events at Madame Mao’s propaganda film studio in Shanghai with a raw urgency. One cannot help but admire both her strength and the bluntness of her recounting.
The Cooked Seed spans the nearly three decades of the author’s life after coming to the United States at the age of 27 and focuses on the banality of the immigrant existence in an America which, while offering the possibility of a new future, also doesn’t care much about the tribulations of the past.
The book’s title refers to a metaphor for a fixed destiny, as a cooked seed has “no chance to sprout”. The book starts off with Min’s move to the U.S. in order to escape what she considered a hopeless situation in China: she wants, in other words, a chance to sprout. At the suggestion of her friend (and movie star) Joan Chen, whom she met in the Shanghai studio but who had relocated to California, Min applies and is somewhat miraculously admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago, based upon her portfolio of artwork and the lie that her English was excellent.
Min arrives in the country with only $500. She works at numerous jobs including fabric painting, waitressing and as a gallery sitter. She is lonely and describes her situation with unflinching honesty and self-revelation. “For the first time I discovered masturbation. I was thrilled that I could comfort myself.” She is scammed by hustlers and raped by a Chinese roommate.
Yet through all of this, Min is the recipient of tremendous kindness and a great deal of good fortune. Friendly fellow students help her with English and professors allow her to write about her experiences in Communist China in lieu of assigned essays. She even receives a scholarship that pays her tuition. Despite her self-professed difficulty with English, Amy Tan’s literary agent signs her and Red Azalea is published. Around the same time she and her first husband, Qigu, have a daughter, Lauryann.
Lauryann, and Min’s relationship with her, provide the focus, and perhaps an overly detailed one, for the final third of the memoir. The reader is told, in something close to Tiger-Mom fashion, everything to do with Lauryann’s life up through her admission to Stanford.
But ultimately, despite too much information, Min’s deep love and appreciation for her daughter and the significance to her life of their personal journey comes across loud and clear. Min uses the relationship as a lens through which to view how her experience of life in America has changed her. Referring to a moment when she responds to Lauryann’s self-questioning over her absent father, Min notes,
If I had to pinpoint a moment when I felt that I rose to the challenge as a mother, I would say this was it. I could feel the leap taking place, transforming me from a Chinese mother with limited tools to an American mother blessed and empowered by love and understanding the art of loving.
For a writer’s memoir, there is remarkably little on Min’s process or on work that inspired her, though she does have kind words for Pearl S. Buck’s classic, The Good Earth, and says that the impulse to write came in response to her painful recollections:
I would be on a Chicago rapid-transit train hearing the pounding of Chinese drums along with shouted Cultural Revolution slogans. Memories flooded my mind and dominated my waking hours and even my dreams. I began to write like a mad person.
She says that she wants her readers to “walk away with a solid knowledge of China.” As long-suppressed Chinese classics suddenly became available after the Cultural Revolution she notes that upon reading them, “I was steeped in tragedy. I identified with the tragic characters” and later reflects, “I was able to see for the first time that indulging in tragic thinking was a Chinese way of life, but not a healthy one.”
The Cooked Seed is a brave piece of writing that brings Western readers—for these are whom Min is mostly addressing—up to date with the life of one of the most popular female Chinese authors writing in English today. Though it might strike some with delicate sensibilities as very blunt and open, that is the purpose of this memoir that she dedicated to her daughter. One would expect nothing less.