Friday, March 16, 2012
For her second book, Veronica Li took on the daunting task of writing her mother's biography. The result, Journey across the Four Seas, is a stunning portrait of a very determined woman (which I reviewed earlier this month).
Just in time for Mother's Day (which is this Sunday, in the UK, at least!), I asked Veronica a few questions about her mother and the book they wrote together.
Your mother always wanted to write - how does she feel to finally see her life story in print?
First of all, thanks very much for interviewing me on the occasion of Mother's Day. I'm happy to talk about my book Journey Across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home. It's a memoir of my mother's life in Asia before she took the family to the U.S.
When my aging mother moved in with me, I seized my last chance to record her life stories. For the first time, she told me her ambition had been to be a writer. She was too old to start then and wanted me to write down her stories for her.
The book came out when she was still alive and well enough to read. She was ecstatic about it. She felt that her life had been validated. The most touching moment happened a year later, several days before she passed away. I showed her the book again and told her that thousands of people had read about her and thought that she'd led a wonderful life. She smiled her last smile before slipping into a coma.
This book is the greatest gift between mother and daughter. It's a gift to me because it gives me my past. It's a gift to my mother because it gives her immortality.
There are times when your mother seems resentful of her children - did this cause any problems in your relationship?
My mother's resentment stemmed from her disappointments in life. As you pointed out in your book review, "She feels she has wasted her education, spending her life instead as a refugee and then as wife and mother." Here she was, a university graduate, rare for a woman of her times, stuck with a bunch of screaming babies at home. Of course she resented the babies! Fortunately, I was the fourth child, so I had plenty of buffers from my older siblings.
I felt her resentment much later when I became her primary caregiver. She was unhappy no matter what I did for her. I felt inadequate until I discovered that her unhappiness was over the regrets in her life, and had nothing to do with me.
How has your relationship changed since working on this project together?
My mother belonged to the first generation of Chinese women liberated from the horrible tradition of foot binding. For the first time in Chinese history, women could have a life outside the home. However, her generation was the pioneer and had to face many barriers. She was a writer who never had the chance to develop her voice. When she spoke into my tape recorder, she knew she'd found it. Her agitation went away and she stopped complaining about anyone, not even her husband!
My mother always said she was an ordinary person doing what was necessary to survive. Frankly speaking, I don't think I could have overcome half the difficulties that she had. They include trekking through China during wartime, propping up an unstable husband, and uprooting herself so that her children could have a future in the New World. The things my mother did for her family were absolutely heroic. I thank her on Mother's Day and every other day.
How much input did your mother have into the finished book, after recording her stories onto tape? How did you find working together?
The tapes were the "official" version. The juicy tidbits leaked out while we were cooking together. I would ask her, "How many boyfriends did you have before you met Baba?" Without the mike on, she spoke freely about her escapades. These stories added color to the narrative.
There was a clear division of labor between us. She did the storytelling and I did the writing. She gave me a free hand to weave the bits and pieces into a coherent story. I never showed her my drafts because I didn't want her censorship. She would have worried about offending one relative or another. Fortunately, most of the people in her stories are already dead.
I know you've also written a novel. Can you say a little about the similarities and differences between working on these two projects?
My first book, Nightfall in Mogadishu, is a spy thriller set in Somalia, told in the third person point of view. It's also a historical fiction based on actual events that led to civil war in the country (I used to be an aid worker in Somalia). The plot contains the suspense and exploits of a James Bond movie. The writing style is fast-paced and action packed. In order to place the reader in an exotic country, I took care to give detailed descriptions of the place.
These skills helped me a lot in my second book, Journey Across the Four Seas. The narrator is my mother, and in the book she's telling me her life stories in Chinese. Her voice is gentle and conversational, night-and-day from the sinister tone in my spy thriller. But the other elements of story-telling are the same. Actually my mother’s life is as exciting as a thriller. The book contains scenes of her dodging bullets, outwitting kidnappers, fighting TB and braving U.S. immigration officers. The plot is fast-paced and action-packed, and I try to bring her world to life with vivid descriptions.
In other words, I really didn't find much difference between the two projects. The only difference is the degree of liberty I allowed my imagination. In the novel, I fabricated characters and scenes. In the memoir, I used creative license to convey the characters and scenes. However, they were real people and real events. I was careful not to cross the thin line between fiction and nonfiction.
Is there anything in the book that you would have preferred not to know?
My father's philandering while he was a businessman in Thailand was a shock to me. I always thought that my parents were happy there. My mother belonged to a large Chinese clan who dominated the economy of Bangkok. We lived in a large house and were catered to by servants. Little did I know that this was the most miserable period in my mother’s life. My father was out nightclubbing with clients every night, while my mother was stuck at home with four children ranging from five to one. When I wrote up her stories, I could feel her pain even after forty some years.
How old were you when the family moved to America? And as an adult, have you returned to visit many of the landmarks in your mother's life?
I was fifteen when the family moved to the US. After getting a degree in International Affairs, I joined the World Bank, which is a UN affiliate. My job took me to countries in Asia, including many of my mother's old haunts. Having first hand experience in those countries is an advantage in retracing my mother's footsteps. I had no problem picturing her in Chengdu, Kweilin, Shanghai, Nanking, and Hong Kong. The best trip was taking my mother to Bangkok to visit her relatives one last time. They were all in their eighties and nineties and bursting with reminisces. They told me stories about my mother’s childhood and gave me invaluable material for my book.
Intrigued? Buy Journey Across the Four Seas on Amazon