MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Writer Anchee Min is best known for her memoir "Red Azalea." In it, she tells the story of her youth, growing up amid the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution. In her latest book, "Pearl of China," she tells a fictional story based on the real life of another writer, Pearl S. Buck.
Buck grew up in China in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the daughter of American missionaries. She spent much of adult life in China, as well, and wrote about the rural life she came to know in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Good Earth." Pearl Buck's vivid descriptions of China moved readers worldwide and earned her a Nobel Prize in Literature.
But by the 1970s, China under Chairman Mao had turned against Buck, and that's when Anchee Min first learned about her.
Ms. ANCHEE MIN (Author, "Pearl of China"): In 1971, I was a teen, and I was going to school at the Shanghai Middle School, and I was asked to denounce Pearl Buck as an American cultural imperialist. We were asked to denounce everything American at that time.
BLOCK: And this was an order. This order to denounce Pearl Buck, the writer, had come from the highest levels, right?
Ms. MIN: Yes, as later I found out, it was part of Madame Mao's campaign to reject Pearl Buck to visit China with President Nixon in 1972.
BLOCK: And they wanted to discredit her, make sure there was no way that she would be able to enter the country.
Ms. MIN: Right, they wanted to show the media and the world that from top to down to a little girl like me consider Pearl Buck China's enemy.
BLOCK: Do you remember anything that you wrote or said in that denunciation back in 1971?
Ms. MIN: Yes. I went to my teacher. I said: I can't do anything because I don't know this person. And the teacher says: Just copy the newspapers. And I said: Can I read the book, "The Good Earth"? And she says no because the book was so toxic that it was considered dangerous to even translate it. So I copied the line from the newspaper, and it says: Pearl Buck insulted the Chinese peasants. She hates us, therefore she's our enemy.
BLOCK: We should put this in some context here. This is 1971. The Cultural Revolution is still well underway, and to the extent that there was any rationality to what that meant, why was Pearl Buck considered so suspect, so evil?
Ms. MIN: Well, because Madame Mao disliked her and feels very threatened by her, and Madame Mao wanted to become China's next president after her husband. So she would do anything to be standing in between Nixon and Mao. She would not let Pearl S. Buck have that chance.
BLOCK: And in the end, it worked. Pearl Buck did not go back to China on that trip with President Nixon.
Ms. MIN: Right. Pearl Buck was so heartbroken, and she died the next year. It was her last wish, to visit China and the place she lived for 40 years. She missed her home because her parents buried there and her friends, her Chinese the entire town was waiting for her. And this was her last wish.
BLOCK: Let's jump forward in time. Twenty-five years go by after that denunciation that you made when you were in middle school. You've come to live in America. You're a published author, and Pearl Buck's name enters your life once again.
Ms. MIN: Right. Her name didn't cross my path until "Red Azalea," my memoir, was published. And I remember I was in Chicago in a bookstore doing a reading, and a reader came up to me. And she gave me a paperback and says it's a gift to me. And she asked me: Do you know Pearl S. Buck? Before I could answer the question, she says: I just want you to know that Pearl Buck taught me to love Chinese people. And that hit me.
I look at the paperback. It was "The Good Earth," the book that I always wanted to read. So I read the book and finished on the airplane from Chicago to Los Angeles. I couldn't help myself, and I broke down and sobbed because I have never seen anyone, including my favorite Chinese authors, who wrote our peasants the way Pearl Buck did, with such love, affection and humanity. And it was at that very moment "Pearl of China" was conceived.
BLOCK: What do you think you were seeing, reading, in that book that made such an impact on you?
Ms. MIN: What I see is her love for the Chinese people. It never changed, and that moved me so much. And when I went to her hometown, I experienced the same because when I wrote "Pearl of China," I wanted to know who Pearl Buck's childhood friends are and who her neighbors were and how those folks thought of her. But people in her hometown in China, Zhenjiang, they were afraid to talk to me at first.
Ms. MIN: Well, the memory of Cultural Revolution, the brutal prosecution, were very still fresh. And I kept returning until one day I was referred to a dying pastor.
BLOCK: How old was he that he would have memories of Pearl Buck?
Ms. MIN: Oh, he was very old, and he actually, he had the memories of his family because the story of Pearl Buck's family came down through generations. Like, it's oral history.
BLOCK: What did he tell you about her?
Ms. MIN: Well, he tells me how the relationship with the father and the mother, Pearl Buck's relationship with the nanny, and Pearl Buck was -so much wanted to be like a Chinese girl. So the nanny had to make the hairnet to cover her blond hair. So a lot of stories.
BLOCK: How important was it to you, Anchee Min, when you thought about turning the story of Pearl Buck, her early years in China, into a novel, how important was it to have it be factually correct, and how much license did you feel like you could or should take with her story?
Ms. MIN: As much as could, I tried my best to be accurate as possible because accuracy would give my historical themes the weight. And in the meantime, I think the advantage of being a novelist is having the freedom to go directly after the truth of the human heart.
And there are many excellent books and biographies that have been published on Pearl Buck from a Western point of view. I offer a Chinese perspective. Readers would get to see how Pearl Buck become who she was because of China, and for the first time how Chinese people saw Pearl Buck, this brave American woman who was beloved by the people close to her but denounced by authorities.
BLOCK: Well, Anchee Min, it's good to talk with you. Thanks very much.
Ms. MIN: Thank you.
BLOCK: Anchee Min's novel is titled "Pearl of China."
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