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Amazon Exclusive: Lisa See on Shanghai Girls
I'm writing this on a plane to Shanghai. For the last couple of weeks I've been thinking about all the things I want to see and do on this research trip: look deeper into the Art Deco movement in Shanghai, visit a 17th-century house in a village of 300 people to observe the Sweeping the Graves Festival, and check out some old theaters in Beijing. But as I sit on the plane, I'm not thinking of the adventures that are ahead but of the people and places I've left behind. I've been gone from home only a few hours and already I'm homesick!
This puts me in mind of Pearl and May, the characters in Shanghai Girls. This feeling—longing for home and missing the people left behind—is at the heart of the novel. We live in a nation of immigrants. We all have someone in our families who was brave enough, scared enough, or crazy enough to leave the home country to come to America. I'm a real mutt in terms of ancestry, but I know that the Chinese side of my family left China because they were fleeing war, famine, and poverty. They were lured to America in hopes of a better life, but leaving China also meant saying goodbye to the homes they'd been born in, to their parents, brothers, and sisters, and to everything and everyone they knew. This experience is the blood and tears of American experience.
Pearl and May are lucky, because they come to America together. They're sisters and they have each other. I've always wanted to write about sisters and I finally got my chance with Shanghai Girls. You could say that either I'm an only child or that I'm one of four sisters, because I have a former step-sister I've known for over 50 years and two half-sisters from different halves who I've known since they were born. Is Shanghai Girls autobiographical? Not really, but my sister Katharine and I once had a fight that was like the flour fight that May and Pearl got into when they were girls. And there was an ice cream incident that I used in the novel that sent my sister Clara right down memory lane when she read the manuscript. I'm also the eldest, and we all know what that means. I'm the one who's supposed to be the bossy know-it-all. (But if that's true, then why are they the ones who are always right?) What I know is that we're very different from each other and our life experiences couldn't be more varied, and yet we have a deep emotional connection that goes way beyond friendship. My sisters knew me when I was a shy little kid, helped me survive my first broken heart, share the memories of bad family car trips, and were at my side for the happiest moments in my life. More recently, we've begun to share things like the loss of our childhood homes, the changing of the neighborhoods we grew up in, and the frailties and illnesses of our myriad parents.
My emotions and experiences are deeply entwined with the stories I write. So as I fly over the Pacific, of course I'm thinking about May and Pearl, the people and places they left behind, the hopes and dreams that kept them moving forward, and the strength and solace they found in each other, but I'm thinking about myself too. As soon as I get to the hotel, I'm going to call my husband and sons to tell them I arrived safely, and then I'm going to send some e-mails to my sisters.—Lisa See
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