LISA SEE IS a confident, lyrical, smart, impeccably researched writer. To pick up a Lisa See book is to be in good hands. She is also prolific — nine novels in 20 years, plus On Gold Mountain, a 400-page memoir and nonfiction biography of her family, to say nothing of the three Monica Highland novels she collaborated on before writing her first solo book. Impressive. Many writers producing a book every other year seem to be churning them out like so much sausage. Each book might be tasty in a familiar way, but once a bratwurst always a bratwurst; they don’t attempt anything new. Each of See’s books explores something the reader hasn’t seen before — yes, within the same Chinese culture, but a new aspect, a new time period, told from a different point of view. To run the metaphor into the ground, her books are as different as salted plums and dried squid.
Her latest is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, her 10th book and ninth novel — a wonderful addition to the canon. It begins with a remote indigenous hill tribe, the Akha, in present day, still living exactly as it did a hundred years earlier. The Cultural Revolution gave them a school teacher — he was banished there for his liberal leanings — and he, together with the girl’s mother, change the protagonist Li-yan’s life. These are not the bound-feet, upper-class families of Peony in Love or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It may be present day, but Li-yan is not at all like the Chinese-American girls of China Dolls or Dreams of Joy. This book takes us someplace entirely fresh.
See spent her childhood hanging out at her great-grandfather’s antique store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. With her red hair and pale freckled skin, you’d never pick her out to be even an eighth Chinese, but she is, and the Chinese side of her family embraced her and provided her the stability she needed growing up. Her mother, the exceptional writer Carolyn See, struggled in 1960s Los Angeles to gain the recognition she deserved. Not easy for a writer far from the established east coast book world and especially difficult as a woman. Money was tight, and See’s family had to move often, forcing her to change schools each time. Her father left and then a stepfather didn’t last long. But throughout, her Chinatown life continued unchanged: lunch at the little noodle shop with her grandmother; playing in the arms of a giant statue of Buddha; learning to wash and cook rice without a measuring cup. No wonder See found her literary home there.
And no wonder her books all in some way explore the nature of mothers and daughters. Carolyn See was the other constant in her life. See said she remembers her mother more than once talking to an editor on the phone, hanging up, and crying from the rejection. She didn’t begin publishing until See was 12. She gave all her work to her daughter to read. Maybe See was too young to comment on the intricacies of the plot, but she became a wonderful editor looking for repeated words and redundancies and — in a very Chinese way — under the tutelage of her mother, began a lifelong apprenticeship. What better gift from one established writer to another?
Except See didn’t want to be a writer. She’d seen her mother struggle. She didn’t want to write or get married or have children. She wanted to travel the world and spend her whole life living out of a suitcase. And then fate caught up with her. Post-college, after some time on the road, she woke up one morning in Greece wondering what to do with her life and answered, “I can be a writer.” Within 24 hours, she was home and had her first two paid writing assignments, thanks to her mother who recommended her for each.
In See’s 2007 Peony in Love, the narrator Peony translates the written Chinese character for “mother love” as “two elements: love and pain.” Of course this means the pain of childbirth and the pain of a child leaving home, but love also means the pain a mother must inflict on her child to ensure she has a better life. Peony tells us this as her mother and aunt are binding her feet, then forcing her to get up and walk on folded toes until they break and begin to mold into a new “golden lily” shape. Without those precious and horrific feet, the girl would be doomed to a servant’s life or worse.
Luckily, mothers are no longer expected to inflict such literal pain, but the mother-daughter relationship is still too often fraught with demands and disappointments. See makes it clear that modern times have given women more freedom and more choices, but it comes with a different kind of pain. What to do? Where do we belong? How do we hold on to the best of old traditions while making way for the best of the new? The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores these issues and reveals the difficulties inherent in our decisions. Carolyn See worked hard to get where she was: an award-winning, well-loved, and respected teacher, mentor, and writer. She wanted her daughter to be the best writer possible. She was See’s first and best reader. In her mother’s final days when she was too sick to get out of bed, See read aloud the manuscript of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and her mother was able to find discrepancies, make suggestions, remain her daughter’s most astute editor. Ten days before the final edits were due, Carolyn See was diagnosed with cancer. Twelve days later, she was dead.
This is the first Lisa See novel that has come out since her mother’s death. See said she counted up her and her mother’s book launches that they had celebrated together, and it came to 63 in Los Angeles alone. This book, with its remarkable story of a mother’s crippling heartache from her ultimate loving sacrifice, was particularly difficult for See to enjoy as it rolled out. At every stop along the tour, she talks about mothers and daughters. Many of her readers want to commiserate with her, say how sorry they are about her mom and tell their own stories of “mother love.” The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was not originally conceived to commemorate Carolyn See, but what a beautiful and fitting memorial it has become. “An image of [Mother] gazing out over the mountains before she handed me the knife comes to me. The way she set her jaw … Anguish. Courage. Sacrifice. This is mother love.”
Rereading Lisa See’s novels for this piece and especially the latest forced me to think about my own mother. She died a long time ago way too young. Ours was a relationship of intense love and intense frustration that never fully got resolved. She came from a tiny backward town in Missouri. She fell in love with the wrong man, got pregnant when she shouldn’t have, and made a choice to sacrifice everything she wanted in her own life. American as apple pie, but not unlike Li-yan, See’s latest protagonist. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is both unique and a universal story of motherhood.
I found a version of the Pu-erh tea so important in the book in a tea room in Pasadena, California. I don’t know if what I had was authentic, but it had an unusual taste, bitter at the start and then mellowing to almost sweetness. I sat and read this book, thinking about my own mother and wishing she was there, knowing that, wherever Lisa See was at that moment, she was missing her mom too.