At first glance, Anchee Min’s life looks like an American Dream story come true. As a young woman, she moves to the U.S. in hopes of achieving a better life. Once there, she succeeds in getting undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago, builds a family, and becomes a bestselling author. But Min’s story is not a simple path from point A to B. In fact, the route she takes to international fame is frequently traumatic, terrifying and devastating. It is a testament to Min’s resilience and drive that her story becomes the one told in THE COOKED SEED.
Min grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and spent her childhood dreaming of being able to fight American enemies in the name of Mao and Communism. But her understanding of the world shifts when she is sent to a collective labor camp at 17. “Discovered” by Madame Mao and chosen to star in propaganda films, she becomes convinced that the only way to avoid a wretched fate is to escape to the U.S. after Mao’s death in 1976.
"Lauryann’s suggestion that Min write a memoir seems a clear indicator of what the reader has learned over the course of the book: no matter her shortcomings, Min’s tenacity and triumphs are remarkable, and her story is worth telling."
Luck and boldness allow Min to enter the States as a student, despite the fact that she speaks no English and has no one to help her once she arrives in Chicago. Through perseverance, she struggles through her classes, paying her way by working up to five jobs at a time. Her incredible poverty is capped by a number of horrific experiences in Chicago, including multiple robberies and rape. Marrying and divorcing in her mid-30s, she finds herself remaking her life once more, now accompanied by her daughter Lauryann.
Many of the incidents that Min relates casually are hard to believe. Experiencing even one of these terrifying events could be tragedy enough to derail a life. Yet she does not dwell on the miraculous nature of her survival; she simply continues living. Of course, this is her reality. While many would turn to family or friends, Min has no options. In her early years, fear dominates her experience: she can’t return to China, even for a short time, for fear that she will be unable to leave; she can’t stop going to classes for fear she will lose her visa; and she can’t fight the people who take advantage of her because she fears government attention of any kind.
Min’s final portrait is rife with human contradiction, which creates the impression that you could know someone like her (although you may know no one who comes close to having experienced anything remotely similar). She is admirable, but most admirably, she is also aware of her own flaws. Implacable when confident, she doesn’t gloss over times when she has behaved badly or been at the mercy of others. She rules over Lauryann with an iron fist, demanding high grades and forcing her seven-year-old to assist her with heavy work on apartment restoration.
Min clearly has a strong desire to justify this harshness. While she marries again to a man who has a similar child-rearing philosophy, she spends much of the latter part of the book illustrating that her demands ultimately served Lauryann well, and that Lauryann has come to appreciate her mother’s nature. Even were this untrue, it would not alter the story significantly. It is nicer to think that Lauryann ultimately understands Min’s demands, but Min has just led the reader through the events that formed her identity and made her see the world the way she does. Knowing this, we understand why she treats her daughter as she does, whether we think it is overly harsh or not.
Lauryann’s suggestion that Min write a memoir seems a clear indicator of what the reader has learned over the course of the book: no matter her shortcomings, Min’s tenacity and triumphs are remarkable, and her story is worth telling.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on May 17, 2013