Best known for her 2005 book-turned-movie, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, author Lisa See is back with a compelling new novel about a close, if tumultuous, mother-daughter relationship.
A member of the Akha tribe, one of China's 55 ethnic minorities, Li-yan lives a life that revolves around Pu-erh, a rare type of fermented tea that her community believes has healing qualities. Her mother, who uses Pu-erh in her duties as a midwife for their small impoverished village, expects Li-yan to follow in her professional footsteps, but the job requires following traditions that Li-yan finds abhorrent. Instead, with the help of a non-Akha teacher, she rebels and pursues an education—until she finds herself single and pregnant. So begins the latest novel from Lisa See, who weaves together a compelling mother-daughter story and a profound modern-day history of tea against the swiftly changing China of the 1980s. Though set in nearly modern times, this novel is classic See: rich storytelling that illuminates little-known pieces of history and asks hard but respectful questions. Read on for See's take on tea's cultural importance, familial bonds and how writing this book felt like fate.
Canadian Living: What was your starting point for this story?
Lisa See: It's so weird how stories come to you. One day, when my husband and I were walking, we saw a white couple with their teenage Chinese daughter between them. She had this ponytail that was swinging back and forth, and it looked like she was bringing such life to them that I had this thought, She's a fox spirit in that family. In China's culture, a fox spirit can be pretty mischievous, but it can also bring real goodness and luck into your life. So I knew I wanted to write about adoption, but not so straight on. I write historical novels, so I needed something that would be the historical backdrop. Then, I was giving a talk at a library, where someone had been brought in to do a Chinese tea tasting; the tea was Pu-erh. Then, the next piece was I wanted to go to China to do research, and it just so happened an acquaintance had been at a banquet where he was seated next to a woman who is the largest importer of Pu-erh into the country. She was already planning a trip and invited me to go with her. She introduced me to the Akha people, and I knew I had to write about them after spending time with a young woman whose experience informed my main character, Li-yan.
CL: As you read the book, there's a sense of predestination. Was that intentional?
LS: Yes. I think it's because so much of how the book happened for me really was about fate. The Akha have a saying, “No coincidence, no story,” which I think is true; in our lives, most of us have had things happen where you're in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time—or you bump into someone who's just the person you needed to meet right then.
CL: Why is tea the thread that weaves through the story and connects the characters?
LS: When I was thinking about tea—which is the second most popular drink in the world, after water—it has this very old history. They've been drinking it in China for 5,000 years. And it has had its ebb and flow. At times, tea was very highly collected, then at times it was frowned on, and you can see how the attitude affected the people. Pu-erh not only brought the Akha to the outside world but it also brought the outside world to them. Truly, until the mid-2000s, the Akha didn't have electricity, so through this one product, you can see how China changes and evolves and goes out into the rest of the world.
CL: Some of the Akha's practices are quite troubling. How did you balance modern ideas of what's socially and morally acceptable with respecting the culture?
LS: I tried to put it into the perspective of that culture. I will say with this book, and there is one scene in particular, that it was very hard. I think I tried to balance it with their mystical and also practical view of the world. But it was so interesting and heartbreaking and confusing that some of these practices ended only about 20 years ago.
CL: The main character, Li-yan, has a stormy relationship with her mother, but they have a very deep emotional connection, despite their differences. How did you tap into that complex relationship?
LS: I didn't think I was writing about mother-daughter relationships; it was subconscious. But my mom died last summer, as I was writing the novel. I actually finished the final edits about two days after she died. And it was around two months later, as I was looking through a copy-edited version, that I realized it really is about those deep personal connections. Even if it isn't going well, even if you can't stand your mother, there is a deep, deep tie that is unlike any other relationship we have in the world, I think.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Scribner) by Lisa See, $25.