WALNUT CREEK -- Anchee Min, launching the national tour of her second-chapter memoir, "The Cooked Seed," at the Walnut Creek Library on May 7, is an international best-selling author perennially in search of words.
Her first book, "Red Azalea" (1994), told the story of her youth, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution and ending with her "cooked seed, no chance to sprout" status at Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio. Picking up the autobiographical narrative nearly 20 years later, "Cooked Seed" has her immigrating to America without language skills. Learning English by watching Mr. Rogers and Oprah on television, practicing typing on a handmade, cardboard keyboard, marrying badly and divorcing, Min emerges as an author blossoming with expression, but grappling with self-definition.
"I'm a living self and a writer self," she said in an recent interview. "Writing about your own life; it's both easier and harder. You know your material, but how to use it and your role? If this is cancer, you're looking at character cancer. Do I have courage to look and make it known?"
In a converted tool shed on the slope behind the Walnut Creek home she shares with second husband Lloyd Lofthouse, Min says her writing habits for her six historical fiction novels and two memoirs follow a disciplined-to-chaotic pattern.
"When my daughter was in middle school (Lauryann is a Las Lomas High School grad now at Stanford), we would wake at 5:45, exercise, eat and walk to school. On the way back, I'd start the first sentence. By the time I got to the cabin I was started."
Min works all day, doing lighter research when her brain "is no good" and stopping at 5 p.m. But as a book takes shape, Min says "time gets chaos." Soon, she is writing until 3 a.m.
"In the end, I am -- I wouldn't say 'slave,' but writing dictates to me," she admits.
Now fluent in the language she labored to learn, Min remains conflicted about Mandarin and English. The former has clear, unadorned directness; the latter, more words for love. Because of what she calls her "handicap in language," she thinks in wordless pictures, then pursues a poetic muse, often spending weeks on single sentences.
Min is unwilling to compromise on content. Her memoir strips pretense from her immigrant success story, telling of hunger, rape, prejudice, but also turning the critical eye inward, at how America's abundance unleashed her own greed and obsessions.
"I now have an American voice," she laughs. "It allows me to dig deeper. I analyze and dissect and do autopsy on myself."
She says her first memoir was written in unprocessed "off the boat" language exploding in reaction to China's "women keep silent" dictates. Promising her daughter a "more true second story," Min's words no longer boil, but haven't lost their bite.
Indeed, there is no hiding as she writes about regret after her mother's death: "The moment I smashed the mirror in which my mother saw the perfect me, she experienced an internal crash ... I was the embodiment of her worth. Yet I couldn't let her have that."
The force most likely to draw her up the meandering path to her writer's cabin is untapped storytelling passion she cannot contain.
"It's a crime, not to teach our children about China," she insists. "To learn where China is going, the only way is to teach where it is coming from. That's my job."
For now, Min's books aren't available in her homeland, although she has seen an underground version of "Red Azaleas."
Min cherishes the literary freedom in the United States to explore and expose the truth.
"I'm patriotic about America, but I do have trouble with entitlement. You haven't contributed until you have done something. I say to young people, grow up and pick a profession to serve. Some of my daughter's friend's mothers think I'm dysfunctional. I am American enough to put that on the paper and print it."
Walnut Creek author Anchee Min introduces her new book, a second-chapter memoir, "The Cooked Seed."