Living History: Choices & Consequences

By Deborah Schoeneman

An Interview with Lisa See

Shanghai GirlsJust remember, a person is his — or her — history…What is your history and what are you going to be?”
Shanghai Girls

Few of us dare to consider our lives this way. Does this also change our perception about the elements of a historical novel? I recently put this question to Lisa See, the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, On Gold Mountain, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy, as well as three Red Princess mysteries: Dragon Bones, Flower Net, and The Interior. All have something to say about lost, forgotten, or deliberately disguised facts and reactions to historical characters and events. These include the secret writings of Chinese women, lovesick marriages haunted by the afterlife, the little known facts about the 1939 Sino-Japanese War in Shanghai, and the horrific, poignant reality of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 through 1961.  Lisa See’s avid love of the world she has so meticulously researched and depicted with appealing potency is especially evident in Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.

DS: An ultimate puzzle about life is expressed in your novel, Shanghai Girls, when Pearl says, “I wonder if there was anything I would have done differently. I hope I would have done everything differently, except I know everything would have turned out the same. That’s the meaning of fate. …You can’t fight your fate…It is predestined.” How do you reconcile this notion that fate will determine everyone’s destiny no matter what choices individuals and leaders throughout history make?

LS: I originally envisioned Shanghai Girls to go from 1937 to 2007. I had wanted to divide the book into four sections: Fate, Fortune, Destiny, and Nature (namely the interaction of human nature with fate, fortune, and destiny). I got about 100 pages into the novel and I was still in Shanghai, still in 1937. In the end, I divided Shanghai Girls into three sections: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Instead, all of Dreams of Joy is, to me, about human nature. When, how, and why does human nature push us to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do?  Can human nature overturn fate? Can fortune and destiny be shaped by our human natures? I hope that Dreams of Joy shows that human nature is stronger and more reliable than fate, fortune, and destiny.

We are unique in having the ability to change our lives, even when it looks impossible, even when it appears that there’s no hope and we can’t surmount the obstacles that history throws at us. It is man — of all the creatures—who has the ability to choose to do the right thing, to live and die honorably, to look out for our families and loved ones right up to our final moments on earth.

I truly believe that history is something that happens to individual people. We may not understand that we are reacting to or being influenced by history, but we are. Yes, we have hindsight, but mostly we’re just experiencing life day by day. I once asked my father, when I was interviewing him for On Gold Mountain, whether he and the family felt racism against the Chinese when he was growing up. He said they didn’t think or talk about it very much. What they had to do was get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to school or work, come home, have dinner, go to bed. In other words, they were living their lives, not thinking about history.

How much information should one use of history? I have to tell you that I put everything into my first draft. If I found an interesting historical tidbit, I want to use it! But I pull a lot of that stuff out when editing until I feel that I’ve reached a good balance. Less is always more!

DS: Your descriptions of scenery are exquisite as the reader follows the characters throughout China and America – from the deep contrasts of the beauty and ugliness of Shanghai in Shanghai Girls to Pearl’s comments about the drabness of China City, and in Dreams of Joy the recognition of how poorly Shanghai and the outer provinces of China have fared since the War. How special are these descriptions because of your love for each place and how does a writer capture the essence of those special places in the historical scenes?

LS: I see the settings as characters. I try to find out everything I can about a place and I work with all the senses. I find that smell is especially evocative of a place. Does it smell like incense, tea, coal smoke, roast duck, mildew, sewage, or some combination of those things? Smell is the strongest of the senses and the one most locked to our primitive selves. In my own life, I can pick up a whiff of something and be totally transported to another place and time.

With Dreams of Joy, I needed to find a house for Z.G. in Shanghai that would look Western but still have Chinese influences. I found it on a little walk street when I was exploring the French Concession one day. The villa, where Z.G. and Joy stay in the fictional village of Green Dragon, is modeled on a 17th-century villa in Huangcun Village in Anwei province.  Anyone can write about how cold a room might be if it doesn’t have glass pane windows, but it’s quite different to actually stay in an old house without windows on a very cold night.

DS: When reading literature about a foreign country I frequently find myself considering our perceptions about another country: for example, the American perceptions about Communism and Pearl’s discovery that China was not “closed” until Nixon’s work. Pearl, May and Joy all have misconceptions. How does this affect history and therefore fiction, especially in Dreams of Joy?

LS: Yes! This misconception is happening around us all the time and it goes in both directions. In my work, I’ve been looking at those contradictions — the fantasy and reality that we have about places, neighborhoods, peoples, and countries. I don’t have an answer for what is right. I’m just interested in how those things are colored and how we take them and accept them as fact.  Your example of how Pearl and Joy look at the People’s Republic of China in 1957 is spot on. Pearl worries that when she arrives, she’ll be taken out and shot. Joy thinks she’s going to be embraced as a young woman who has come to China full of idealism for the new government. Neither is right in their assessment but neither is wrong either. They’re both on different paths and experience things differently. That said, by the end they both come to the same conclusion

DS: Could you explain Z.G’s interaction with Joy and later with May and Pearl in Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy? What does this say about how history affects the artist’s sensitivities and works?

LS: Z.G. is a typical Rabbit. He avoids conflict by hopping away from it. He does this politically, which has allowed him to continue to work as an artist in the new regime. He has also done this in his private life by not taking responsibility and not truly connecting to the people who love him: Pearl, May, and Joy.  All the characters in my books make great emotional journeys, and Z.G. is no exception.

In Shanghai Girls, Z.G. is an artist who paints “beautiful girls” for commercial posters. In Dreams of Joy, the government has used him to help create the idea of a new, modern “beautiful girl.” She is no longer lounging in her boudoir in silk and satins; she is ruddy cheeked, rounder, and driving a tractor. This shift has allowed him to continue his work as an artist. In fact, when Dreams of Joy opens, he is in real trouble with the government for his work and his words. It’s only when he paints this new idealized version of a modern Chinese woman (who happens to be his own daughter) that he’s rehabilitated.

DS: Pearl has a very powerful realization about seeing herself as a victim, always afraid, and always longing to fly away. Yet she rationalizes why she stays with Sam and with her sister, despite their disputes and jealousy. Do you believe these characters found joy in spite of wanting to “fly away” from their normal lives?

LS: Hmm…Pearl does see herself as a victim. She doesn’t just recover from the rape and the other things that happen to her in the first book. One of the things that strikes me, as a reader of books and a viewer of movies and television, is how often really terrible things are resolved for characters. In real life people continue to suffer from the tragedies that have happened — sometimes for their entire lives! In the first book, Pearl is paralyzed by what’s happened to her. In the second, she is moved to action to save her daughter. It is through her moving and experiencing life again that she is finally (but not totally) able to come to terms with the things that have happened to her. To me, this is central to the novel. Both Pearl and Joy take their own very different journeys to “come of age.”

As to the second part of your question, originally I wanted to title the book Finding Joy. To me, the first half is about finding Joy, the daughter, while the second half is about finding joy, the emotion. In my heart, I believe that, by taking very different, sometimes unexpected, journeys, all the main characters find joy, the emotion, by the end of the novel. This is my first novel with a truly happy ending.

Discover more about Lisa See at

About the interviewer: Deborah Schoeneman is a retired English teacher and now works in the legal field. She reviews books and is an Associate Editor of Fiction for the HNS.


Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 60, May 2012

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