From what she understood, Lisa See was the fifth foreign visitor to the rural Chinese village nearly 250 kilometers outside of Shanghai. But she was the first Caucasian one. She had gone to research a novel with fellow author Amy Tan. See stood out with her red hair and fair skin, the villagers coming outside their homes to glimpse the American-looking woman.
See's writing has always taken a route through China, whether through character, setting or plot. She has a greater connection to that village than what appears. She's one-fourth Chinese. Her childhood is full of memories of Los Angeles Chinatown, where her paternal grandparents worked in an antiques shop.
Her novels give her a chance to explore her Chinese ancestry, discovering ways that not just make her unique, but how similar everyone actually is.
"For all of us now, there are people who came before us. It was through their suffering and hard work, their triumphs and failures that allows us to live now," she said. "If I approach a story that way, I'm not just thinking about the Chinese-American experience, but something deeper. It's something that's so part of human nature."
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She speaks Feb. 23 at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Lunch with Author Series. Her latest novel, "Dreams of Joy," was recently released in paperback. Her first book is being re-released: "On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family."
She was born in Paris, moving frequently with her mother growing up. Her time with her father and his family in Los Angeles was her most exposure to her Chinese ancestry. Her great-grandfather, Fong See, came to the United States during the gold rush to strike it rich, or find Gold Mountain, as they called it. He became a patriarch to a large family and one of the most prominent members of Chinatown.
"On Gold Mountain" became a best seller and a New York Times Notable Book. In her six novels, she's had success writing from either a Chinese perspective of America or an American perspective of China. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," which takes place in 19th century China, was recently made into a movie.
She's now working on a novel called "China Dolls" about Depression-era Chinese nightclubs and the performers who crossed the country on the so-called Chop Suey circuit.
She's made many trips to China, such as the one to the remote village, as a means of research but also to reconnect.
As she once wrote in the Los Angeles Times, writing allows her "to spend time in the way that only writers can with fragments of people -- their stories, the lilt of their laughs, the way they move across the floor -- who are gone from me now. I'll carry those people and places with me forever."