As a teenage Red Guard in 1971, Anchee Min was commanded by no less a celebrity than Mao Zedong's wife to publicly denounce Pearl S. Buck. Never having read anything by the famous American author, but viewing herself as "Madame Mao's footsoldier," Min obeyed. "I followed the order and never doubted whether or not Madam Mao was being truthful," she said. That was the only option in a China where "you never had any privacy, and you had to wait for twenty people to use the bathroom every morning before you got to use it."
In 1996, having immigrated to the United States, Min read her first Buck book. It was The Good Earth, that 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic of rural suffering. Turning the final page, Min sobbed. "The mud floors in that novel were like the mud floors in my grandparents' house," where Min spent childhood summers, she said. "My grandmother had bound feet, and she used to say to me, 'Women are grass, born to be stepped on.'
"How could Pearl Buck know all this? Yet she did. I realized then that this American woman gave a voice to 95 percent of China's population. No Chinese authors had ever given them a voice," focusing instead on intellectuals and aristocrats of their own class, Min said. "I'd always thought it would be impossible for a foreigner to depict Chinese people accurately. But Pearl's writing was so accurate that I was stunned. She knew the Chinese people like she knew her own skin."
Now living in the East Bay, Min based her new novel, Pearl of China, on the true story of Buck, a daughter of American missionaries who grew up in China speaking Chinese and considering herself Chinese. Its narrator, Willow Yee, is a composite of several actual friends about whom — as about the Chinese poet who was almost certainly Buck's lover — Buck wrote only very cagily.
"Pearl had to be careful about names and descriptions because she knew that during the Cultural Revolution, anyone connected to her would be arrested and prosecuted. Anyone who really had known her had to pretend that they hadn't. That's how China is. We all have to learn to lie to survive," said Min, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Tuesday, April 13.
Min told residents of Buck's childhood hometown, Chinjiang, that she was researching a novel, "but they didn't trust me. They thought maybe I was from the government and was going to abuse them and make them say things that would hurt them later on." Only an aged pastor agreed to share his memories of Buck, because he was terminally ill.
"He said, 'I'm a dead pig, so I'm not afraid of boiling water.' He knew he couldn't be prosecuted, so he spoke." 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net