I was fortunate during the DC conference. I met a lot of people I admire and some who simply awed me. Mingmei Yip is one of them.
Her book on pre-communist Chinese geishas, Peach Blossom Pavilion, a very unique and different historical, came out to rave reviews last summer.
She received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and held faculty appointments at the Chinese University and Baptist University in Hong Kong. She’s published five books in Chinese, written several columns for seven major Hong Kong newspapers, and has appeared on over forty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and the U.S. I don't think there's much more she can do without exploding under the weight of all that knowledge. She was kind enough to agree to an interview and I'm happy to have her here on my blog.
Mingmei, you have an amazing academic background. Who are you?
I was pretty clear about who I was even as a child. Peer pressure was never a problem for me, because as a loner, I just ignored the others. I enjoyed being left by myself so I could let my imagination run freely to make things up – I always loved stories. As Chinese say, I wanted to be different – a red dot among the vast expanse of green.
Later I realized that being that “red dot” meant working extra hard and giving up leisure time. However, I have been able to fulfill my multiple dreams of being a writer, scholar, musician, and painter. Samples of my “red dots” are on my website.
What drew you to such a difficult subject and setting? Why the early 1900's?
Setting my novel, Peach Blossom Pavilion, in 1920's Shanghai meant doing a lot of research. However, this was the time during which the Chinese courtesan, or geisha, culture was about to fade into history. I felt both the urge and responsibility to capture this erotic sunset. Peach Blossom Pavilion is the first novel in English to have recorded this unique, exotic culture. PBP is also the first novel in English to introduce the guqin, the oldest Chinese stringed instrument with over two thousand years of history and a favorite pastime for both the cultivated gentry-women and the courtesans.
I have been performing on the guqin for over thirty years. You can hear me play and sing on my website. Just click on “qin music.”
Peach Blossom Pavilion is an amazing book--blunt, brutal, and honest, but lyrical and full of imagery. When you wrote it, was the style a considered choice on your part, or something that flowed from Precious Orchid's character?
I think this is my natural style, a balance of the yin and yang, the complementary forces that Chinese culture sees as underlining all of human experience. That’s also one of the reasons why I try to put humor in my writing, to maintain the dual nature of life as joyful and miserable. I try to have my words intermingle harmoniously like a tasty Chinese soup blended with the five flavors.
How long did it take you to find a home for Peach Blossom Pavilion? There are strong overtones of Buddhism, Daoist principles, and the art and culture of China in Peach Blossom Pavilion. Do you think being so true to your Chinese heritage made it a hard sell, or an easy sell?
As the Chinese saying goes: “No needle is sharp on both sides,” so being true to my Chinese heritage both helps and hurts. I remember years ago at a writer’s conference after I pitched my manuscript to an agent, he cast a quick look, then said that he was not interested in anything Asian. On the other hand, I also believe it is exactly because Peach Blossom Pavilion is about Chinese art and culture that it has been doing so well.
People read fiction to escape. I believe Peach Blossom Pavilion, filled with glamorous, exotic women, costumes, customs, music, poetry, exquisite temples and forbidden prostitution houses, possesses the ability to lure its readers into a different world filled with Eastern splendors and make them forget whatever dissatisfaction they have in reality.
Your book hit the bestseller lists in Hawaii. Do you think the time has come for more Asian-themed books?
I think Westerners have always been fascinated by the mysterious East. From the thirties on, popular novelists like Pearl Buck, Han Suyin, James Clavel, and more recently authors like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Lisa See all have had huge followings. Now that China is opening up, it’s natural that more people want to know about things going on behind the bamboo gate which had been closed to the outside world for so long.
So yes, I think the time has come for more Asian, especially China-themed, books.
In addition to Peach Blossom Pavilion, you also wrote and illustrated a children's book. Was it difficult to go from children's literature to adult literature?
Actually, there’s no difficulty at all. I think because I am still very much a child at heart. For many years, I even refused to grow up, being so afraid of the adult world of hypocrisy and scheming.
I spent much of my childhood daydreaming and so never have a problem making up stories. I also have no difficulty in entering different characters’ minds. This is necessary for being a writer, whether for adults or children.
What are you currently working on?
My second novel, Petals from the Sky, a Buddhist interracial love story, will come out in April of 2010. In it, a young Chinese woman who had planned to become a Buddhist nun falls in love with an American doctor against the wishes of her nun mentor.
My third novel, a love story between an older woman and a younger man is set along the famous Silk Road. It will come out in 2011. Both are published by Kensington Books. I also have another children’s book in the works, to be published by Tuttle. So this will be a very busy writing year for me.
Mingmei is a cross between Jade Lee and Amy Tan. Hot, intelligent, and romantic. Check out her website at Mingmeiyip.com.