Anchee Min’s memoir The Cooked Seed details her relocation to the US at the age of twenty-eight with scant knowledge of English and no means of financial support, and charts her subsequent struggle to craft a meaningful life for herself in a foreign country. Anchee’s story, presented in sometimes disarmingly open language, tells of a singularly strange life, yet still resonates with anyone who has ever experienced the sense of dislocation. The Cooked Seed is a brutal and challenging account of the difficulties Anchee faced, encompassing her struggle to assimilate into American culture, her profound loneliness, and her anxiety over the family left behind in China. Anchee’s battle to conquer the English language overhangs the entire memoir, and after reading about her early struggles to participate in basic conversation without the aid of a dictionary, it’s incredibly impressive to consider that this once hesitant student has since become a prolific author.
Anchee has written several novels which explore significant epochs in Chinese history, both ancient and modern (of which I’d especially recommend Wild Ginger). If Anchee’s life was a novel, however, the author would be forced to impose a greater sense of order upon her story: readers would otherwise dismiss the unrelenting cycle of torments endured by the protagonist as ‘unrealistic’. Fact again proves itself capable of being far stranger than fiction. The extreme poverty of Anchee’s early life, which shapes her view of consumption in America, is almost unimaginable. In a novel such detail would be considered excessive. I would usually hold that fiction provides a more effective tool for dealing with trauma, as it shows a wider perspective and thus allows some small modicum of sense to be made. As a memoir, The Cooked Seed is therefore more challenging: it denies cohesion and understanding, and this absence of meaning more accurately captures the confusion of Anchee’s life.
Perhaps the fact that Anchee was unsatisfied with displacing her ghosts onto fictionalised accounts of life under the Cultural Revolution reveals the necessity of non-fiction: we need to confront our pasts and call our demons by their true names.