Lisa See

AbeBooks Exclusive Interview With Lisa See

An obscure Chinese language, hidden for hundreds of years in a remote region, is at the heart of Lisa See’s latest novel - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

The California-based writer details the life-long friendship between two women in rural 19th century China as they lived in seclusion in accordance with rigid traditions dictated by a male-dominated society. The friends communicated via the secret language known only to women.

The code, nu schu, actually existed. It is the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world. “Very little has been known about this language,” explained Lisa. “Men knew it existed but didn’t care – very few men were literate in those days.

“The language was discovered in the 1960s. A woman fainted in a railway station. People went through her bag and found a note written in the code. They thought she was a spy as it was the middle of the Cultural Revolution. Word didn’t trickle out of China until the 1980s – people were not really mobile in that part of the country.

“These women were not supposed to have any intellectual thoughts, or even show emotion. Yet through this written language, they were able to communicate very articulately with each other. The language has much to do with hardship but also solace and friendship. I went to China in 2002 in order to research the book. I was only the second Westerner to visit that part of the country.”

Lisa has been acclaimed for showcasing Chinese culture. Her non-fiction debut On Gold Mountain: The 100 year Odyssey of my Chinese American Family put her on the literary map in 1995. It recounts the life of her great-grandfather, Fong See, and the development of LA’s Chinatown.

Her fictional efforts won more admirers. The Flower Net - a murder story set in modern China - was a 1997 best-seller. Its lead characters, Liu Hulan and David Stark, reappeared in further investigations in The Interior, published in 1999, and Dragon Bones in 2003.

“There’s been around 10 years of consistent interest in Chinese culture from the West,” said Lisa. “At a minor level, people are traveling more and they want to read more books about the places they are visiting. There’s also increased business and economic interest in China. It is becoming a superpower and yet we know very little about the place.”

Lisa was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles where Chinatown became a frequent haunt. She spent 13 years writing for Publishers Weekly. Her skills have extended into writing for opera and also becoming a guest curator for an exhibit on the Chinese American experience at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. “It was thrilling to see the Autry exhibition and be part of it,” she said.

And when she is not writing? “I read for fun,” Lisa explained. “I like to read books that are out-of-print. I really like Bob Dylan’s book (Chronicles). I’ve always loved the way he uses language to tell a story.”