Anchee Min, this year's Lambert Lecturer, is no stranger to hardship. In her address to students and faculty on April 11, she spoke about coming of age during China's Cultural Revolution, a period of dramatic social transformation that became the backdrop of her two best-selling memoirs, Red Azalea and Becoming Madame Mao.
"People told me I had no right to write a memoir," she said. "I was nobody. I came from nothing. But that's the point. That's America's point — the opportunity for nobody to discover her potential."
Min grew up in rural China, a self-described communist from the age of eight. Her political beliefs were partly the result of her relationship with her grandmother, whose bound feet came to symbolize the oppression faced by generations of Chinese women — a cycle Min yearned to break. She came from a family of lower-middle class farmers, and she often had to fend for herself in an environment where constant poverty and hunger engendered hostility. As a child, she would walk to school reciting Maoisms, because she knew no one would beat her up while she was quoting the Chairman.
Later, as a young adult, she was sent to a labor camp for "re-education," where she continued to live in deep deprivation and starvation. She worked long days in the rice paddies, subsisting on meager rations. She broke her back twice, but she still had to plant her quota of rice each day, even if that meant staying out in the fields until the middle of the night.
Eventually, Min made it to America, but her harrowing journey — including a brief stint in one of Madam Mao's propaganda productions — has led her to a deep appreciation of America's freedoms, especially the freedom to tell her own story. As she emphasized to students, the ability to discover one's potential, regardless of birth, is the greatest privilege.
"In America, you don't have to be anyone's daughter," she said. "Your poor can be your asset."
Min is the acclaimed author of seven works of fiction and nonfiction. Her books have been published in more than thirty languages. Her visit was sponsored by poet-in-residence Susan Kinsolving and The Lambert Fund, established in 1981 by Paul C. Lambert '46 and his wife, Mary, in memory of their son, Christopher '76, who died of cancer in 1979. It was the Lamberts' wish that the funds be used to provide a stipend for writers of prose and poetry to visit the School twice each year to work with the students in the English department and offer an evening reading for the community at large.