My Journey of Embroidering Words
My maternal grandmother was the owner of the Pepsi Cola factory in Vietnam before the Communists took over. Barely able to read, she took over the business after my grandfather died suddenly of a stroke in his early 40s. My mother always boasted about Grandma’s success and showed me pictures of her with celebrities including Hollywood star Joan Crawford and the Vietnamese president.
My grandmother came to visit from time to time, but like so many old generation Chinese woman, she lavished attention on my brother while ignoring me because I was a girl – “money-losing merchandise.” She never spoke a word to me, nor even looked in my direction. I reciprocated, sitting silently in my chair and staring out the window, absorbed in my daydreams. This “cold war” culminated when one day Grandma suddenly asked my mother, ”Is your daughter retarded?”
Whatever my mother thought about this, she always had faith in my future. Once, when on our way to a Chinese opera performance, I saw the crescent moon and blurted out: “Ma, look, the moon is like my clipped fingernail!” Amazed, Mother shot back: “Wah! Mingmei, you’ll be a writer someday!”
Perhaps it was that which planted the seed in my young mind to become a writer. From the time I was eight, I always liked unusual images. When I was a teenager, I began to write poetry in which I could place my odd images, such as “A chandelier hanging low like a pregnant womb,” “annoying like burned rice sticking at the cooker’s bottom,” “eyes rolling like crawling bugs.” My poetry writing has helped my novel writing, by teaching me to pay attention to every single word.
Writing is like embroidering, because we have to choose the right word just as the embroiderer has to apply the right stitch with the right shade of color. When we weave together words to create a sentence, it is like the layering of threads to create a picture.
Now I have authored more than seven hundred thousand words, yet this all was inspired by my mother’s comment about my childish remark on the moon. This makes me think of the sage Laozi’s words “Journey of a thousand miles began on the ground under your feet.”
It’s never easy to be a writer, especially when you start out. It is essential to master the basics. Not only voice, characterization, dialogue, plot, but also sentence structure, its rhythm and music. I always try to vary the length of my sentences and start each one with a different subject. It’s essential to spend whatever time it takes to find the right word. Sometimes, it is a single word that brightens a whole paragraph.
There is a Chinese saying “Slap on the thigh and exclaim!” That’s how the readers will react to a good choice of words.
Mingmei Yip believes that in addition to being entertained, people should also get something more out of reading a novel. Her new novel is Secret of a Thousand Beauties, coming out December, 2014 from Kensington Books. Secret of a Thousand Beauties is about a young woman who escapes a ghost marriage to join a community of celebrate embroiderers. Soon, stifled by the rigid routines of the group, she helps herself to one of their treasures – an imperial robe. Chased by agents of a secret society, she makes her way to Beijing. There she finds work in an embroidery shop, only to be tricked into marrying the boss’ son. Escaping again, she falls in love with a revolutionary and lives an even more dangerous life. Despite all these distractions, she continues with her needlework and earns fame and respect. You can watch the book trailer here.
Mingmei’s other novels include: Skeleton Women (about femmes fatales); The Nine Fold Heaven, Peach Blossom Pavilion (the story of the last Chinese Geisha); Petals from the Sky (a Buddhist love story); and Song of the Silk Road, (a romantic adventure on China’s fabled route in pursuit of a three million dollar reward).
Besides writing, Mingmei is accomplished in many other fields. A professional player of the Guqin, Chinese zither, she was recently invited by Carnegie Hall to perform. She had her solo Goddess exhibition at the New York Open Center Gallery to great acclaim and held calligraphy workshops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has lectured extensively on Chinese art and culture at Oxford University, Columbia University, Beijing University, University of Paris, Vassar College, Williams College.
Mingmei is also a children’s book writer and illustrator. Her two children’s books are Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook, both by Tuttle Publishing. Learn more and order her books here.
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