Red Azalea: Review

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It's hard to review a memoir. These are experiences of a person put into words, not for my objectification, but to make these experiences real. Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, recounts her life growing up in the last few years of Maoist China. As the daughter of immigrants myself, many aspects of her story really hit home and I found this to be a cathartic read in a political climate that forces me to grapple with my identity and my community.

I selected Red Azalea as the inaugural book for an Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) book club that I started with a few of my friends (thank you guys for putting up with me)! There were a few reasons why I chose a memoir of Maoist China as our first book, chief among which is my strong belief that our past influences our present and our future. I think many people would agree with this statement. Why do we (as book club members) care so much about books written by APIA authors and their representation? Why do we believe that their tone and their stories deserve to be heard? It's because of their experiences, as immigrants or children of immigrants, as Americans who don't quite fit in but have always been told to not stand out. And I believe that a book like Red Azalea sets a strong foundation for our understanding and interpretations of books to come, of why this APIA voice matters now, more than ever.

Fun fact: I had an email interview with Min a few years ago when I interned with the Asia Society about her newest memoir, The Cooked Seed. I reread the interview recently to see if I could find something to bring to the table for our book club meeting. Among the many poignant things Min remarked on, one thing stood out to me:

It took 29 years living in America for me to gain the confidence and trust my judgment about the United States. Compared to writing Red Azalea, I have gained more freedom in terms of expressing myself in English.

This put Red Azalea in a brand new light for me, especially when I look at the state of the U.S. right now. It took Min 29 years to feel confident in her voice and in her experiences. As someone who was born in this country, I've often doubted my voice. I was discouraged when I didn't see people like me on TV, on the big screen, in the books I read. I falter sometimes when I speak, and when I wonder whether my convictions are important. Now, when people of different colors, backgrounds, religions, and sexualities are being terrorized for simply existing in this country of freedom and democracy, I wonder when I will have the confidence to use my voice to protect my community.

When I read Red Azalea, I read in the voice of a person whose beliefs were stagnated and who processed things numbly. Sentences are choppy and actions are taken at face value. There doesn't seem to be enough words- or perhaps the right words- for Min to express herself, and I can relate to that. The outrage when her mother is forced to toil day after day despite her rising blood pressure and failing health; the deep-rooted lust and betrayal she feels for her comrade Yan; the anxiety and newness of her situation in Beijing. Without taking away from the enormity of her experiences, I can create parallels to my own. When my mother died and relatives told me not to tell anyone for fear of bringing shame to my family; when I felt so alone and unworthy of attention because of my guilt; when I was thrust into a college environment that I wasn't comfortable with.

As readers, we catch glimpses of her past- China's past- and must read between the lines and thoughts of someone who was taught only one truth for much her life. As such, Red Azalea reads very much like a diary, where Min documents only the most important things that happened in her time as a revolutionary, and expands on her romantic interludes and the grief of heartbreak. The book is divided into three sections: the first is the shortest and is about her childhood, the second documents her time spent as a laborer, and the third section is the longest, as it can largely be read as her budding and coming of age.

Red Azalea is a quick read, but not one to be taken lightly. My book is dotted with post-it notes, where I am particularly taken with a certain phrase Min uses, or where I am certain there is an underlying meaning to something she's said. And our discussion around the book proved fruitful and productive! More of that first book club meeting to come.

I rate Red Azalea 5/5 stars!

Read on,

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