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Katherine
by Anchee Min

Katherine

Reviewed by Ncha Xiong

The American Beauty

A world of nightmares vanishes as a world of hope emerges in Anchee Min's first novel, Katherine. This novel follows Anchee Min's international bestseller, Red Azalea, a memoir that was named by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of 1994. Min was born in 1957 in Shanghai, China. Before she became a writer, Min was a movie actress at the Shanghai Film Studio. Min was discovered by talent scouts while working in a labor collective at the age of seventeen. The United States became Min's home in 1984. Besides being a writer, Min is also a painter and photographer.

Katherine centers on the life of Zebra Wong, a 29-year-old Chinese woman whose whirlwind past of being raped, impregnated, then aborting the child has left her bitter. Zebra's journey of survival after her difficult past reflects strength and courage, inspired by her American teacher, Katherine.

Told from the perspective of Zebra, the novel has a personal touch that allows the reader intimacy with the characters. The novel incorporates different literary forms to create an enjoyable book that is easy to read and follow. These literary forms include poems, sayings, and stories from Min's Chinese culture that give the novel a unique style.

Set after the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-Tung, Zebra is a "borrowed worker" for an electronics factory in Shanghai. The status of a borrowed worker means that at any time Zebra can be sent back to the Elephant Fields, a dynamite field where she worked during the Cultural Revolution. The Elephant Fields is where the tragic events of her past occurred, leaving her distrustful and pessimistic. The manager of the electronics factory sends Zebra to the East Sea Foreign Language Institute to learn English. This is where Zebra meets Katherine, the American beauty who shows her that "life is not worth giving up after a string of disappointments" (102).

Katherine is the apple in all her students' eyes. Her red lipstick, curvy body, and fashionable clothing have the whole class staring without blinking. "She stood like a peacock, exhibiting her body, inviting us with her gestures, her body's music and heat. She gave our eyes an indescribable pleasure" (17). The students do not only admire her physical features; they also admire her free spirit and individualism. "We believed that we were wild seeds; we grew and died where the wind dropped us. It never occurred to us that we had a choice in life, that one could do what one loved to do" (70).

photo: Anchee Min

As Katherine encounters Chinese culture, she does not realize the danger she puts herself in. Katherine's individualism and free spirit are refelcted in actions and expressions not allowed in China. She speaks out against communism while drunk. Zebra tries to warn her, but Katherine does not accept Zebra's warnings. In her drunken state, Katherine makes a fool out of herself. A jealous student takes advantage of the situation by reporting it to the authorities. Tragic consequences for both Katherine and Zebra follow.

Min puts her fictional character Zebra into historical events to create a storyline that could have actually happened. Anchee Min's Katherine reflects the attitudes of the Chinese people that existed after the Maoist era. Mao Tse-Tung created a nation based on devotion and loyalty to communism only. Even after his death, the Chinese cannot escape his thoughts, which have been embedded in their brains. Zebra is an example of this. Katherine represents the individuality that exists in capitalist nations. When these two conflicting ideas come together, they clash, resulting in the survival of only one. Zebra admires Katherine's individuality, but she is unable to escape the communist theory she has always known. Anchee Min's intent is to illustrate this tension through the eyes of Zebra.