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Love, Honor and the Search for Family 

Colorado Springs author Gus Lee on the quest for character

Gus Lee enters the downtown Adams Mark hotel lobby dressed as the quintessential writer -- in black turtleneck, black slacks and a black tweed jacket. It's the latest in a line of uniforms that have marked the phases of this best-selling, critically acclaimed author's life.

Since he moved to Colorado Springs a decade ago with his wife, Diane, and two children, Lee, formerly a military JAG officer, a district attorney and executive of the State Bar in California, has worked almost full-time as a writer, utilizing a wealth of life experience as subject matter.

His first novel, China Boy (Dutton, 1991), fictionalized the author's experiences growing up poor and Chinese-American in San Francisco's largely African-American Panhandle neighborhood, and his cruel mistreatment at the hands of a white stepmother. Named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, China Boy has since been named by the American Library Association as one of the best American novels of the last 50 years and is now in its 15th printing.

Lee followed with his second novel, Honor and Duty (Knopf, 1994), taking the fictional character Kai Ting from China Boy to the United States Military Academy at West Point, closely shadowing the author's actual experience as a student there.

Tiger's Tail (Knopf, 1996) Lee's third novel, is a military adventure tale set in Korea and chronicles an Army lawyer's investigation of a renegade commander whose greed and imperialist tendencies could lead to nuclear war.

No Physical Evidence (Ballantine, 1998), Lee's fourth novel, tells the story of a depressed district attorney who must investigate a brutal rape case while he is emotionally immobilized by the death of a young child, a story also rooted in the author's personal family experience.

Lee's latest book, Chasing Hepburn (Harmony Books, 2003), is a huge, bustling memoir (532 pages), exploring the rich history of his traditional, aristocratic Chinese ancestors and the challenges faced by his mother and father, Tsu Da-tsien and Lee Zee Zee, as the empire collapses around them.

Alternating gracefully and energetically between intimate family detail and epic historic context, Chasing Hepburn begins in 1909 when Lee's kind grandfather rescues his mother from the foot-binding ritual, foreshadowing the family's eventual exile from Chinese tradition as the modern world encroaches upon their way of living. Lee's father, a pilot, tries to kill Mao Tse-Tung, runs money for one of China's wealthiest families, flees to America in pursuit of his screen idol, Katharine Hepburn, and eventually kills one of his lifelong best friends. Meanwhile, his wife, left behind in Shanghai, decides to flee the country with her three young daughters.

Laced with physical peril, political intrigue and a host of key historic figures -- at one point the Lees attend a dinner where Chinese Nationalist leaders Chiang Kai Shek and Sun Yat-Sen, and future communist leaders Chau En Lai, Mao Tse-Tung and Teng Xao Ping are all present -- the book is at once a gripping adventure and a tender re-creation of the author's parents' young lives and their elegant ancestral traditions.

Last week, Lee talked with the Independent about Chasing Hepburn, writing his memoir and his most recent work on business ethics, character and integrity.

Indy: You have said that when your elderly father came to Colorado at the end of his life in 1998, your sisters had basically "had enough" of him and had parted ways. How did they respond to your plan to write your family's memoir?

Lee: Truthfully, I had had enough too. But when I saw him in California, he was so feeble and so weak. Call it Confucian training, but I had to do what I could for him. I asked him to come out to Colorado, and to my great surprise, he accepted. I think he knew he was dying.

My sisters responded each in her own way. As my father began to expire and began telling me stories, I knew without asking them that the idea of a book about our father, with or without my mother, would not be enticing to them. My father had really made himself into a villain. He had burned his bridges with them.

I talked to Ying, my middle sister, about the book, and she was troubled by parts of it. There are parts of it that don't ring true to her. And there are things that none of us agree on. Ying is the one who said, "Our family's story is Rashomon [the classic Kurosawa film that tells an event from four different points of view]." My sister Mary is just amazed that her baby brother can write, or at least get published. My eldest sister Elinor, who is a real patron of the arts, is happy that someone in the family has published some books.

But our father is a tender, painful, vulnerable topic.

Indy: Your father was very frail and old when he began telling you his stories, and you have described him as an emotional, flamboyant storyteller. How did you gather his stories and how, then, did you flesh out the actual detail, placing his stories of himself and your mother in historic time and place?

Lee: My father only entered the hospital in the last three days of his life. He was in a fully assisted senior center here in the Springs, a very nice place, and that's where the interviews occurred.

When Dad began telling his stories, I knew that if I turned on the tape recorder or pulled out a pen and started taking notes, he would stop.

The image that came to me was of a squirrel that I saw often in the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco when I was growing up. I always had almond cookies. If I stood in one certain spot and didn't move, he'd run up my leg and take a bite out of the cookie. But if I stood somewhere else, or moved or jerked, he wouldn't have anything to do with me.

So I knew that if I interrupted Dad's sense of control, he would stop talking. Luckily, he was very tired. He'd go for about three hours, then nap. I'd run out to my car and my laptop and write it all down frantically, then come back very casually and, at the next session, do the same thing. I definitely lost some names. I definitely lost some dates.

Then a couple years later, after he died, I found his letters to me among his papers. Not all the answers were there, but a lot of them were.

I studied modern Chinese history in a doctoral program, not because I was so fascinated by the history, though I was, but more because I was trying to tell the story of our family. I had the historical sense of what had happened at the end of the Chinese Empire, the end of the Ching Dynasty and the beginning of the fledgling republic, so I could extrapolate where and what was happening historically around the stories my father passed down.

Indy: It apparently meant a lot to him that you had his stories.

Lee: I don't know that. He had made it clear to me years earlier what he wanted to be remembered for, and that was his artwork, not his life. I have that work, pencil sketches; they're very good. The real tribute to him would be to get his art published.

My wild take on [why he gave me his stories] is that this was his estate. He was very troubled in his last relationship with [author] Amy Tan's mother that he had no property, he had no wealth. It galled and humiliated him that Daisy Tan was wealthier than he was, that whatever money he had earned, he had gambled and lost. It's possible that he was going to pass me a story that he knew I would write and would probably be able to sell as a book. Then he would not have left the family nothing.

This could just be my childhood projection, but I see it as a gift, a self-sacrificing gift, because he would reveal himself as a man who, in his inner heart, he was not supposed to be -- selfish, self-serving, egotistical, interested in doing whatever he felt like doing as opposed to what he ought to be doing, foolish, a failure. That's a lot of stuff no man wants to expand upon.

Indy: Religion plays an important part in the book and, apparently, in your life. How did you reconcile your father's strident atheism and your mother's devout Christianity in your own life?

Lee: With a great deal of confusion. My mother felt that God had saved her and my sisters, so we owed God a great deal. My father thought that America had saved our lives, and that we owed a debt to America, and that's why I was raised to go to West Point -- to pay that debt.

My mother was as devout a Christian as you could imagine, and my dad was as violent and powerful an iconoclast as you could picture. They constantly warred over this.

I was raised to be Christian the first five years of my life, while my mother was still living, and then for two years after, by my sister Mary. She was charged with raising me as a good Christian boy, a deathbed promise she made to my mother. Then our stepmother arrived, an angry, powerful atheist who definitely did not believe in heaven but believed in hell. She kicked Mary out of the house, so my sister couldn't fulfill the promise she had made to our dying mother. I remember that Mary and I prayed really hard, on our knees, in the place in our house where our mother had prayed with us, for God to save us from this stepmother, but God did not appear. So my sister knew at 12, and I knew at 5 or 6, that there was no God.

Indy: So how did you come, as an adult, to rely on the church?

Lee: I remained an atheist until I was an adult -- and this is embarrassing to say, but it's the truth: I ended up in a family and a business/professional crisis at the same time. I tried a lot of interventions until I did what I saw was the only thing left to me -- I walked into a church, a very unwelcome place for me to go voluntarily.

This was at the same time that I found out from my cousins in China that my mother wanted three things from me: One, that I not be a soldier, which I was for eight years. Then I was a district attorney, which was like being a soldier again. I really blew it on that one, when I really wanted to be a musician or a man of letters.

Second, she wanted me to be a very kind man, and I was struggling at that. The instinct to be like my father, to be very tough on my son, was irresistible to me. I wouldn't hit him, but I'd yell at him. He was 5 years old, this beautiful, innocent little kid. I'd watch myself go out of control.

Third, my mother wanted me to be a Christian and, well, that just was not an option.

But after doing therapy with good therapists who really helped me understand a lot about my anger, my lack of understanding of emotions, and a lot of learning from my wife Diane, who's very adept at these things, I still wasn't able to stop my behaviors. It was like, I know why I drink, I know why I shouldn't, then I'd come home and empty the Jim Beam, watching myself and hating myself for doing it.

So I ended up in a church and I found it to be completely what I needed -- with my rational mind screaming, "No, no, no this is so anti-intellectual, so anti-rational, so counter to what I feel in my bones!" -- but it turned out to be very helpful.

And it made me feel hugely closer to my mother. She was a very spiritual woman who had a lot of problems with 20th century China, as did many others. She found living spiritually was one way to not go crazy. She was a spoiled girl who had to grow in many ways, and I think one way was to believe in something bigger than herself.

Indy: In Chasing Hepburn, your mother came across as someone who was exasperating, but who always came through in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The scenes of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the incredible dangers she faced there, as well as her escape from China with your sisters, were riveting.

Lee: The people of my parents' generation, and my sisters, lived through very demanding times. I think my sisters to this day -- the war ended half a century ago -- still have traumatic stress for all they endured.

It's interesting. I look at our side of the family that remained in China and survived, and sometimes I think they demonstrate more cohesiveness and psychological intactness than we do, and we live in America with tremendous material advantages and with real freedom -- they do not have freedom. I've asked them, "How did you keep yourself together, heart and soul (or as the Chinese say, heart and liver) through crisis after crisis after crisis?" No clearly articulated answer came back, but what I extrapolated was: We remained in China. We had our culture. We had extended family.

My mother, after she came to this country, definitely yearned for some of the clan linkages, particularly to her father who was really the best man she ever knew. There was a man who always loved her unconditionally, who never let her down. And that was the hope for me, of course, that she would have a son, and in Confucian society, the son would never abandon her. If she raised me correctly, even if my father pulled me away and tried to put me in the Army to make me into a soldier, I wouldn't do it because I would love her so much and be so loyal to her that she'd always have me.

As it turned out, of course, in the corporeal sense, we didn't have each other at all. She wasn't able to live long enough to see if I would fulfill that role for her. And that's what's comforting about being someone who writes books now, someone who has intentionally reformed himself to be a kinder man, and someone who has a faith life that, in many ways, parallels hers. She would have liked that.

Indy: After writing four novels with many autobiographical elements, you entered the non-fiction field with a memoir, one of many in a field currently crowded with personal stories. What do you think of the rise of the genre and what does it mean to you, personally, to write a memoir as opposed to fiction?

Lee: I don't know if I can capture a description of the genre. I can only project my own reasons. Whether they are valid is up to each individual writer.

My first novel, China Boy, began as a journal. It was not going to be published, no one except perhaps my family would see it, so those were not concerns. What really stopped me from going forward and making it a novel, initially, was the imperative to write truth. The drive was to get it right.

When it comes to this book, I had a very personal reason for writing it -- to recapture my mother. If I could get her into the scenes of her life, if I could understand what she was doing, maybe I could understand better what I was doing. It was a lifelong drive, to know the stories of my mother, for myself, for my kids, for their kids.

Redemption is a powerful spark plug for me, for our family, I think. We have had heroes and knaves, heroines and non-heroines, and certainly I want to honor them. But the real personal push is to understand how the people who made you, who formed you, dealt with right and wrong. That's the story for me.

Chinese are very embedded in the past. The Chinese say, "If you want to see the future, look over your shoulder." History does not repeat itself; history is a continuum driven by the past. I think that's the power of memoir, that you get to unlock the passions, the motivations, the loves and the hates of the people who made you. And there's a moral lesson in that: It helps you understand how you can best influence and guide and help your kids. I definitely see this chain reaction, this connecting link concept.

Indy: In recent years, you have spent time consulting with corporations on business ethics and leadership and you are currently working on a text about character and integrity. Can you talk a little bit about doing that in this particular time, when there appears to be a crisis of faith in leadership, both in government and in corporations?

Lee: It's very interesting work that tends to be controversial because [issues like] corporate operating principles, organizational core values, ethics, usually are only on the agenda after a shipwreck.

But I learned as a boy at the YMCA, at West Point, in the Army, at a very young age, that leading is not about having other people do what you say, but changing yourself to model the behavior you expect in others. It's not about power over others; it's more about self-governance.

Indy: Are these principles that apply to leadership in the world at a time when we are grappling with the reality of globalization?

Lee: I don't know about original cultures; I'm not learned. But I'm convinced from what I do know about them that we all want love, we all want social acceptance and safety, we all want healthy families and communities, we all want good things to happen to the people that we care about. That's a lot of universality. What we also know is that because we're afraid, fearful of losing in competition, that we want things for ourselves, we want to be right, and we want others to be wrong. We take pleasure in other people's failures and dismay, in other people not making it so we can make it.

The challenge for globalization within my own family is the same as the challenge for nations: Can I restrain my appetite? Can I restrain my need to dominate for reasons of my own personal safety? Can we restrain and subdue our own competitiveness and truly honor all persons, even if we don't agree with them politically and culturally?

Indy: So how are we doing? Are we in a crisis or are these current events just growing pains in the thrust toward globalization?

Lee: If we look ten years back, there was the savings and loan crisis. Ten years before that there was a huge problem with securities and exchange. The current crises seem to have started with Watergate, but the fact is that back in World War II there were manufacturers who made defective military equipment that killed our own troops, who were war profiteers. And, of course, America did not invent this. Corruption in government and corporations -- which are sort of the newest form of dominant institution, before that it was the church and before that the Roman Empire -- is nothing new.

The challenge is that we are a genuine, robust democracy, enormously fault-ridden, but the healthiest democracy there is.

So if we can't get this ethics thing right, with public education and open access to information and freedom of speech, then who's going to do it? If we can't do it, it's pretty scary. Then overall, globally, we're in trouble. We do have to set the standard.

Indy: Yes, but doesn't that also require a healthy interest and knowledge about the rest of the world that we seem to be lacking?

Lee: I always tell students, if we could pack all of American history into one room, the Chinese would need twenty-five. I think of [the United States] as being a particularly athletic, attractive 23-year-old with all the money in the world, living in a community of middle-aged people. Sometimes we can be smart, but most of the time we just don't get it. We're a young country and to pretend that with less than three centuries of experience, a tiny portion of that as a world power, that we could have the maturity and the statesmanship that comes with having been around for a couple of millennia, is unrealistic. The beauty of accepting that is, in private counsel, we can admit we don't really know what we're doing, that we don't have all the answers.

But we have not projected ourselves onto the world as diplomats, as statespeople. We've projected ourselves as marketers, as business people, as military protectors against immediate threats. There's no long-range relationship building in our foreign policy. Our long-range relationship building has been antagonism against the former Soviet Union and antagonism against Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. That's sort of been our long-term work.

Now we're dealing with the Middle East and we've started off badly. The thrust is not for understanding, not for accord. It's more, we fear your very different cultural values.

Indy: So how can those who recognize our government's shortsightedness have any impact on policy?

Lee: The wonder of American society is that its youth are free to make up their own minds. I sense that if we end up with unwarranted, sustained hostility against any particular region in the world, youth simply won't buy it.

  • Colorado Springs author Gus Lee on the quest for character

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