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Lord, Bette Bao

LORD, Bette Bao

Born 3 November 1938, Shanghai, China

Daughter of Sandy and Dora Fang Bao; married Winston Lord,1963; children: Elizabeth, Winston

Born in China and raised in the U.S., Betty Bao Lord explores her dual identity through novels and nonfiction acknowledging both her Asian and her American sides as integral parts of one self. In this respect, perhaps, she differs from slightly younger contemporaries who have sought to give voice more directly to ethnic and gender concerns. Eldest child of a middle-class family (her father was a Nationalist Chinese government official while her mother descended from an illustrious clan of scholars), Lord accompanied her parents to America in 1946. They left behind Lord's youngest sister, Sansan, who was forced to remain in China after the Communist victory. Lord spent a happy childhood in Brooklyn, where she eagerly (and apparently easily) adapted to American ways. She later attended Tufts University (B.A. 1959; Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, M.A. 1960).

Lord inadvertently began her writing career with Eighth Moon (1964), the straightforward account of how Sansan, who was reunited with the family in 1962, grew up amid the extreme hardships of the People's Republic. Despite the book's favorable reception, it did not prompt Lord to define herself as a writer; for several years she occupied herself with family and modern dance. Inspired by a 1973 trip to China, however, Lord produced two extraordinarily successful novels in middle age. Centered on strong female characters, both books examine different aspects of Lord's heritage. Spring Moon (1981), which began as a journal based on family history, is set during the years between the Boxer Rebellion and the Communist Revolution, and evokes traditional China with a mixture of sympathy and distance characteristic of all of Lord's work. Her decision to reshape the material as fiction allows her to displace onto her characters emotions that might be too intimately exposed in a memoir. Similarly, Lord's own childhood is described from a mature and balanced perspective in the autobiographical In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984), a novel for young readers. The America young Shirley Temple Wong encounters is basically a welcoming one; the book's focus is on the positive experience of achieving an identity, not on the adverse effects of racism.

From 1987 to 1989 Lord and her husband lived in Beijing, where he served as U.S. Ambassador. Here Lord presided over a sort of salon at the embassy, attracting large numbers of artists and intellectuals eager to share their stories of life during the Cultural Revolution. These accounts became the foundation of Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic (1990). Published soon after the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square, the book weaves together these histories with stories of Lord's own extended family. Again, her choice of genre is apt: the fragmented material allows her both intimacy and distance, enabling her to write engagingly from both a Chinese and an American perspective.

It has been clear since the publication of Eighth Moon in 1964, when she was only twenty-six, that Lord felt deeply about the American and Chinese cultures that nurture her writing and her life. She confesses much of the tape recording of her early conversations with Sansan—the tiny sister left behind when their family was stranded in the U.S. in 1947—was spoiled because both sisters were crying. For a lifetime Lord has constantly juggled the worlds of politics and of feeling as well as the two very different political realities of Chinese communism and American democracy. Throughout In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson Lord uses the American passion for baseball and its heroes as a poignant metaphor for the shared experiences of children in every race and culture. Her ability to see differences clearly and yet write without rancor characterizes her books of fiction and memoir. In a recent novel, The Middle Heart (1996), Lord describes the 70 years of Chinese history which led to the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square (which she witnessed as a resident in Bejing during that "China Spring") with the rare perspective of someone who is both Chinese and American.

In addition to her writing career, Lord has been assistant director of the University of Hawaii East-West Cultural Center (1960-61); program officer, Fulbright Exchange Program (1961-63); conference director for the National Conference for the Associated Councils of the Arts (1970-71); lecturer with the Leigh Bureau; member of the selection committee, White House Fellows; and member of the board of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Inc. She received an honorary LL.D. from Tufts University in 1982.

In 1998, at the annual Achievement Awards of the American Immigration Law Foundation, Lord was honored as a model of achievement for her contributions to human rights activism, education, and service. She is chair of the Board of Trustees of Freedom House, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to the causes of democracy around the world.

Bibliography:

Chang, Henry L. "Immigrants Who Have Benefitted America," Introduction at the American Immigration Law Foundation dinner, 20 March 1998. Fox, Mary Virginia, with Paris H. Chang, Bette Bao Lord: Novelist and Voice for Change (1993). Wu, W. K., "Cultural Ideology and Aesthetic Choices: A Study of Three Works by Chinese-American Women—Diana Chang, Bette Bao Lord, and Maxine H. Kingston." (dissertation, 1989).

Reference works:

CA (1983, 1994). CLC (1983). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Minneapolis Star (16 Nov. 1981). NYTBR (15 Oct. 1990). PW (30 Oct. 1981). Time (12 March 1990). Saturday Review (1981). WP (28 Oct. 1981).

—ELIZABETH SHOSTAK,

UPDATED BY KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL

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