“As A-ma said, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another.”
Malden Reads is pleased to announce its 2019 book selection: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, written by #1 New York Times best-selling author Lisa See. The Tea Girl is set in both China and the United States, where the story follows the lives of Li-yan, a member of the Akha ethnic minority in China’s southwestern tea region, and her daughter, Haley, whom she relinquishes for adoption.
In the novel, See transports readers to the remote mountains of Yunnan Province and introduces them to the customs and beliefs of the Akha people, who are, unknowingly, on the verge of modernization. Growing up in her village, Li-yan expected to be trained in the ways of her mother (“A-ma”), the local midwife, but she instead finds herself on another path, becoming one of the few educated girls on her mountain and becoming the village’s translator for their first visitor, a tea connoisseur.
“To learn a different language is to learn a different way of living.”
Li-yan finds herself trying to balance Akha traditions and customs with modernity and her own values. After having a baby out of wedlock, which is forbidden by tradition, she leaves her daughter on the doorstep of an orphanage in the nearest large city, hiding a valuable family tea cake hidden in her swaddling. The Tea Girl then tells parallel stories of Li-yan’s life in China as she becomes a tea master and her daughter’s life in California, where she lives with her adoptive parents. Tea is a focal point of the book, connecting Li-yan with tradition, her mother, and her daughter.
University of Central Florida describes the book as a “powerful story about family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance,” painting “an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people.” The Washington Post states the book is a “lush tale infused with clear-eyed compassion, this novel will inspire reflection, discussion and an overwhelming desire to drink rare Chinese tea.”
Join Malden Reads in exploring the many themes of this book, including Chinese culture and the cultures of many of China’s minority groups and ethnic minorities more broadly; the balancing act we attempt with tradition and modernity; motherhood and the universality of families and issues like adoption, and challenges families face across generations and distance, including immigration; storytelling and oral traditions; midwifery and women’s roles in different cultures; superstitions and traditional medicines; trees, pollution, recycling, and our environmental impact; and last but not least, the origins of tea, its many varieties and its role in China’s history.
Malden Reads is planning a broad range of activities for the community beginning in early 2019: from learning calligraphy to tea tastings to storytelling and understanding family and cultural histories. Opportunities for conversation on the book and related themes will be offered through book discussions, film screenings and special presentations. Malden Reads will continue to outreach local groups to collaborate with and co-host events, and welcomes collaboration and suggestions.
Copies of the book are available for borrowing in various formats at the Malden Public Library. You can purchase a copy of the book at MATV, Malden’s Media Center for $15, with proceeds to benefit Malden Reads. The book is also available at your favorite local retail store (we recommend The Book Oasis in Stoneham) or online bookseller.
The book selection committee will also provide a companion list of other suggested readings that will help to enrich the discussion of the book’s topics and themes. In addition, companion books for younger readers are listed here, which will spark a range of programming for children and families related to the themes of The Tea Girl.