In 2008 I reviewed a peach-colored paperback original that had come across my desk by accident, which draws on the life of its author, novelist Mingmei Yip. Yip’s professional gambler father and artist mother dreamed she would become a scholar, and so Yip rose to the challenge, graduating from the Sorbonne, studying Chinese arts and the ancient qin musical instrument. After her first foray into writing—journaling during her mother’s eight-year absence while imprisoned in a Vietnamese camp—Yip became a writer, too. All of these life experiences are channeled into her engrossing debut novel “Peach Blossom Pavilion,” which brings to life the time of China’s mingji—artist-prostitutes who were geisha predecessors. {Read my review here}

Now she’s back with a new novel drawing from her life experience with Zen Buddhism. In “Petals from the Sky,” Meng Ning seeks to become an nun, even though in her thirties, but fateful circumstances lead her to question her life direction and to another path.

Though busy with her book tour, I corresponded with Ms. Yip recently about what she’s reading, and how karma has shaped her life.

Interview with novelist Mingmei Yip March-April 2010
by Christine Thomas 
Peach Blossom Pavilion 

C.T. What are you reading these days?

M.Y. I just finished reading Chesley Sullenburger’s “Highest Duty” which I really enjoyed. I like to feel connected to people who really care what they do and do it well.

Now, I spend most of my time polishing my forthcoming third novel, “Song of the Silk Road,” a love story between a woman of twenty-nine and a younger man of twenty-one on the famously dangerous Silk Road. An adventurer, the young woman attracts danger as much as she does men—like bees to honey. 
Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

C.T. What made you pick up Highest Duty?

M.Y. I like to learn new things and things that I find interesting but don’t know much about. I find anecdotes about planes and pilots in “Highest Duty” very engaging to read, especially those related to nice and brave people.

C.T. What is it about the anecdotes that specifically grab you?

M.Y. “Highest Duty” is Captain Sully’s life journey as a pilot—his training, various anecdotes of flying, his family, and of course the famous landing on the Hudson River. I was particularly moved by an incident of a World War II pilot who, trying to save seven of his fellow pilots’ lives, ended up seventy percent burned, underwent forty odd surgeries and was left blind. But he survived well into his ripe old age. I am reassured by the spirit of bravery and self-sacrifice of ordinary people. Since I like to write about strong and brave characters, this incident particularly struck a chord in me, though it is far from my own experience.

C.T. What experience have you drawn on to create strong and brave characters in your new, second novel, PETALS FROM THE SKY?

M.Y. Buddhist nuns—I befriended these extraordinary women in my youth and know them from the inside. These women are very brave and independent. Imagine leaving home at a young age, living in the unfamiliar environment of an esoteric temple, and giving up your chance for worldly pleasures including romantic love.

My mother and grandmother are also inspirations for my strong female characters, especially my grandmother, who successfully ran the Pepsi Cola factory in Vietnam after my grandfather unexpectedly died in his early fifties.

Petals From The Sky

C.T. How did you come to befriend Buddhist nuns, and where were you during this time?

M.Y. In my early twenties while living in Hong Kong, I attended a social gathering where I heard a friend talk about Buddhism using esoteric terms like samsara, nirvana, and karma. Completely fascinated, I sought to understand all these strangely beautiful phrases by plunging into the study of Zen Buddhism.

It’s karma that a friend told me about a beautiful, talented nun who was running a temple not too far from where I lived. So I began to visit her whenever I had time and we became very good friends, exchanging ideas on arts, religion, and life.

It was many years before I came to understand what Buddhist philosophy is all about. So I’m very proud that I published a book on Zen Buddhism, which became a best seller in Hong Kong.

C.T. Did you model Yi Yong, the young nun in your new novel, after your mentor, and were you ever tempted to live life in the temple, just as your character Meng Ning wants to do?

M.Y. Yes, the young nun in “Petals from the Sky” was inspired by my nun friend of many years. During our frequent meetings, we talked about religion, arts, aesthetics, monastic life and the like. She always hinted that she’d like me to join her temple and I’d been tempted, albeit very briefly, before I met my future husband at a Buddhist conference in Taiwan. The strange working of karma.

C.T. What is karma leading you to next—another adventure in life, or in writing?

M.Y. I believe karma is now leading me to bigger projects both in my writing and music.