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A Woman's Discovery of Her Mother

Second book by Vienna's Veronica Li to be released Nov. 1.

Author and Vienna resident Veronica Li said she chooses to write about subjects she does not yet understand. "I write about something because I want to understand it," she said.

Her first book, "Nightfall in Mogadishu," was a thriller about the collapse of the Somalian government in the early 1990s. Li, a former employee of the World Bank, had worked as a loan officer for Somalia for several years and traveled there frequently. When the country fell into chaos, she said, "I felt very bad about it and wanted to try to find out what went wrong."

In her latest book, "Journey across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home," she tackles the subject of her mother. "She was such a puzzle when she came to live with me," said Li, whose parents, now in their late 80s, moved from California into her home about eight years ago. "I was so puzzled by the things she said and did."

The story is told in the voice of Li's mother, Flora, as a memoir. "What I did is I taped her. My mother is a great storyteller, and she loves to tell stories about her life," said Li. Rather than dividing the book into chapters, she divided it into "tapes."

The story that emerged was one of almost constant transience. When her mother graduated from Hong Kong University — a rare accomplishment for a woman at that time — the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, at the same time that they attacked Pearl Harbor, said Li. Her mother fled to China, where she met Wang Yun-Wu, general manager of the country's largest publishing company, who later became China's finance minister and deputy prime minister. Li's mother married Yun-Wu's son.

Shortly thereafter, civil war erupted in China, and she fled to Thailand with her new husband's family. "It's just one war after another, and they were just refugees so many times over," said Li, who was born while the family was in Thailand. One reason for their frequent moves, said Li, was her father's anxiety, brought on by the many wars he had experienced. They later moved back to Hong Kong, then to Taiwan, and then back to Hong Kong again.

"By that time, we were teenagers," Li said of herself and her four siblings, "and my mother felt that all of us had to go to college." Universities were still uncommon in Hong Kong, said Li, "so she decided that the best place to be is the U.S."

LI SAID SHE CONSIDERED her mother the founder of her family in the United States. "That's why it was so important to write down her story and how she came to the U.S.," she said. "I know what it means to live in a Chinese cultural background, but my son and my nieces and nephews don't. So I wrote it for them."

She said writing the book was a three-year process. In her first draft, she alternated between chapters about her mother's history and chapters about her own difficulty with adjusting to living with her parents again. "I floated it to some editors. They loved the chapters in her voice, and they thought my chapters were superfluous," she laughed. "So I stepped back and let my mother's voice take over."

Still, editors regarded the transcriptions of her mother's stories to be an interesting family history but encouraged her to tie them together into a more coherent story, Li said. She needed a unifying theme. "This theme is so obvious," she said. "It's about my mother looking for a home, searching for a home, where her children can have the best education."

As she placed herself more and more in her mother's shoes in order to bring the story to life, said Li, she began having vivid dreams in which she became her mother. It was this self-transposition that was one of the biggest rewards of her writing, she said.

"I feel I really know my mother now," said Li, adding that this has helped her to understand herself. "I had thought that I was a self-made person. Now, I feel that my life began way before I was born," she said. "I can put my existence into a historical perspective."

LI, WHO WORKED as a journalist before joining the World Bank, said she had always planned on writing after she reached retirement age. However, about 10 years ago, she and her husband worked out a financial spreadsheet, plugging their income and expenses into a computer program to see what their situation would be if she quit work. "The computer calculated a surplus of $1," she laughed. "So I said, 'Let's do it. I'm going to quit.'"

She said she does not miss the extra spending money. "When you have enough to be comfortable, what is precious is time," she said. "We do not need any more material goods. What we need is time and quality of life."

"Nightfall in Mogadishu" was published by a print-on-demand company in 2000. "Journey across the Four Seas" was picked up by a more conventional publisher, Homa & Sekey Books, which specializes in Asian literature. Its first print run is being released Nov. 1 and will be available from the publisher or from veronicali.com. Li said she also will be making the rounds to local book stores in hope that they will carry it.

Publishers Weekly has placed the book on its fall trade paperback list, and the San Francisco Chronicle has hailed it as "the Asian 'Grapes of Wrath.'"

Li will host a book launch Saturday, Dec. 2 at Patrick Henry Library, where she will speak about why she wrote the book and will give a reading. "And I hope to get my mother there to say a few words," she said.