Carolyn & Lisa See


Carolyn: When I was five or six years old, we had a dovecote behind us. I would wake up in the morning to the sound of doves, and there would be eucalyptus and palm trees and a huge wall of Cecile Brunner roses. I would wake up and think, “Gee, this is just beautiful.”

Lisa: I don’t mean to sound like some Pollyanna, but I feel like I fall in love with L.A. every day.

CS: I was extremely poor and could go to City College with no money at all. Yet the living out here is so easy—you never had to worry about freezing to death. If you worked as a waitress, you always had enough to eat. I grew up in Eagle Rock and went to a public high school where the social classes moved back and forth and mingled very, very easily.

LS: We moved around a lot: downtown—where the Convention Center is now—Manhattan Beach, Hollywood, Venice, Marina del Rey. By second grade we had moved to Topanga, and we stayed there. One thing that was a constant place for me was Chinatown. My father was one-quarter Chinese.

CS: L.A. has been the backbone of my work. When I first started to write, the Hollywood novels were written by East Coast boy geniuses who had flunked out of Princeton or someplace, and then they’d have some seductive movie deal and it would go sour, and then they would get all cranky and then they would write a Hollywood novel: “Oh, the strawberries look big, but they don’t have a taste; the Pacific looks nice, but you can’t even smell it; the grass looks green, but I think it’s artificial; everything looks nice, but I get a headache from the sun.” They couldn’t figure out a place that looked so pretty and made them feel so sad at the same time.

LS: My mom’s memories of Los Angeles as it was when she was a little girl—I want to live there. You can drive down certain streets and still see that Los Angeles, but it won’t ever go back to what it was.

CS: I went over to the Griffith Park carousel to see what it was like on a Sunday afternoon. That meadow in front was packed with Mexican families, each with a boombox, each with all kinds of barbecue, each with a bunch of wonderful grandmothers, each with a bunch of little kids, people playing games—just this intense feeling of joy, as though it came right up out of the ground.

LS: I was going back to my car in Brentwood, and there’s this little spot where you can look across and see into the VA building on San Vicente. It’s old, big, and black—really ugly. But there were some palm trees—this little wedge of green—right there. And I just thought, “God, how beautiful is that?”

» Carolyn See, 76, has published many works of fiction and nonfiction, including Golden Days and Making History. She is the mother of Lisa See, 55, whose books include On Gold Mountain and Shanghai Girls.

Photograph: The Sees, 1961, courtesy See family