The best writers are able to paint a picture with words and transport us to places we have never been before. Mingmei Yip’s novel, Petals from the Sky, accomplishes that and more. We travel along with the protagonist, Meng Ning, on her physical, spiritual, and emotional journey from inside the world of Buddhist nuns in Hong Kong and China to the apartments and cafes of Paris. The grandest compliment one can pay to Mingmei’s work is that after reading Petals from the Sky, one longs to visit the places she has so beautifully detailed in her book.
Mingmei’s writing, however, never reads like a travel brochure. Her words, whether she is describing the landscape of Hong Kong or the ritual of preparing tea, are crafted with great care. And she manages to get inside the heads of her characters so we understand their feelings, reactions, and motivations. Mingmei’s skill is even more impressive since English is not her native language and the first books she wrote, academic ones, were written in Chinese. “I started to write at a very young age, fifteen,” she says. “In Hong Kong I did a lot of academic writing, a completely different kind of writing because you have to have a reference and an index.” She also published a collection of her essays as well as poems, all in Chinese. “They’re very romantic,” she says of her poems.
There is much romance in her novel, too. And if the story rings true that’s because Mingmei drew on her own personal experiences. “It’s my story, though I added a lot,” says Mingmei. Like Meng Ning, Mingmei grew up with a fascination for Buddhist nuns, met her American husband during a Buddhist retreat, and studied for her PhD in Paris.
In Petals, Meng Ning, adversely affected by her parents’ unhappy marriage, sets out to find for herself a much different life, one of prayer and solitude without men. Arriving at a Buddhist retreat—where the Buddhist nun she admires, Yi Kong, will play a prominent role—she soon falls in with an American doctor who rescues her from a fast moving fire inside the temple.
Unlike Buddhist monks, less is known about the insular world of Buddhist nuns. “I did grow up with the Buddhist nuns,” Mingmei says, explaining that there are two different kinds of Buddhist nuns. “One is what people have in mind—the hermits in a mountain meditating, living a life of solitude, and celibacy,” she says. “But actually all the nuns I know are what I call business nuns. They are very powerful people. They mingle with socialites, celebrities, and politicians because they get huge donations. They are very rich themselves because they need money for the temple. But they are so powerful! They’re millionaires—I’m not kidding. But they use the money. They’re not going around wearing 10-carat diamond rings.”
In Petals, Meng Ning is torn between two worlds—the secular one represented by the doctor, Michael Fuller, and the religious one embodied by Yi Kong, who regards Meng Ning as her protégé. Even when Meng Ning agrees to marry Michael, she second guesses her decision. No matter where she turns, she seems to find herself unable to fit in, whether with Michael’s superficial friends in Paris or the purpose-driven nuns in China.
Mingmei, however, had less trouble defining her route. “I came from Hong Kong and I had a very good job as a professor for the university,” Mingmei says. After meeting her husband, Geoffrey Redmond, an endocrinologist, they soon moved to the U.S. and she began to write novels. Petals is actually her first novel, although her second novel, Peach Blossom Pavilion, about a geisha prostitute, was published first. Her third novel features a female adventurer. “She’s very daring and falls in love all the time,” Mingmei says with a laugh. She also has written children’s books including Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories.
Mingmei may be living in America now, but her exotic looks and dress show that she has not left her previous life behind. Her black blouse is embellished with colorful embroidery typical of fine garments from China and delicate jade earrings dangle from her ears. She laughs easily and her enthusiasm for her work and the process of writing is infectious. While her favorite writers are Chinese, she has praise for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty. “It was very touching,” she says of the book by the U.S. Airways pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River saving all aboard.
While Mingmei calls the Buddhist philosophy “profound,” she practices less now than in the past. Copying verses in calligraphy is now her form of meditation.
For more information and to order Mingmei’s books, go to her website, www..mingmeiyip.com