NMWA’s exhibition Fabulous! Portraits by Michele Mattei presents a selection of Michele Mattei’s photographs of women who have shaped contemporary culture. Mattei, who began her career as a journalist before moving into photojournalism and then photography, interviewed her portrait subjects as she was photographing them.
This interview excerpt is a portion of Mattei’s discussion with author and human rights advocate Bette Bao Lord (b. 1938):
Michele Mattei: You came to the United States as a little girl to escape the Chinese Cultural Revolution. You didn’t speak any English. Can you talk about your experience?
Bette Bao Lord: I think every immigrant’s experience is unique to that person. Like life. For me, the idea of immigration was colored by my parents’ attitude. I came here when I was eight years old. At that point we were supposed to be going back to China in two years. So I was supposed to learn English, very fast. My parents wanted me to be bilingual when we went back to China. I arrived in America, in Brooklyn, on a Sunday. By Monday morning I was already put into school. I didn’t speak a word of English.
My parents were very wise. They thought of all of these changes in our lives as an adventure, a wonderful adventure, in which you could be challenged and prove yourself.
MM: Your novels are all based on Chinese history. You mentioned that you were thinking of doing an American novel. Can you discuss that?
BBL: Well, you know, I want to write an American novel. But right now I have finite time in which to be able to move and to be athletic. So I said to myself, “When I’m in a wheelchair I will write an American novel.”
I’m hoping to write again when I don’t feel the urgency to be physically active. Because when I write, it’s a twenty-four hour job. I’m not an easy writer, I’m not facile at all, I need to concentrate and I’m terrible to live with. I think that I will write again. But I’m also at an age where I can give myself permission to play.
MM: You said something really wonderful in one of your books: “The higher type of man seeks all that he desires in himself, and the inferior man seeks all that he desires from others.”
BBL: I think if you look at how other people think of you, you’re always insecure. But if you set your goals and you have knowledge of yourself, you can always reach your goal! The goal doesn’t need to mean anything to anybody else; only to you. For instance, I want to improve my backhand in tennis. I lift my head too fast. So my current goal is that I’m not going to lift my head too fast. It means absolutely nothing to anybody else! But I’ll be very happy. It seems like a very small thing.
Whereas if you look at others, somebody’s always going to have more friends, somebody’s going to have more prizes. How can anybody think that they have lived in the same planet as Mozart? You can’t!
The exhibition Fabulous! Portraits by Michele Mattei is on view at NMWA October 12, 2012–January 13, 2013.