When Maya Lin was growing up, her parents rarely talked about China. Neither she nor her brother speaks Chinese, and she thinks it’s funny that she holds her chopsticks incorrectly (though she does favor Chinese food). She didn’t know the story of her mother’s escape until Julia took her and Tan to Shanghai, in 1985. She didn’t know that her relatives had designed the Monument to the People’s Heroes—that there is, so to speak, monument-making in her genes—until I mentioned it to her last winter. She did not have a sense of dispossession instilled in her. It was subtler than that; she was brought up by people who had been dispossesed, and who were determined that she and her brother should never know the experience.
She did understand that they were cut off from the rest of the family, and she appreciates the damage to her parents’ lives more clearly now. “The home they knew was completely modified and changed hy history,’’ she said to me. “There wasn’t a place of nostalgia to go back to. I saw it in my father’s face after Tiananmen Square.” (The pro-democracy demonstrations there were sup¬pressed in the spring of 1989.) “He knew that China wouldn’t even begin to return to an open-door policy in his lifetime. It was extremely upsetting. I still can go home, to the house I grew up in, and I know where some of my toys still are, and my dresses. And to wipe it out, to leave home at the age of eighteen or twenty . . .”
After high school, Lin went to Yale. She loved it. “1 didn’t have an adjustment problem,” she told me when I asked her what it was like to go from Athens to the gritty city of New Haven in 1977. “In a strange way, I found kids that were just like me, and for the first time I felt that I fit in.” She started out in the sciences, with the thought that she would become a field zoologist. When she learned that Yale’s program involved vivisection, she quickly abandoned that idea. She didn’t know, at first, what to do instead; but she loved art and she loved math—so, she explained, architecture seemed perfect.
Lin didn’t take any architecture courses in her first two years at Yale, but when she finally began the program, she said, “I just focused, and I did nothing but. I would schedule my classes so they met once a week, and then I would pull all-nighters, like every other unhealthy little architecture student.” One semester, she never went to the library. She simply obsessed about her buildings, and that has been her practice ever since.
After her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chosen, in 1981, she spent a year in Washington overseeing its development, taught at Exeter for a summer, and then entered the Harvard Grad¬uate School of Design. She dropped out after less than a semester, because it was too difficult to deal with the issues surrounding the construction of the memorial and do her schoolwork at the same time. The next fall, she went back to Yale. She took her degree from the School of Architecture in 1986, and received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1987. She has remained devoted to the university. Last December, Yale’s president, Richard Levin, asked Lin if she would be willing to stand for election as an alumni fellow of the Yale Corporation. Another Yale graduate, a New Haven pastor named the Reverend W. David Lee, had already put himself forward as a candidate representing the interests of the unions, from which he had accepted donations, and the community. Lin declined to campaign personally against Lee. She believes that it’s inappropriate to have an agenda when you serve on a board, but she was not happy to find herself cast as the alternative to reform. (Alumni and former Yale administrators did campaign against Lee, though, and Lin ended up defeating him handily, in an election in which three times the usual number of alumni voted.)
“It was miserable,” Lin said when I first asked her about her year in Washington. “It was beyond miserable.” There is still indignation in her voice when she gets on the subject of the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She hates Washington, and has rarely been back since her work was finished. “I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built,” Lin wrote about the memorial in Boundaries. When art and politics collide, it is usually the art that gets totaled; that time, against all the odds, it didn’t.
Still, beating the odds is not the same as a miracle. For a miracle, there is no explanation, and, except for one element, the Vietnam Memorial is explicable. There was a need to honor the soldiers who had gone to Vietnam; and there was a flourishing contemporary art movement, known as land art, that supplied the formal language for the piece that Lin designed. The people who planned the memorial—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the arts professionals it hired to run the design competition—had specified in advance many of the features for which Lin’s work is admired. They envi¬sioned a mostly horizontal, contemplative work that did not disrupt the landscape of Constitution Gardens, the area in the Mall desig¬nated as the site. The competition guidelines stipulated that the monument “make no political statement regarding war and its conduct,” and that it include the names of all 57,661 Americans who died in the war. (More names have been added since.) Lin’s design was the unanimous choice of the competition jurors in part because it seemed so uncannily to fit the criteria the planners had in mind. What did seem to come out of the blue was the person behind En¬try #1026 in the design competition, Maya Lin herself. Nobody had quite envisioned her.