Amy Tan packs the house in Texas

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Houston mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

En­thu­si­as­tic fans packed the au­di­to­rium of the Asia So­ci­ety Texas Center in Houston to ca­pac­ity on Mon­day night to hear writer Amy Tan talk about her new book The Val­ley of Amaze­ment.

Tan showed the au­di­ence old pho­tos of her grand­mother, who was dressed rather fash­ion­ably for 1920s China, say­ing there was a fam­ily ru­mor that her grand­mother — who died young and never knew Amy Tan ex­isted — might have been a cour­te­san in her day.

Tan did some re­search on the fash­ions of Shang­hai cour­te­sans at that time and rec­og­nized a lot of sim­i­lar­ity to her grand­mother’s way of dress­ing, which seemed to lend va­lid­ity to the ru­mor.

Out of cu­rios­ity, Tan em­barked on a quest to find out more about her grand­mother and the life of cour­te­sans in Shang­hai in the ’20s, and af­ter eight years of ex­ten­sive re­search and cre­ative pro­duc­tiv­ity, The Val­ley of Amaze­ment was born.

The story re­volves around the lives and re­la­tion­ships of two pairs of mother-and­daugh­ter set in the lav­ish par­lors of Shang­hai cour­te­sans, a re­mote Chi­nese vil­lage among fog-shrouded moun­tains and across the Pa­cific Ocean in the US.

Tan told the au­di­ence she not only went to Shang­hai to re­search cour­te­san life, but she also man­aged to live for three weeks in a 400-year-old house in a Dong eth­nic vil­lage in re­mote Guizhou prov­ince, where, among other adventures, she was bit­ten by a poi­sonous snake.

“The book is re­ally about peo­ple — how you see your­self in re­la­tion to how oth­ers see you, how you cre­ate your own sense of iden­tity,” she said. “I am cu­ri­ous how my grand­mother cre­ated her sense of self. I want to know her at­ti­tudes and be­liefs.”

In the search for iden­tity among her fic­tion char­ac­ters, Tan ad­mit­ted that “all my books are re­ally about me, about my iden­tity. I am viewed as Chi­nese in Amer­ica, but I never felt more Amer­i­can than when I was in China. Of course, that’s chang­ing and China is much more mod­ern now”.

In The Val­ley of Amaze­ment, Tan projects her grand­mother into the char­ac­ter of Magic Gourd who “says funny and some­times in­ap­pro­pri­ate things, she’s prag­matic, a lot like my mom, but not as de­press­ing and dra­matic”.

Tan ex­plains that her book also ex­plores some widely ac­cepted con­cepts such as pride, sense of in­de­pen­dence and how peo­ple at­tach im­por­tance to them and ques­tion the value of such con­cepts.

Tan told the au­di­ence about how her pre­vi­ous work, The Bone­set­ter’s Daugh­ter, was trans­formed into an opera by work­ing with Texas com­poser Stew­ard Wal­lace. De­spite the won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence of col­lab­o­rat­ing with another artist, Tan said it was like “see­ing your own child fall over a cliff — sev­eral times” and she vows to never do it again.

Though she is not able to read Chi­nese, Tan told the au­di­ence that she has read Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion, both clas­sic and mod­ern, from Plum in the Gold Vase (or Jin Ping Mei) to Lu Xun, Xiao Hong, Wang Anyi and Mo Yan, as well as other Chi­nese writ­ers liv­ing in the US such as Ha Jin.

The event was or­ga­nized by Bra­zos Book­store and the Asia So­ci­ety. Ap­par­ently, Tan is quite pop­u­lar among Houston lit­er­a­ture lovers — ac­cord­ing to Jeremy El­lis of Bra­zos Book­store, the tick­ets to the event were sold out weeks ahead of time.

Af­ter the talk, the au­di­ence lined up pa­tiently for an au­to­graph from Tan.

MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Chi­nese Amer­i­can writer Amy Tan (left) talks to lo­cal Houston au­thor and host Chi­tra Ban­er­jee Di­vakaruni about her new book TheVal­ley­ofA­maze­ment at the Asia So­ci­ety in Houston on Mon­day.

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