Fate, for­tune and fam­ily

Au­thor Amy Tan, of The Joy Luck Club fame, lays her life bare in a new mem­oir.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

THERE’S a scari­ness when it comes to writ­ing a mem­oir. There’s prob­a­bly no other form of writ­ing that is so per­sonal, so re­veal­ing: capturing your life, warts and all, and pre­sent­ing it for the world to ex­am­ine. Your faults, your foibles, ev­ery­thing you’ve been through, laid naked on the page.

For­tu­nately, self-con­scious­ness was not a huge is­sue for ac­claimed au­thor Amy Tan when it came to pen­ning her mem­oir, Where The Past Be­gins.

“It’s very non-Asian, don’t you think?” Tan, 65, says with a laugh dur­ing our video in­ter­view last week.

“But this came about nat­u­rally, with­out any self-con­scious­ness to it, which I think is nec­es­sary in or­der to write.

“It’s very hard to let go of self­con­scious­ness, but be­cause I was writ­ing this sim­ply for my ed­i­tor, the only one who would see it, that self-con­scious­ness fell away, and I was writ­ing more for my­self.”

Ecco Press founder and Tan’s long-time ed­i­tor Daniel Halpern knows his writer well: Tan is a pri­vate per­son who has al­ways avoided the lime­light and would never have agreed to write a mem­oir, so he asked her to write to him about her creative pro­cess, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times in­ter­view (“Amy Tan, the Re­luc­tant Me­moirist”, Oct 16; tinyurl.com/ star2-amy-tan).

Ed­i­tor and writer agreed on a rate of at least 15 pages a week. That rigid re­quire­ment ar­guably shaped what even­tu­ally be­came an un­con­ven­tional mem­oir, as it had Tan look­ing back at early jour­nals and dig­ging up fam­ily se­crets for ma­te­rial, and send­ing Halpern ev­ery­thing from for­mal es­says to per­sonal re­flec­tions about a child­hood that in­cluded hav­ing to deal with an un­sta­ble mother.

It was only af­ter Tan had fin­ished that she was struck by the re­al­i­sa­tion she was lay­ing down her life in print.

“It struck me as ter­ri­fy­ing later, when I was done. I re­alised if my ed­i­tor wanted to pub­lish the pieces as they were, that was ter­ri­fy­ing to me! It still is ter­ri­fy­ing to me,” Tan says.

“I don’t know how peo­ple are go­ing to in­ter­pret it. Some of it is very raw. I didn’t get a sense to syn­the­sise it so much, rein­ter­pret it. Maybe peo­ple will have a sense that I’m a lit­tle crazy. Or de­pressed, or afraid all the time!”

Simp­sons-level suc­cess achieved

We don’t think, how­ever, that Tan has to worry too much about how her read­ers per­ceive her. She is, af­ter all, a highly re­spected voice in lit­er­a­ture and an im­por­tant cham­pion in the West of Asian voices in English lan­guage fic­tion.

She was a suc­cess­ful speech­writer when she pub­lished her first, and ar­guably most well­known, novel in 1989, The Joy Luck Club, and has gone on to win nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades for that as well as other works such as The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), The Hun­dred Se­cret Senses (1995), The Bone­set­ter’s Daugh­ter (2001), Sav­ing Fish From Drown­ing (2005), and The Valley Of Amaze­ment (2013).

Tan has also writ­ten two chil­dren’s books, The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa The Chi­nese Si­amese Cat (1994); the lat­ter was adapted into a beloved chil­dren’s an­i­mated se­ries that first aired in the United States in 2001.

The Joy Luck Club was made into a movie in 1993 with Tan shar­ing screen­play credit with Ron­ald Bass; it was praised for be­ing one of the first Hol­ly­wood films to fea­ture non-stereo­typ­i­cal Chi­nese char­ac­ters – renowned critic Gene Siskel, writ­ing in TV Guide mag­a­zine, praised the film for pre­sent­ing images of Asian-Amer­i­cans “out­side the nar­row range of child­hood vi­o­lin­ists and spell­ing bee win­ners” – and for its univer­sal ap­peal de­spite its seem­ingly niche sub­ject mat­ter.

Tan has lec­tured in­ter­na­tion­ally at many uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing Stan­ford and Ox­ford, de­liv­ered a TED talk and spo­ken at the White House. She has had a new species of leech named af­ter her (Chtonob­dela tanae!) thanks to her sub­stan­tial if sur­pris­ing sup­port of zo­o­log­i­cal re­search, and had a cameo on The Simp­sons, where she mem­o­rably lec­tured Lisa Simp­son for ap­par­ently mis­un­der­stand­ing her books. That’s how you know you’ve made it as an au­thor!

“They gave me what to say, it was not any­thing I came up with. That was fun. When we were record­ing, he( Simp­sons cre­ator Matt Groen­ing) told me to say my lines with greater dis­gust. Or say it with an F-bomb! Stronger and stronger! But in the end the ver­sion they used was ba­si­cally what I used in the be­gin­ning,” re­calls Tan, who names Homer as her favourite Simp­sons char­ac­ter.

A dif­fer­ent type of mem­oir

In per­son (well on a video screen, to be ex­act!) Tan comes across as warm and elo­quent, speak­ing can­didly about ev­ery­thing from her writ­ing habits to her re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence watch­ing a Malaysian movie (2014’s The Jour­ney, which she found very funny).

The au­thor has writ­ten about her life be­fore: in 2003, she penned The Op­po­site Of Fate: A Book Of Mus­ings, a col­lec­tion of es­says about her fam­ily, life, and in­flu­ences. Where The Past Be­gins, how­ever, is a much more per­sonal work, with Tan shar­ing in­ti­mate mem­o­ries of her in­ter­est­ing al­beit dif­fi­cult child­hood.

Un­like most mem­oirs, how­ever, this one’s nar­ra­tive does not flow chrono­log­i­cally; in­stead, it’s mostly di­vided into the­matic sec­tions, with Tan writ­ing about her ap­pre­ci­a­tion of draw­ing, for ex­am­ple, or a spe­cific me­mory of her life. In­ter­spersed through­out are “quirks”, short seg­ments of Tan’s thoughts, as well as old doc­u­ments, let­ters, sketches, and hand­writ­ten notes – some­times, it feels more scrap­book than mem­oir.

While its un­usual ge­n­e­sis men­tioned pre­vi­ously might have in­flu­enced this non­lin­ear struc­ture, Tan re­veals that even had she know­ingly sat down to write a mem­oir, it prob­a­bly would not have been chrono­log­i­cally or­gan­ised be­cause, “I don’t think we re­mem­ber our lives in a chrono­log­i­cal or­der”.

“That seems the most log­i­cal way, but when we as writ­ers think about our lives, it has to do with the sub­stance, not the chronol­ogy,” Tan says.

“It has to do with as­so­ci­a­tion, where we con­nect the death of one per­son to the death of some­one else. How we ex­pe­ri­ence trauma, or dis­ap­point­ment. Those emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences are tied, and you can look at that in an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal way. I think it’s more in­ter­est­ing that way,” Tan says.

Many of the book’s sto­ries are fas­ci­nat­ing, and sound like they could come out of Tan’s nov­els. The au­thor re­lates her ex­pe­ri­ence, for ex­am­ple, of be­ing part of a re­search project in her youth, which shaped her dreams of be­ing a writer. But its most poignant parts are un­doubt­edly where she speaks about her fam­ily.

Go­ing back to trauma

Born in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, Tan was the sec­ond child of three to Chi­nese im­mi­grants John and Daisy Tan, who trav­elled to the United States to es­cape the Chi­nese Civil War (1927-1950). She has been mar­ried since 1974 to for­mer tax at­tor­ney Lou DeMat­tei; the cou­ple cur­rently live in Sausal­ito, Cal­i­for­nia, not far from where Tan was born in 1952.

When Tan was 15, her fa­ther and older brother Peter both died of brain tu­mours within six months of each other, ex­pe­ri­ences that shaped her life from then on.

The mem­oir also re­veals as­pects of her dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with Daisy, some­thing that surely shaped Tan’s writ­ing, as most of her fic­tion touches on mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships; The Joy Luck Club, for in­stance, is about four pairs of moth­ers and daugh­ters and their com­plex re­la­tion­ships.

Where The Past Be­gins, how­ever, also has Tan ad­dress­ing her re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther, who was an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer and Bap­tist min­is­ter.

“My fa­ther was a great man. He was a kind per­son. But no­body’s per­fect. I had to look at him in a dif­fer­ent way, and that was fright­en­ing to me, to see what his flaws could have been,” Tan says.

“My need to un­der­stand him came with ques­tions. Be­cause he was an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian, I had to look at his be­liefs, and that was fright­en­ing. I was so dis­turbed, so much in de­spair af­ter the last elec­tion, I did not want to think that he’d have voted for the per­son who is our pres­i­dent now. I don’t know ab­so­lutely if he would have, he’s died now, but I looked at ev­ery­thing I had to have an an­swer.”

One mem­o­rable chap­ter de­tails Tan’s quest to dis­cover more about her grand­mother, in­spired by an old pho­to­graph of her dressed like a cour­te­san.

But the most chal­leng­ing chap­ter to write was one ti­tled “Gen­uine Emo­tion”, which in­volved un­earthing a long-for­got­ten trau­matic me­mory in­volv­ing a threat of vi­o­lence from a fam­ily mem­ber.

“I was shak­ing as I was writ­ing. I went up­stairs, and I went to din­ner, and I was shak­ing for the next hour, try­ing to eat. The trauma was over, it had gone, but I had gone back to it,” the au­thor re­calls.

Too much of a good thing

De­spite lay­ing her life out in print, Tan comes across as a rather pri­vate per­son, pre­fer­ring to stay out of the lime­light.

She shares an anec­dote about be­ing over­whelmed by the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, which stayed an amaz­ing 40 weeks on The New York Times best­seller list in 1989 and was nom­i­nated for the US Na­tional Book Award and Na­tional Book

Crit­ics Award that year.

“I had no ex­pec­ta­tions it would be­come so pop­u­lar. So I was sur­prised, and up­set, at what hap­pened. It was noth­ing I had ever tried to make hap­pen.

“My life wasn’t re­ally happy at that point, so hav­ing some­thing out of con­trol hap­pen made me very afraid that it would dis­turb the na­ture of my life and make me un­happy,” Tan says.

“I was aware that suc­cess doesn’t al­ways lead to hap­pi­ness. It can lead to ad­dic­tion to fur­ther suc­cess, for ex­am­ple.”

It’s a fac­tor that’s in­flu­enced why, apart from that 1993 adap­ta­tion of

The Joy Luck Club, there haven’t been many movies based on Tan’s works, pop­u­lar as they may be.

The au­thor re­veals that there had been talks about sev­eral projects in the past – in­clud­ing an adap­ta­tion of The Kitchen God’s Wife – but they had not taken off be­cause she did not want to be­come in­volved.

“Any­thing in film and tele­vi­sion makes your life very pub­lic. So I turned down the projects, and I felt very guilty. But I felt you only have one life, and you can get buried alive when you go into that world, it be­comes ev­ery­thing in your life,” Tan says.

“You have to realise, th­ese peo­ple in Hol­ly­wood, in net­work tele­vi­sion, they de­mand things. They say, we don’t need to be­gin im­me­di­ately, you don’t have to come to meet­ings, you can sit in when you can. But when they start, they’ll go, ‘We need you down for a meet­ing, we need you to set 10 meet­ings for the next month...’. That’s how it con­trols your life.

“And I did not want some­one to take con­trol of my life.”

Fans of Tan need not worry, though: there’s still more of Tan’s writ­ten work to look for­ward to. She’s work­ing on a new novel called The Me­mory Of De­sire (but can’t re­veal what it’s about!), which was in­spired by a dream she had. There are also plans for a TV se­ries about some of the char­ac­ters from

The Joy Luck Club, al­though things are at an early stage still.

As our in­ter­view time runs out, we squeeze in one fi­nal ques­tion: Af­ter hav­ing a good look at her life while writ­ing Where The Past

Be­gins, is there any­thing Tan wishes she could have changed about it?

“No. Ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened has been ac­cu­mu­la­tive, to make me who I am. And to say I wish I had done some­thing else, would be like wish­ing I were a dif­fer­ent per­son,” Tan says with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“The only thing I wish I had done more of, was to ask my mother cer­tain ques­tions. Just so I would know more about her life. It would be the de­sire you have af­ter read­ing a good book, and want­ing to read more.”

Photo: JU­LIAN JOHN­SON

— Pho­tos: from Where The Past Be­gins

The Tan fam­ily pos­ing in a park af­ter church, Easter 1959. (From left) Amy, dad John, brother John Jr (in front), older brother Peter, and mum Daisy.

Tan’s book has been re­leased and it’s out in the world, some­thing she finds ‘ter­ri­fy­ing’ – ‘I don’t know how peo­ple are go­ing to in­ter­pret it’, she says. — EPA

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