Fate, fortune and family
Author Amy Tan, of The Joy Luck Club fame, lays her life bare in a new memoir.
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.”
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