Per­sonal snapshots

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture -

On her mother

IN Amy Tan’s of­fice in Cal­i­for­nia, to the left of where she writes best­selling books, sit a dozen framed pho­to­graphs. Her fa­ther looks up from one, his smile imp­ish. In an­other, taken in the 1940s, her mother leans back against the hood of a car. Then there’s her grand­mother, pos­ing in a silk jacket against a painted back­drop.

The snapshots re­mind Tan of the sto­ries her fam­ily mem­bers told – and th­ese days, the ones they didn’t.

“My par­ents kept se­crets,” says Tan, smil­ing at the un­der­state­ment.

“To my mother and the me­mory of her mother,” Tan ded­i­cated The

Joy Luck Club, which in 1989 launched her lit­er­ary ca­reer. “You asked me once what I would re­mem­ber. This, and much more.”

Nearly three decades af­ter that novel be­come an in­ter­na­tional best­seller, in­spir­ing a film and a play, Tan is still writ­ing, still mak­ing sense of her re­la­tion­ship with her mother, Daisy, her first reader.

She in­her­ited her mother’s prag­ma­tism, her frus­tra­tion with con­de­scen­sion, her hon­esty.

“She’d talk about con­sti­pa­tion, you know,” Tan says, chuck­ling. “She talked a lot about her agony, her sad­ness . ... She just took de­light in re­veal­ing all kinds of things.

“I’ve had peo­ple in the past who have read my books and said, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’ And I think, I was? Am I re­veal­ing things most peo­ple would not?”

On pol­i­tics

Tan keeps a strict gym regime. But she once posted on In­sta­gram, be­neath a photo of her flex­ing her wide bi­ceps, that “The only ugly ex­cess fat I’d like to get rid of sits in the Oval Of­fice”.

At this in­ter­view, Tan says she is tired of news com­ing out of Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Just days be­fore, the pres­i­dent had an­nounced that he would end the pro­gramme that pro­tects young, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from de­por­ta­tion known as De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, or Daca; th­ese young peo­ple are of­ten de­scribed as Dream­ers.

Tan takes the is­sue per­son­ally. Her par­ents over­stayed their stu­dent visas, as ev­i­denced by a folder of in­creas­ingly ur­gent pa­per­work in her of­fice.

“I sort of knew that some­thing had to be done and they weren’t quite le­gal,” she said. “But I did not un­der­stand what peril they were in un­til I took out the files.”

Tan and her hus­band of 43 years, Lou DeMat­tei, are also host­ing, in their old house, an em­ployee and friend of 10 years, a so-called “dreamer” with a young fam­ily.

“It’s my thing, my way of do­ing some­thing per­sonal about Daca,” Tan says.

On death

At first glance, the house Tan and DeMat­tei share is a Zen Arts and Crafts-style re­treat perched on the steep hill­side and built in 2012. Its win­dows face east, over­look­ing a bay and a few bird feed­ers. Hum­ming­birds stopped by, flit­ting, fight­ing.

But its de­sign an­tic­i­pates dis­as­ter. In case of an earth­quake, steel beams. In case of in­jury, wide door­ways make room for a wheel­chair. In case of more meta­phys­i­cal con­cerns, a curved en­try gate mod­elled af­ter Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture wards off evil spir­its.

Tan runs her fin­gers along the thin rail­ings guard­ing floor-to-ceil­ing book­shelves out­side the master bed­room. “I came up with this idea,” she says. “If we had an earth­quake, you don’t want books to fall and trap you.”

Tan grins as she talks about pre­par­ing for an earth­quake. (“It’s fun to think about – fun in a Girl Scout way.”)

“I think about death ev­ery day,” she says.

“It’s noth­ing I think about with a great deal of fear, al­though some­times I imag­ine it and say to my­self, that’s un­be­liev­able, that one day I won’t be here in this room.”

In one jour­nal en­try, at age 24, Tan wrote: “My own death seems so re­mote – like a far­away for­eign place – sep­a­rated from the here by dis­tance of time.”

Then, at age 50: “I have a sense of my life as a per­cent­age of what has been used and what is likely left.”

“Ev­ery day, I think about the fact that I will one day die,” she jour­naled at age 60. “Ev­ery day I think about the pos­si­bil­ity I will lose my brain.”

If she were to get de­men­tia, wor­ries might give way to hap­pi­ness, as they did for her mother, who died in 1999.

“I say this ab­so­lutely sin­cerely, that my mother had a won­der­ful time with her de­men­tia,” Tan says.

But years back, Lyme dis­ease left Tan un­able to tie two thoughts to­gether. That’s what truly scares Tan, a writer of words, a thinker of ideas: “Not be­ing able to write, not able to think, not able to ob­serve things any­more.” – JENNA ROSS/ Star Tri­bune/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

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