WHERE THE PAST BEGINS
Amy Tan’s new memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, is the result of her editor and publisher, Dan Halpern, recommending that she put together a book of their e-mail correspondence. “Letters to the Editor” is the only section of the book that retains that original idea. While a whole book of those e-mails would have been lovely, I am glad that Tan decided to dig into her past, using boxes of her life’s memorabilia and miscellanea as memory aids.
Where the Past Begins is dense in ideas though not in language, and it is packed full of varying anecdotes about the author’s life,
most of which illuminate how, for her, memory and creativity are deeply intertwined. For example, in a chapter titled “Genuine Emotions,” Tan describes the way a medication she started taking to allay seizures had the secondary effect of putting her in an extremely good mood. “I felt the ticklish squeezing sensation in my heart— the pulling of a heartstring, you might call it,” she writes. She describes the research she did to figure out what that tickle was, and because of her newfound interest in the physicality of emotion, she reaches down into a place of traumatic triggers and physical responses of the body. Her shift from “This med made me too happy” to “And now I will explore trauma” is seamless, the arc demonstrating the wide-ranging nature of her thought process. By the end of the same chapter, she’s describing how emotional memory feeds into her fiction, writing out an imagined scenario of a heartbreaking moment in a little girl’s life.
The other thread in the book is Tan’s relationship with her volatile mother, who struggles with mental illness. Such relationships are heavily featured in her fiction: Tan’s most famous novel, The Joy Luck Club, explores daughters repeating versions of their mothers’ mistakes. As she writes in this memoir, “My mother was mother. There were many times in childhood when I wished that were not so. But when I was grown, she was inextricably part of the way I thought and observed and to wish she were not my mother would be like wishing I were a different person.” Tan writes about her mother matter-offactly but with love. She doesn’t sugarcoat the terrible moments in their relationship, including an incident in which her mother came close to killing her, but also tells her mom’s story with empathy, shining light on the trauma in her mother’s life both in China and the United States, and examining how that affected the both of them.
Tan’s memoir is scattered with themes of class and language and immigration, but they aren’t her focus. Instead they’re part of the complex web of her parents’ lived realities. For example, though she bemoans the election of Donald Trump several times, she only faces its repercussions when trying to imagine whether her conservative Christian father would have voted for the man, and what that would mean
about her father. The book feels rather apolitical at times, which can feel like an evasion on Tan’s part. Her memoir is ultimately deceptive in the way good books are; it seems effortless, as if there were no other way it could have been written than exactly how it is. RATING: