WHERE THE PAST BE­GINS

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - BOOK REVIEWS - By Amy Tan { ecco }

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:

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