About The Author
Born in the US to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan failed her mother's expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist and instead settled on writing fiction.
Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989 and explored the relationship between Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters, a theme that recurs in much of her writing. More bestselling and award-winning novels followed, including The Kitchen God's Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses, as well as a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, two children's books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, and numerous articles for magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and National Geographic. Ms Tan co-produced and co-wrote the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, and appeared as herself in the animated series The Simpsons. She has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford, Jagellonium, Beijing and Georgetown, and also serves as the Literary Editor for the Los Angeles Times magazine, West. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, dramatises the collapse of China's imperial dynasty and the secret life of the courtesan house in fin de siecle Shanghai.
Below, we talked to Amy Tan about how her discovery of a photograph of her grandmother provided the basis for the novel, the fluidity of Amy's cultural identity and how she escaped her mother's ambitions for her to be a pianist AND a doctor.
Buy the hardback and ebook as a set for reading on the move or to give to a friend
Author image (c) Robert Foothorap
Questions & Answers
You have said you did not come from a literary family; what started your relationship with literature?
I never saw my parents read a novel, but it was not that my parents had no appreciation for literature. They simply could not afford to buy the books that a child might devour in a few days, and they were too busy going to school and also working full-time. They did not have the luxury of time. However, they splurged on an encyclopaedia set. That had long-lasting value-- and the volumes would make us smarter!
My parents did encourage me to read books. They took me to the library every two weeks where I borrowed five or six books at a time. They did not recommend which books to read, in part, I realize now, because they had not read children's books in English. So I had the immense pleasure of choosing books for myself. I started with the bottom shelves, which contain many fairy tale books, and I often read those books in the dwindling light and in bed, secretly, which was why I ruined my eyes and had to wear glasses -- so my mother said.
Ironically, I discovered about twenty years ago that my mother entered the United States on a student visa, approved after she sent in a fake diploma that said she had received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Shanghai -- in English, no less. To some of my friends, only about ten per cent of my mother's English was understandable. In addition, her application stated she would study American Literature at a small college in San Francisco. She never did, of course. I became her American Literature.
What gave you the conviction to carry on writing in the face of opposition from your mother, who wanted you to be a pianist or doctor?
First of all, I had been told from the age of six, I would be not a pianist or a doctor -- but both. I dreaded performing publicly and my first piano recital was a disaster; it was my first humiliation, the first time I wanted the earth to swallow me.
When I went to college, I felt too stupid to become a doctor because I did not do well in Calculus, Chemistry and Biology. Actually, love was a large part of the reason my grades fell. I had met the boy I would one day marry (and we are, in fact, still together) and that left little time to study.
The subject I enjoyed the most was English Literature. Reading was effortless, so was writing about what I loved. My professors complimented me. My self-esteem shot up. So, that child in me was glad to give up trying to become who I was not. The person I had wanted to please -- my father -- had died the year before. So the only one I would betray was my mother. And she was very disappointed. Who could make a living studying English? Years later, she attended a graduation ceremony at a university, which conferred on me an honorary doctorate. I gave her the diploma and announced that I had, at last, become a doctor. It was a joke, because by then, she was already proud of me. I had written two novels, much of the stories based on her life. She told me I had always had a wild imagination, and that she had even thought I might one day become a writer. Revisionist mother's pride.
Your grandmother was a concubine. How much of what you know of her life found its way into the two courtesan houses in The Valley of Amazement?
My grandmother remains both myth and mystery. I believed the early stories: that she was an old-fashioned woman, who followed tradition, and became the first wife of a scholar. Her husband had died during the pandemic, and she was left a widow with two children. Later, as the story went, she was raped by a rich man and thus, dishonoured. Her brother kicked her out of the house, and without a place for her and her daughter to live, she was forced to become the rich man's concubine and live on an island outside of Shanghai. She became pregnant and after the baby was born, she killed herself out of shame. That was the story.
But then I found some photos in a book about courtesans and they wore clothing identical to what my grandmother was wearing in a photo dated around the same time, 1910. The clothing was specific to courtesans, and, I learned, only courtesans went to Western photo studios. I did more digging. I examined more photos of her and saw them in a different light, noting the tight clothing, the provocative pose, hand on hip, the other arm balanced on the back of a chair in a casual way. I noted the look on her face -- what appeared to be an amused smile in one and a look of disdain in another. And through interviews with family members, I uncovered details of her life that contradicted what others had said.
My grandmother, it turned out, was not the honourable first wife of a scholar, but the second. The husband was indeed a scholar, one who had the equivalent of a Master's degree. But he was unemployed through the duration of their marriage of only five or six years. The brother, who supposedly kicked her out for having been raped, did business with the rich man. Based on reports on the length of her stay on the island, my grandmother would have already been pregnant when she went on the island. And although she had been the fourth wife, she had been the man's favourite, and lived in the best room. She was thirty-six, and according to those still living on the island, she was renowned for a hot temper, and 'anyone who did not listen to her opinions was sorry later.'
I was thrilled to know she had not been a bland traditional woman, obedient and unquestioning of the life given her. In fact, she negotiated for what she wanted: a house in Shanghai in exchange for giving birth to the man's first son. The baby son was born, but her husband reneged on the deal. Shortly after, she took raw opium and died. It was not the first time she had tried to poison herself during a fit of anger. Those details of her life made me see her as quite a different woman - a real person with opinions, intrepid and pragmatic, as well as a hothead, and obviously charming enough to have become the favourite. Those were traits in my mother as well. But did those qualities mean she had been a courtesan?
This is no indisputable evidence that she was, of course. So I would never say that she was. But the mystery remains, the inconsistencies that are clues to some masked truth. She wore shocking clothes. She had several photos taken. Where did she get the money for the clothes and photos? To whom did she bestow those photos? What if, what if, what if? I could not stop wondering who she really was, and by that, I mean more her nature, personality, attitudes, her beliefs about life, herself and others. What was her self-identity? If she had been a courtesan, how would those circumstances have affected how she saw herself? What accounted for her reported bad temper?
Since I was spending a good deal of time researching what might have been, I eventually gave in to these obsessions, abandoned the novel I had begun, and plunged into the world of courtesans, playing out the questions I had.
Your mother had to leave your half sisters in Shanghai when she moved to the United States with your father. Is this what informs Violet's abandonment by her mother, a theme that was also played out in The Joy Luck Club?
There were actually two abandonments in our family. The first was my grandmother's suicide. Most people would not think of suicide as a deliberate abandonment, but the effects are similar. The parent left a child behind and that child grew up with the psychological turmoil of being without a parent who chose to leave rather than stay for him or her. My mother, then a girl of nine, was by her mother's bedside as life ebbed away. During the funeral, my mother begged to fly up and join her mother. My mother always felt that all the traumas of her life could have been prevented had she had a mother's wisdom and her fierce protection -- two elements she bestowed heavily on me, her unappreciative daughter.
You would think the loss of her own mother would have strengthened my mother's determination to remain with her daughters until she could release them from her abusive husband, their father. Perhaps instead it was ingrained in her that a mother, by necessity and for her own reasons, could leave a child. For years, I was conflicted and felt I needed to justify my mother's actions. She left to escape a bad marriage, and she left, still married, to be with the man she loved, my father. Her daughters, my sisters, dreamed she would come back and solve all their problems. They also blamed her for their problems. How could they not when they were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution for having a mother who went to live in America? They were reunited thirty years later. My mother has since died, but to this day, I sense there is not complete forgiveness for what she did.
Magic Gourd provides Violet with some lengthy advice or rules of 'etiquette for beauties of the boudoir'. Would there have been such rule books and if so, do any survive?
A scholar showed me a pamphlet called, Etiquette for Girls of the Boudoir. The advice was less titillating: 'Be attentive to your mother-in-law's needs', 'Don't fight with the other wives', 'Don't be greedy for more ribbons for your hair', and such. I do not know of a similar book for courtesans. However, in my research, I found piecemeal advice, such as clever strategies for 'encouraging' a client to buy an expensive piece of jewellery at a store where the owner was in cahoots with the ruse. Men wrote tales of warning, citing they had been fleeced by courtesans who allowed themselves to be courted by numerous suitors, and who then chose the most handsome, and not the one who had bestowed her with the most number of gifts. As for the tricks of the trade, so to speak, I found only elliptical remarks -- for example, that wives paid to have courtesans show them techniques that sent their husbands into paroxysms of delight.
There were cautionary tales about courtesans who gave away their earnings to a handsome man in hopes of marriage, about courtesans who let a favourite customer run up a bill that would never be paid. I found information on erotic sex, aphrodisiacs ('Gates Wide Open' was a popular brand) and paraphernalia in books written by noblemen who had many wives and concubines, and who also took young maids as a matter of course. Much of the pornographic tales included sadism, but I imagine that is true of pornography across cultures.
I see Magic Gourd's advice as lessons on survival -- on being pragmatic and not romantic, understanding reality, and not giving into the illusions the courtesan was providing for her suitors. It was also about protecting the sisterhood, and understanding how all of them were under the same roof -- if only temporarily.
Violet and Edward both live with the legacy of childhood traumas. Do you think love as the 'careful tending of wounds' is inescapable?
I believe that for every generalization there are exceptions. In Violet and Edward's case, they were damaged for opposite reasons. Violet was wounded. Edward unintentionally wounded another. However, over time, they shared emotions over the purest form of love -- that for a child. They regained that ability to trust the world and themselves.
To some extent, Violet manages to merge her two halves, the Chinese and the American, but it is only ever a tenuous compromise. Does this reflect your experience and those of others close to you?
I don't think it is tenuous in me. My cultural identity is not a case of being one or the other, or being divisible as a percentage. It is more fluid, a blend, and always changing according to circumstances at any given time -- be it with family, a fundraiser for Asian concerns, a literary conference, or a political event. We draw from ourselves what blends with the context, not as chameleon but as active participant. The differences are unimportant. Commonality is. And that fluidity is my self-identity and it is never static. I am comfortable with myself. The character Violet eventually stops dichotomizing herself. However, she faces circumstances different from mine -- racial prejudice against Eurasians, for example, and an inability to claim, had she wanted, to be an American, entitled to citizenship and privileges, including immigration. Yet, she finds a life not constrained by the standards of propriety of either Chinese or American society. She creates her own life, one that is satisfying to her, one with love, friendship, and self-respect. Self-respect is so different from respect from others. It is something people often confuse.
In the book the mother-daughter relationship is fractured early on, its impact reverberating across Violet's life. How far was the later section showing Lucia's own neglect at the hands of her parents intended as an exoneration of her treatment of Violet?
It was not intended as exoneration. It shows a pattern of neglect. Lucia was neglected and does not know how to not be neglectful. It is repetition of trauma, rather than learned lessons to avoid it. Lucia, however, made her decision to leave home. Violet did not, and she feels she lost who she was supposed to become. Violet cannot forgive Lucia for what happened. She does not want to accept her past. But she and Lucia can forge a different relationship based upon a need larger than themselves.
Your books have been translated into 35 languages, what do you think gives them such universal appeal?
Every daughter has a mother. And living or dead, there is much that remains unsaid between them. Yet each wants to be understood, in part, so they can understand themselves. That is what my readers have told me.