By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
On the evening of Dec. 5, enthusiastic readers of all ages, clad in coats and scarves, attended a reading by bestselling author Amy Tan at the University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle.
Tan’s latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, was published last month. Since her first book, The Joy Luck Club, Tan has written novels, children’s books, and nonfiction. She is a recipient of numerous awards, and her writings are on many “required reading” lists. These accolades, however, did not hint at what a warm and witty speaker the attendees would soon discover Tan to be.
The first part of the evening — sponsored by the University Book Store — was a conversation with Tan moderated by William Kenower, published novelist and editor-in-chief of Author magazine.
The half-hour was interspersed with laughter and occasional nods and yeas of agreement from the audience. Below are some highlights.
The onset of a journey
Tan began writing fiction at age 33. Kenower mentioned that many writers said they started writing at age 9, so what did Tan do between the ages of 9 and 33?
“The writer was always there,” replied Tan. “I wrote letters to my friends, made up stories. I wrote essays. I was a writer, but I just never called myself a writer, because everybody writes.”
Did Tan’s parents have a problem with her professional path?
“As long as you’re also a brain surgeon,” joked Tan, drawing chuckles from the audience. She explained that she did have an income at the time. “At age 33, I was a published writer for telecommunication…. [It] was not something I aspired to do. I was working a lot.” She wasn’t sleeping much, she said, nor did she like what she was doing.
At that point, she decided to either take improvisational jazz piano or fiction writing. She was an English major who “always loved writing.” Tan continued, “I tried to write with the idea that I do not need to make money with that — I was making money with business writing. I love the solitude of [creative writing].”
Tan went to a writers’ workshop. When her instructor critiqued her work, instead of being disheartened, she said she got excited about exploring “the voices, the stories.” She felt no pressure and told herself, “I can be published by the time I’m 70.” The audience responded with more chuckles.
“You can be good at many things,” she said. “It was finding something that was the meaning of my life.” Notwithstanding the income, telecommunication writing wasn’t for Tan.
The writing of her stories, “delving into what the story was, the whole aspect of writing and feeling deeply — was what the meaning was.”
The Joy Luck Club
Tan spoke of her anxiety before the publication of The Joy Luck Club, her debut collection of short stories. “By the date of the publication … I cried — it was not out of joy, but out of fear.
Tan thought the book would be taken down from the shelf quietly after a while, but the buzz “kept building up.” It was not what she had expected.
“You can’t take anything for granted in writing,” she said. “You can be very talented, but never get published. These things are not guaranteed.”
The Valley of Amazement
Kenower mentioned that The Valley of Amazement took about eight years to write. Tan said that in those years, she had written a libretto for an opera and built a home. “That was like writing two novels,” she said.
Amidst all this, she came across a photo captioned The Ten Beauties of Shanghai in a book. To her astonishment, the 10 beauties appeared in clothing that was the same as the clothes her grandmother wore in a photograph Tan had. Tan then showed the picture of her grandmother alongside that of a famous courtesan of that period, around 1910. Their costumes showed great resemblance. Tan pointed out the various items of the garment specific to the courtesan, including the headband with embroidery and “the collar going up to the earlobes.”
Tan’s first reaction to the resemblance was alarming. The image, she said, contradicted everything that had been told about her quiet grandmother. Tan kept imagining how her grandmother’s life would have been had she been a courtesan. And in time, her new work began to take shape.
In a way, a courtesan is like a performer or an artist. Kenower asked if Tan identified with that.
Tan replied, “I play in the band ‘The Rock Bottom Remainders’…I wear a dominatrix outfit on stage. When I have that outfit on, I’m free to express myself. I will never sing, but with that outfit, I sing. If you’re in that role…you have to find a way to survive.”
She continued, “Everything I wrote is about identity. The Joy Luck Club is about identity. And so much of it is about the mother…. The mothers are always there.
“People sometimes say to me, ‘Now you’re writing about mother-daughter. Now you’re writing about courtesans.’ No, it’s all about me. And for some readers, it’s all about them.
“One part of the story — going from San Francisco to China — happens to a lot of immigrants. My mother, who arrived in the U.S…left behind daughters in China…. She had to clean houses — she had never washed a dish in her life…. You will ask, ‘Who am I?’ You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of pride do I hang onto? Why do I hang onto that?’ Your identity changed geographically.”
At the end of the conversation, Kenower asked Tan to finish this sentence, “If writing taught me anything, it taught me what — ”
“To be quiet,” she joked. Seriously, she said, “It has taught me the meaning of my life.” (end)
Amy Tan’s book The Valley of Amazement was published by Ecco in November and is available in bookstores and online.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.