By Callie Chinn
SPECIAL TO THE NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Out of only six U.S. cities, renowned author Amy Tan visited Seattle on Oct. 25 to discuss her latest work, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. The book made The New York Times bestseller list in just one week after its release.
I had just finished studying Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue” in my English class and Tan’s appearance at Seattle’s Central Library gave my class an opportunity to earn extra credit.
My fellow classmates and I arrived an hour early to stand in a line that snaked around the first floor of the downtown library. The library’s auditorium was filled to its maximum capacity of 275 a half-hour before Tan arrived on stage.
In conversation with Seattle novelist Laurie Frankel, Tan admitted that she was not particularly proud of her writing in her latest book, a memoir based on her life as a writer, her childhood, and her creative process as a writer.
She stated that her writing in this book was very spontaneous and that she wrote about memories from the top of her head. Additionally, her memoir consists of photographs, drawings, letters, and documents found in boxes of family memorabilia. Tan had thought about blocking out sections of documents she featured in her book, but had decided to show everything in their full and true form.
As Tan looked through these boxes for things to include in her book, she discovered shocking truths about her complex family. Tan had always thought her father, who she lost at the age of 15 to a brain tumor, was perfect.
However, after reading documents from her memorabilia, Tan found that her father was actually flawed.
The audience was clearly touched when Tan mentioned that her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, apologized and sought her forgiveness for Tan’s traumatic childhood and the times she hurt her although her mother could not remember exactly how. Tan’s mother was the inspiration for many of Tan’s most acclaimed novels, which include The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife.
Tan said each book was difficult to write and that Where the Past Begins was no different. After the 2016 presidential election and the time in which she was scheduled to be in the process of completing her memoir, Tan missed a deadline and found herself not being able to write for a few weeks. In her anguish with the election results, Tan sought ways to find tranquility and found that meditative sketching worked best. Her social media pages primarily contain political content and her drawings of birds and nature.
Tan believes that Where the Past Begins shows who she truly is. She refuses to let anything or anyone else define that.
Through her memoir, Tan explores her imagination and memory that led her to become the fiction writer that she is today. In Tan’s words, her advice to fellow writers is to “stay damaged, stay confused.” Writers need to stay conflicted, which she still is, after all her years of writing fiction.
A book signing followed Tan’s talk. Fans were delighted to chat with Tan and have their books signed by her. Many copies of Where the Past Begins were purchased and signed throughout the evening. Lou DeMattei, Tan’s husband, and Rick Simonson, chief bookseller of the Elliott Bay Book Company, were also on hand to greet readers. The event was presented by the Seattle Public Library Foundation, in conjunction with Elliott Bay.
My classmates and I left the library in good spirits. We all felt satisfied hearing and meeting Amy Tan, a beloved Asian American literary icon and a gifted American writer who has the courage to write a deeply personal and moving memoir.
Callie Chinn is a senior at Franklin High School. She is enrolled at the University of Washington, in the High School English 131 Course.
Callie can be reached at email@example.com.