Author Amy Tan says people expect her to be “kinder, wiser, more refined, more ‘joy lucky.’”
But as we see in Tan’s latest work, “Where the Past Begins,” her life has been a tumultuous one that has inspired her writing.
“Where the Past Begins” looks candidly at the experiences that have shaped her fiction, including her blockbuster 1989 novel, “The Joy Luck Club.”
Tan’s parents emigrated, separately, from China in the late 1940s. Her mother, Daisy, left behind three children from a previous, abusive, marriage (remember the abandoned babies in “The Joy Luck Club”?) and married Tan’s father, who was studying to be a minister in San Francisco and with whom she had had an affair in China. The couple struggled financially as Tan’s father later studied engineering and her mother became an allergy technician. They had three children and moved around frequently.
Daisy was an emotionally erratic mother. She once threatened her daughter with a cleaver and tried to throw herself out of a car while Tan and her two brothers were in the back seat.
After Tan’s father and older brother died from brain tumors within months of one another, Tan’s mother spiraled, regularly threatening to commit suicide and lashing out at her daughter. She was the inspiration behind Tan’s 1991 novel, "The Kitchen God’s Wife.”
Despite the way Daisy treated Tan, the author speaks fondly of her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s in 1999. Just before her death, Tan recalls, Daisy called her daughter and told her she was sorry for how she had hurt her.
“To me, that was everything,” Tan says. “She was such an honest person.”
Daisy let that honesty shine through in different ways through Tan’s life. She once told her daughter that she “was not as good as a boy,” Tan says.
“She told me I was better, but that I would have to work harder, because no one would believe it.”
For a long time, Tan herself did not believe it. Before “The Joy Luck Club,” she did not think of herself as a writer. Tan’s parents had told her at age 6 that she was destined to be a neurosurgeon. For years, Tan tried — and failed — to fulfill this destiny. Instead, she studied linguistics, and used her language skills to help disabled children before turning to business writing, including a stint drafting direct-mail marketing materials.
In the late ’80s, she attended the Squaw Valley Writers workshop as a way of dealing with her workaholism (therapy had failed to help) and out poured the memories that would form the basis of “The Joy Luck Club.” Even after the book became a bestseller, Tan waited six months to quit her day job. Later came five more novels, two children’s books and several works of nonfiction.
Tan still lives in California with her tax-attorney husband. At 65, she is vivacious and opinionated. The Lyme disease that for years fogged her mind and sapped her energy has dissipated. Though the illness left her with epilepsy, she exercises every day and plans to sing again with the Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-star amateur band that includes Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening and others. (Known for wearing wigs and fish-net stockings, Tan sings “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “Leader of the Pack.”)
She has also taken up drawing. Over the past few months, she has been sharing her detailed animal sketches on Facebook and Tumblr, telling followers that the work keeps her from “obsessing” over politics. (She refuses to call the president by name, instead referring to him as “45.”) She loves birds, hummingbirds especially, and feeders dangle from the decks and patios around her tree-lined property with views of Richardson Bay.
“Where the Past Begins” was intended to be a spontaneous writing exercise as Tan recovered from her illness and gathered material for her next novel. She wrote quickly, each week sending 15 to 30 pages to her editor.
The result is a book that is raw and immediate, if not entirely cohesive.
She invites readers into the tumult of her inner life. There are old photographs and letters to her mother that underscore their unusual bond. The book also contains disclosures about Tan’s past that, in conversation, bring tears to her eyes.