For nearly 30 years, Amy Tan has examined and reexamined her exquisitely complex relationship with her mother, giving rise to the wealth of memorable female characters who inhabit her novels, from The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) to Saving Fish From Drowning (2005).
Tan, who turned 65 this year, follows up her 2013 best seller The Valley of Amazement with one of her more daring and challenging works – a memoir.
Due Tuesday, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir deals head-on with some of the most difficult and wrenching aspects of Tan’s family’s past, including the lives her parents led before they emigrated from China.
A beautifully made book that uses diary entries, letters, drawings, photos, and essays, Where the Past Begins contains several shocking discoveries Tan made during her research. (I promise very few spoilers.)
Tan will talk about the book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library.
Who is Amy Tan?
Amy Tan is a woman who happens to be a writer and is interested in certain moral questions and is looking for meaning in life.
Well, one example would be the relationship between belief, intentions, outcomes, consequences, responsibility, and blame. What are those things, and what are their interconnections? So I believe in looking at intention in relationship to credit. Say, if you have something that you intended to do and your intention was not good but something good happens, you can’t take credit for it.
Which we all do, of course.
Right, but you should not. You can’t. You see examples of this all the time, especially in politicians, but in other people, as well. We have to think, as part of our meaning in life, about what we take credit for. Of what we have achieved on our own and what we have gained off … the backs of others.
The American ethos – at least insofar as we see it in movies and TV shows – seems to be that as long as you meant well, you’re forgivable. That even if you end up killing half the population, what matters is if you meant well.
I don’t believe that at all. If there are bad consequences you still have to take responsibility for it. … It has to do with your moral integrity.
So this is what you think about when you write?
Yes. But I never get asked the question. People usually just ask me about mothers and daughters. I am often writing about my own experiences with my mother, which has so deeply informed my view of the world. But I’m not an expert on mothers and daughters.
How do these ethical questions inform the kinds of characters you create?
I think that most of my characters are people who are doing just that, who are examining these questions. And [questions about] how they became who they are and what they believe. … They are assessing whether they have achieved what they wanted or if there have been unintended consequences. For example, the mother in The Valley of Amazement: She has left her daughters behind for a new life. And she has a number of reasons why she did that, but ultimately it does not justify or negate any kind of … blame or responsibility that she has for leaving those daughters behind.
Your mother, Daisy, left her abusive first husband and their three daughters behind in China.
Yes, that’s something my mother did. And it raises a question I have wrestled with – how much is she responsible? You can rationalize all kinds of things, you can have all kinds of reasons, but you’re still guilty of a moral wrong. I don’t mean you’re condemned or anything, but this is something that needs to be acknowledged.
You speak in the new memoir about a line of women you’ve identified in your family who were rebels, unconventional and brave women who bucked tradition. Isn’t your mother also to be praised for her courage in escaping a horrible marriage?
Of course. Things are never black or white, and there’s a whole continuum to these questions. Moral integrity has to do with assessing all those things honestly.
How did your writing shape your relationship with your mother in the years before her death in 1999?
She loved the fact that I was writing about experiences and emotions that we have had over the years – and some of them were very bad. Some of them involved a lot of arguments and a lot of abuse.
And at least one near-death experience.
My mother tried to kill me one time. … And we have talked about it since, of course.
You were 15, and your father, John, and your older brother Peter had died of brain tumors within six months of each other.
She was upset because I was seeing a guy who was older than I was. He was a deserter from the German army – we were living in Switzerland at the time – and he had no job, and on top of that my father and brother had just died. … She thought she had lost everything, including me in this one sense, and she just cracked. And one day I came home from school, and she cornered me in a room against the wall with a cleaver, and she said, “I’m going to kill you and then myself, and then we’ll all go to heaven to be with Daddy and Peter.” And she had a look in her eye that was absolutely crazy. She was gone.
Did you ever ask why she stopped herself?
I did, and she said, “I don’t remember.”
I’ve always loved your keen sense of irony and your dark humor. And it is very, very dark.
I suppose someone could come along after I’m dead and say the darkness comes from the fact that both my father and brother died when I was young and my mother talked constantly of suicide. But at the same time, irony can be rather funny. I think it has to be the way you look at life in retrospect of where I am now, with this sort of humor. I think I have the darkness that Jane Eyre had. There’s a loneliness and a tendency to see the dark side of people and to see a future that is possibly disastrous.
You became a detective for this book and looked pretty hard at your family. The discoveries you made weren’t all very happy.
Some of it was incredibly painful because I wasn’t expecting them. As an example … I found out I wasn’t my father’s favorite. That’s very painful, to believe you’re daddy’s favorite and to look at him as your hero after he dies, only then to read something that makes it clear you weren’t.
Did that discovery bring up any emotions from your past?
The interesting thing is how it made me go back to that place where I was a child again, and I came back with those children’s feelings. That’s what writing the book did. And that’s what was so shocking: that I was suddenly back in my childhood with those same fears of failure, and I was shaking and crying and still stuck there. I needed some distance to process it all again. This book is being published way too early for me.
But now it’s out there.
And now it’s published I am really ambivalent about it.
Amy Tan, Where The Past Begins
Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street.
Tickets: $38; $33 per person for couples. Price includes one copy of the book.
Information: 215-567-4341; freelibrary.org/authorevents//.