Joy and pain revisited

The startling family discovery which sparked Amy Tan's new novel, Joy Luck Club

Time In
Time In

Amy Tan, the bestselling author of the Joy Luck Club, talks of a startling family discovery that formed the basis of her latest novel.

Amy Tan has had more reminders of mortality than most. As a teenager, her father and brother both died of a brain tumour within a year. As a student, an intruder broke into her apartment and tortured and murdered her roommate. And as a young girl she learnt how her grandmother died in China by eating poison when her own mother was just nine years old. ‘Their deaths had profound effects on my life,’ recalls the bestselling novelist in her soft American twang, speaking on the phone from her home in the US.

‘One of the reasons I write is that I have a constant sense of mortality. Death is not a curse, it is simply a point where you stop breathing.

Your memory of the past ceases.

It is really [a death] of consciousness and memories and feeling.’ For Tan, the act of writing is above all a ‘way of maintaining the continuity of one’s existence’.

It is also a way to make a mark on an all-too-transitional world. In this Tan has been wildly successful. Born in America to Chinese parents (her mother was a nurse, her father a Baptist minister), Tan published her debut novel The Joy Luck Club in 1989. The book, based on her mother’s close-knit group of immigrant friends, sat on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 77 weeks and was made into a major film in 1993. Other hits, including The Bonesetter’s Daughter and The Kitchen God’s Wife, followed and Tan, whose works have been translated into more than 35 languages across the globe, has been credited with helping to kick-start a wave of soul searching, Chinese- American writing.

Now she has a new novel out – her first in eight years. The Valley of Amazement’s protagonist is the mixed race Violet Minturn. She grows up in cosseted luxury in an elite Shanghai house run by her American mother (her father is a Chinese artist). But when her mother accidently abandons her while returning home to the US, Violet is forced into a dark and murky life in order to survive.

The Valley of Amazement treads on familiar territory for Amy Tan fans. Covering two continents and half a century, it is an epic exploration of her trademark themes: Chinese-American identity, fraught mother-daughter relations, and the never-ending search for love. But the novel is also a result of serendipity. Tan was writing an altogether different book when she came across an old photograph. In the image, a group of women known as the Ten Beauties of Shanghai pose in elaborate costumes. Half were decked out in silk jackets with high fur-lined collars and headpieces decorated with pearls that formed a tight ‘V’ at the forehead, pulling the eye upwards into a coveted ‘phoenix’ curve.

For Tan, the discovery was shocking because the outfits were nearly identical to that which her own Shanghainese grandmother – a young widow who later died tragically – wore in a photograph the author owned. ‘What I now had was a mystery. It changed everything.

I abandoned the other book and started over.’ Tan never got to the bottom of this family mystery.

Tan only met her half sisters – two of whom now also live in America – when she was in her mid-30s. With a mother who was controlling and often mercilessly critical, Tan’s childhood was far from easy. But life in China for the author’s siblings was considerably tougher. They grew up under the shadow of Chairman Mao with a father who mistreated them (he was later jailed). Tan has often contemplated whether a child could ever ‘completely forgive a mother who had abandoned them – for whatever reason’. It is a question raised over and over again in her book.
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