Last night Bookman and I went with a friend to see Amy Tan at the public library in downtown Minneapolis. It was quite a large crowd. We filled the auditorium and two overflow conference rooms. Whether there were more people than could fit I don’t know since I was squeezed into a seat in the auditorium. I am not a huge fan. I read and enjoyed The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife. I have also read A Hundred Secret Senses and felt it was just meh, felt like her books were all about the same thing, so then lost interest. She now has a new book out, The Valley of Amazement. It is her first book in eight years.
After all the introductions were made, Tan stepped on stage. She is a small woman but she has a big presence. Instead of launching immediately into reading parts of her book she started talking. She explained that she has done a lot of things in the last eight years in order to avoid writing a book. On the long list is writing a libretto for an opera (she is a classically trained pianist) and, with her husband of 44 years, designing and building a completely accessible home in Sausalito, California. The house sounded gorgeous. Tan does not have children and she said she and her husband planned the house so they could live there for the rest of their lives. It has elevators, bathrooms large enough to get a wheelchair into, showers with grab bars and no edges, and all sorts of other features to accommodate every possible mobility issue.
And then she began talking about her grandmother and her mother. She has a photo of each of them on her desk. Her grandmother married the richest man in Shanghai at the time. They lived on an island just out from the city. There are two versions of the story of how she came to marry her husband. Tan’s grandmother and her half sister were staying at his house and at some point during the night the sister got up and left the room and the man came in. In one version of the story he held a knife to Tan’s grandmother’s throat and said if she didn’t marry him he would kill her. In the second version he held the knife to his own throat and said he would kill himself.
Tan’s grandmother was wife number four in the house, the youngest and the favorite. She had already had Tan’s mother and was pregnant again. She asked her husband if she had a boy would he please give her a house of her own in Shanghai. He said yes. She had a boy but her husband did not keep his side of the deal. Grandmother was 36 at the time and Tan’s mother was nine. She watched as her mother committed suicide by taking an overdose of opium. It took her three days to die. Tan’s mother was left with a father who was not kind and whom she did not love.
Tan said her mother always blamed Grandmother for all the hardship and unhappiness in her life. If she had not killed herself, Tan’s mother was convinced her own life would have been happier. Nonetheless, Tan’s mother thought she had done something to anger her mother and when Tan was a child and misbehaving, her mother was convinced that Tan was her mother come back to torment her for whatever it was she had done to anger her.
So it is no wonder Tan writes so much about mother-daughter relationships with such a family history and dynamic!
During Tan’s eight years between novels she had actually begun writing one but it wasn’t going all that well. She went to Shanghai to do some research and while there came across a photo of a group of courtesans. She was surprised to see that several of the women in the photograph were wearing the exact same outfit her grandmother was wearing in the photo Tan had of her on her desk. Curious, she began doing some research about courtesans and while she didn’t find any direct evidence, all the circumstantial evidence suggests that her grandmother was a courtesan. This discovery took her away from the book she had been writing and sent her off in a new direction leading to the writing of The Valley of Amazement.
Tan told the audience some of the really interesting things she learned about courtesans in Shanghai during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Then after 40 minutes of talking, she read a short piece from her book.
This was followed by questions from the audience. Someone asked for advice for aspiring writers and Tan talked about keeping internet distractions away. Someone else asked if she thought being bi-racial and bilingual helped her be more creative and she replied that she thought it did. Not that it made her smarter or better than anyone else, but that it gives her a bigger playing field. Another person asked about Tan’s father and what he was like since she never talks about him. Tan said she was a daddy’s girl, that she loved her father dearly. Tan was in her early teens when her father died and she felt like he had abandoned her to the crazy woman who was her mother. To Tan her father was perfect and perfect characters aren’t interesting to write about.I have no plans to read Tan’s new book, but I found her really interesting and her stories fascinating. I enjoyed the evening very much. I even got to test out taking notes on my iPad. I had downloaded an Evernote app called Penultimate that lets you take written notes with a stylus and save them to Evernote. Bookman found me a stylus that looks like a number 2 pencil, it even has a fake eraser. I usually take a small notebook and a couple of pencils (in case the lead breaks) to events like this but the stylus on my iPad worked so well it is my new go-to. Plus having the iPad also let me tweet, look something up on the internet, and keep Bookman occupied playing Plants versus Zombies during the hour we waited for the event to start while the friend we went with and I chatted. It was all good.