SAUSALITO, Calif. — Yes, Amy Tan is happy to answer questions about "The Joy Luck Club." But nearly 30 years after the publication of her blockbuster novel, she also wants to talk about birds, politics, her family, her new memoir and, if you ask nicely, the hula hoop in her office. "I can't spin it around my neck like I used to," she concedes while demonstrating that she can, however, still swing her hips like the hula champ she once was.
At 65, Tan is vivacious and opinionated. Her signature black bob may now be speckled with gray, but she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of that. At a certain point, she says, women need to let go of such worries. “Selling books has nothing to do with the color of my hair,” she says.
Next week, Tan will publish a memoir called "Where the Past Begins." It looks candidly at the experiences that have shaped her fiction: her difficult relationship with her mother, the deaths of her father and brother when Tan was a teen, the haunting tales of her grandmother, who died of an opium overdose — and more. There's enough here for another Amy Tan novel.
Sitting in her spacious living room, with its panoramic views of Richardson Bay, Tan is garrulous and eloquent. One moment she is discussing politics (she refuses to call the president by his name, referring to him only as “45”), and the social media trolls who have told the California-born Tan to return to China and eat frogs; in the next, she is discussing the psychological scars of her emotionally erratic mother, who once threatened her with a cleaver and tried to throw herself out of a car while Tan and her two brothers were in the back seat.
Dressed in a simple black tank top, leggings and a wrap cardigan, Tan is brimming with gratitude. 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.”)
Tan 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 loves birds, hummingbirds especially, and feeders dangle from the decks and patios around her tree-lined property. "They recognize my call," she says of her winged friends and then demonstrates with a pitch-perfect whistle.
Tan calls her drawings meditative sketches, and she shares them “with the same glee as a child coming home from kindergarten with a handprint turkey,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about people criticizing my work. They don’t expect me to be a professional artist.”
Tan has long struggled with expectations — those of her family and her readers. “I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain,” she writes in her new book. In conversation, she puts it more bluntly: “People expect me to be kinder, wiser, more refined — more ‘joy lucky.’ ”
She may not want to speak for the immigrant experience, or, for that matter, as a feminist — she balks at such labels — but her life story and the novels she has spun from it make it difficult not to.
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.
In her memoir, Tan describes the squalor of an early home in Oakland: “Our floors, it seemed, were one big welcome mat for vermin. They chewed through the baseboard next to our bunk beds and also through the walls next to the kitchen sink.” There is no such threat in Tan’s current home, which she and her tax-attorney husband built in 2012. It was constructed, she says, “with the worst-case scenario in mind”: wheelchair accessibility, sliding doors, grab bars, preset temperatures on the shower faucets.
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. “Had I chronicled every outbreak, I doubt I would have found a reliable pattern,” she writes in her memoir. “It was, in fact, the sheer unpredictability of her threats that made us alternately vigilant and then blindsided.”
Daisy, the inspiration for the 1991 novel “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” died in 1999 of Alzheimer’s. Tan cared for her mother until the end, and she speaks of her with fondness. 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 had always been direct with her daughter. Years earlier, she had told Tan that she "didn't have to have a baby — that I had a choice." Amy Tan chose not to have children. (When asked about that decision now, Tan calmly responds: "I think the default question should be, 'Why did you choose to have children?' ") Daisy also told her daughter that she "was not as good as a boy," Tan says, sitting up straight in a Lucite dining chair. "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.
“Where the Past Begins” is perhaps her most unvarnished book. Here 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. “I am contradictory in my need for privacy to write about what is private,” she notes in the book. The memoir 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.
Tan confesses to being apprehensive about baring herself in its pages. And what would her mother think? “She would have said, ‘Yes, that was true. That’s how it was.” Even the stories about the cleaver, and worse? Yes, even those. “There have been a lot of bad things in my life,” Tan says, “but it’s all me, so I’ll keep it.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
On Oct. 18 at 7 p.m., Amy Tan will be in conversation with Deborah Tannen at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, in a program in partnership with Politics and Prose and the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center at George Mason University.