A life stranger than fiction
First Amy Tan's grandmother committed suicide, then her mother tried to murder her. The author tells Helena de Bertodano why her memoirs are more lurid than her novels
At the age of 16, Amy Tan thought she was going to be murdered - by her own mother. In her new book, The Opposite of Fate, Tan describes what happened after a ferocious argument with her over Tan's new boyfriend. "[My mother] slammed the door shut, latched it, then locked it with a key. I saw the flash of a meat cleaver just before she pushed me to the wall and brought the blade's edge to within an inch of my throat. Her eyes were like a wild animal's, shiny, fixated on the kill. . . She pressed the blade closer and I could feel her breath gusting."
Amy Tan's family background is colourful, to say the least, and Tan has drawn heavily on her mother's and grandmother's past in writing her fiction, particularly in The Joy Luck Club - which stayed in the bestseller lists for nearly a year and was made into a successful Hollywood film - and The Kitchen God's Wife. But this is the first time she has written autobiographically.
"It is not a conventional autobiography," says Tan when we meet at her loft apartment in SoHo, New York, "but more a collection of meditations on my life." Reading it, one discovers that she is living proof of the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. Tan says she had contemplated turning certain aspects of her life into a novel but decided it wouldn't work. "It was just so ridiculous in many ways that it seemed improbable as fiction. It had to be written as autobiography."
Tan, 51, speaks in a soft voice with a West-Coast American accent. She grew up in California and now divides her time between San Francisco and New York. She has an engaging giggle and is far more friendly than she sounds in her book, in which she rails against people who call her an author, "a word as chilling as rigor mortis" (Tan prefers to be known as a writer), and has a chapter entitled Persona Errata, listing all the mistakes people make about her life.
She is wearing a long black Issey Miyake robe, a blue-and-green panelled floor-length skirt and flat black pumps with a blue silk purse around her neck. Her black hair hangs straight past her shoulders. She perches on a small chair covered in jade green and mustard yellow velvet, but does not remain still for an instant. Her graceful hands, the nails painted a rose-gold colour, are constantly gesticulating or stroking the tiny Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lilliput, that jump up on to her knees.
Photographs of her dogs crowd the mantelpiece and there is one of a smiling white-bearded man I assume to be her husband, Lou DeMattei, a tax accountant, whom she married in 1974 at the age of 22.
Tan blends perfectly into her apartment, which is the antithesis of the usual minimalism expected of SoHo lofts. It could scarcely look more exotic. Temple pillar rugs hang from the walls, Miao textiles are draped everywhere, a bed is enclosed in a tent made from French antique textiles with a Moroccan bedspread thrown over it. Silk flowers fill vases and a tree spreads its branches over a grand piano. A huge television screen, which takes up most of one wall, has crimson brocade curtains hanging over it, creating the illusion of a stage.
Tan works in a small office, its walls painted rose, with Chinese prayer sheets overhanging the entrance. Underneath the 19th-century Chinese desk is a leopard-print dog basket. Learned tomes, such as Ritual Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript, are interspersed with more mundane books, such as First Aid for Dogs and Cats. She does some of her writing here, although most is done in San Francisco, where she has her main home.
I ask her whether it was difficult to write about such personal issues. "When I write I try not to think of the reader. I think of my reader as a very intimate part of me and my mother and my editor and not really a stranger or critic. I haven't written anything that shameful. I mean, I haven't written sex scenes of my life." She chuckles at the thought.
Still, it must have been hard writing about the time her mother threatened to kill her. "Yes," she says, her eyes misting over.
In that vividly depicted scene, Amy was pinned against the wall for 20 minutes, the blade pressed to her throat. Eventually she broke down and cried, pleading: "I want to live, I want to live." Her mother took the meat cleaver away from her throat and neither of them mentioned the incident again, until just before her mother died two years ago.
In her new book, Tan recounts that one day her mother, in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, telephoned her. "She spoke frantically. 'I know I did something to hurt you . . . I did terrible things. But now I can't remember what . . . And I just want to tell you . . . I hope you can forget, just as I've forgotten.' I tried to laugh so she would not notice the cracks in my voice. 'Really, don't worry.' "
"Hearing that was so healing," says Tan now. "Everything unspoken was just instantly healed." Now she has great sympathy for her mother's behaviour. She had moved to Switzerland with Amy and her younger brother following the deaths of Amy's father and older brother, who both died of brain tumours within months of each other. "Who wouldn't crack? A son and a husband had died seven months apart. You're in a strange country with no support system, you don't speak the language, your kids are out of control, it seems like you're cursed anyway. Instead of seeing your daughter ruin her life and go off and become a drug addict and pregnant with a crazy man, why don't you just say it's time to end it? I could understand."
Tan herself does not have children, through choice. "It was a number of things. Number one is that I was afraid I would become the kind of mother who was similar to my mother: over-protective, worrying constantly . . . And part of it was just selfishness. I wanted my own career. My mother had raised me to think it was very important for me to be self-sufficient, that if ever the marriage wasn't working I had absolute freedom to just leave. We talked about having children and I said [to my husband], 'If you're willing to be the primary care-taker, then I'd be willing to have a child.' But neither of us really wanted to take on that role."
In the past she has said her novels are her offspring. "What's in me that I have wanted to pass on is already in the books." Although novels, they are based on the lives of her Chinese forebears, particularly that of her grandmother, who was raped, forced into concubinage and, after giving birth to a son, committed suicide by swallowing raw opium buried in rice cakes. Her daughter - Amy's mother, Daisy - was nine at the time and watched her mother die. It left Daisy with suicidal urges that lasted all her life.
"The trauma was passed from one mother to her daughter and to the next generation," says Tan. "My grandmother killed herself, my mother was suicidal and passed on this sense of despair to me."
At the age of six, Amy herself tried to slash her wrists, but says she has never felt suicidal since. "Legacies can be fateful unless you're aware of how that stream has maintained itself. By understanding that sense of fate and writing about it, I feel that I have broken it. I feel I am conversing with my grandmother, who of course I never met. By looking at why she did this and her sense of both anger and despair in not having a voice, I'm saying to her: we have a voice now, we can give voice to this."
Did she feel a responsibility towards her? "I do, I do. I'm being a witness for her."
She also feels a responsibility towards her mother, to whom she was very close, despite the volatility of their relationship. Her mother asked Tan to write her story, a task she undertook - in a veiled fashion - in The Kitchen God's Wife. "It was very true to my mother's life and it was very special to me that she gave me her story and permission to write it, and then, in my writing of it, I was able to give it back to her."
Tan found out as a teenager that her mother had been married before, to an abusive husband with whom she had five children, two of whom died. Daisy had run away, blaming her husband for the deaths. Three daughters, aged between four and 11, survived but her husband refused to let her see them. So Daisy left China five days before the revolution and went to California, where she married John Tan, an electrical engineer (and later a Baptist minister) originally from Beijing. The couple had three children, including Amy, who found out about her older half-sisters during another ugly argument with her mother.
"When I heard about them, I felt threatened, because I thought my mother was saying, 'You could be replaced. In fact I've got three of them waiting right there in the wings and they speak Chinese and they love to obey me' . . . And I also thought if she left this family, she could leave us." Amy met her half-sisters for the first time in 1987 on a visit to China with her mother, who had not seen them for three decades. "They were, in her mind, old ladies by then." Tan became friends with her sisters, two of whom subsequently came to live in America.
Her mother died a couple of years ago and I ask Tan how her life has changed since then. "It's funny: it hasn't really changed all that much. I often feel she's here. There are times when I have these funny little moments. I'll say 'What am I forgetting?' I need to bring something but I can't remember what it is. It will just fall in front of me, like, 'Oh, my medicines, right, thanks Mum.' "
Throughout her life, Tan has been a magnet for extraordinary events and near-disasters. "I accumulated, as others might Hummel figurines, a variety of accidents, assaults and acts of God," she recounts in The Opposite of Fate.
Just to select a few: she has been in two car crashes, robbed at gunpoint, nearly raped, almost drowned, asked to identify the body of her best friend and flatmate who was tortured and murdered by intruders (by chance Tan was away from the flat that night), threatened with death by stalkers and almost swept away in a mudslide. "For a while, I did think I was terribly unlucky, but when I considered it, I thought 'How many people could have gone through all these bad things and not ever have anything that serious happen to them?' I must be incredibly lucky."
Yet when she fell ill a couple of years ago, suffering from hallucinations and fatigue, doctors told her she had post-traumatic stress disorder. "They thought it was probably a natural outcome of this very eventful life that I had had."
In fact - in yet another stroke of misfortune - she had Lyme Disease, an illness started by the bite of a deer tick, which causes neurological damage. For months she was unable to write, but is slowly recovering.
Tan has started to write again and is over half-way through her next novel, to be published next year. I ask if she feels she would ever have become a writer if she had led a normal life. "I think that an eventful life in traumatic ways as a child or teenager makes you examine life a little differently. Beyond asking, 'Why is the sky blue?', you're asking 'Why is this person my mother?' You're an alienated figure in your own life; like Jane Eyre, you're misunderstood, you're on a journey to find out who the real you is supposed to be."
Has she found the real Amy Tan? "I have for the moment. The real me is very grateful and content and happy. I feel imbued with a lot of luck. With all my books, I will continue to find out who the real me is."
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan (Flamingo) is published on November 17.
Anniina Jokinen page
Academy of Achievement
Biographies O O O O
'The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings' by Amy Tan
Reviewed by David Guy
Sunday, November 2, 2003; Page BW04
OPPOSITE OF FATE: A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan. Putnam. 398 pp. $24.95
It would be easy for a writer to feel jealous of Amy Tan. After giving up reading for many years because her college curriculum was too male-dominated, she took up books again in 1985 (by female writers now), joined a writers' group and soon found an agent. On the basis of three stories she got a contract with a publisher, finished what she thought of as a book of stories but others saw as a novel -- The Joy Luck Club -- and it became a surprise bestseller.
Her subsequent books also hit the bestseller list and are studied in literature classes, and she sings in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock-and-roll band of rich and famous writers. Her career reads like a dream of success, and she's an accomplished name-dropper. (So great to hear about Stephen and Tabitha on the rock-and-roll tour.) Joy luck indeed.
Yet she clearly deserves it. Her definition of what makes a good story (for a volume of the Best American Short Stories that she edited) describes her own work quite well: "a distinctive voice that tells a story only that voice can tell." And as she describes what happens when her muse joins her, she reflects the feeling her work evokes in the reader. "Everything cracks open, the writing is freed, the language is full, resources are plentiful, ideas pour forth."
The Opposite of Fate is a collection of occasional pieces, but Tan is so personal a writer that it's as entertaining as a memoir. She has dealt with a great deal of difficult experience. Her mother, as a 9-year-old girl, watched her own mother commit suicide by eating opium, and for the rest of her life -- understandably -- was a depressive who sometimes attempted suicide, was often abusive to her daughter, and on one occasion held a knife to the girl's throat for 20 minutes, threatening to kill her.
One of her mother's ways of running from pain was to move, so that by the time Tan finished high school she had attended 11 schools. Her teenage brother and beloved father both, bizarrely, died of brain tumors within months of each other when Tan herself was a teenager. Tan's own life has included an astonishing number of mishaps, including an ongoing struggle with Lyme disease. At the end of the day, good and bad luck probably balance out in her life. The bad may even outweigh the good.
Tan's mother haunts these pages, haunts all her work. She is a larger-than-life figure, hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and the real appeal of Tan's work is her deep exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, which transcends her background and becomes universal.
In her odd Chinese English, Tan's mother expressed herself quite forcefully. Probably the best-known essay in this volume is "Mother Tongue," about how her English was both "broken" and extremely expressive. While other mothers told their children not to run out in the street, Amy's mother said, "You don't look, you get smash flat like sand dab." It doesn't seem an exaggeration to say that Amy inherited her use of language from her mother -- not the syntax, obviously, but the directness and simplicity and vivid metaphors.
In this volume, for the first time, I felt uneasy about my reactions to this woman, as if I were laughing at my Chinese waitress for the way she speaks or at the eccentricities of someone who was extremely depressed. That kind of ambivalence is at the heart of Tan's work, which is comic and heart-wrenching at the same time. And depression runs through the female side of this family, seems to afflict Chinese women disproportionately. Tan reports the astonishing statistic that one-third of deaths among rural women in China are suicides.
But Tan has overcome that background, overcome it, as she herself says, by writing. She has taken that difficult reality and written stories that make it palatable. If, along the way, she has become a remarkable success, we'll forgive her. I was even ready to forgive the rock-and-roll band when she explained what it had done for her: "I simply wanted to have fun." (She deserves some after all she's been through.) "And I finally learned how." •
David Guy is the author of "The Autobiography of My Body" and "The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex."
Friday, October 31, 2003, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
Tan's musings blend dark and light, past and present
By Tyrone Beason
In Amy Tan's first book of nonfiction, "The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings" (Putnam, $24.95), the author explores how ideas about divine faith, dispassionate fate and personal determination have shaped her life and work. Has her literary success — four novels, two children's books, film deals — been the result of luck, destiny or will? Probably all three.
Regardless, her fans should consider themselves fortunate to receive such a funny, insightful and frequently strange literary self-portrait.
The subtitle, "A Book of Musings," certainly captures the casual tone and seemingly random nature of the short essays, literary self-quotations, quirky asides and autobiographical accounts she has sewn together.
The result is a patchwork memoir, a chronicle of Tan's fears and delusions, inner journeys and real-world struggles, roots of grief and sources of inspiration. She calls it the "emotional truth" of her life.
As Tan often says in the book and in interviews, she was raised in parallel worlds — one a typical Chinese-American childhood, the other a universe of symbols, superstitions, ghosts and magic.
Danger lurked behind every decision in that darker world. Tan's mother, who presided over this place, often threatened to commit suicide rather than see her young daughter make bad choices. Other times, she recommended suicide as motherly advice.
"Never let boy kiss you," Tan remembers her saying. "You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kiss yourself."
Mother and daughter cultivated a complex relationship, to say the least. This almost mystical bond forms the core of several entries in "The Opposite of Fate."
Tan, who rose to literary prominence with her first novel, 1990's "The Joy Luck Club," is a pro at interlocking the comic with the tragic.
The new book makes clear that this is a woman who has quite a few more lives than nine, each life spared by some bizarre coincidence or (who knows?) fate.
But even though Tan the woman has often felt like a prisoner of fate, Tan the novelist also embraces the notion that anything is possible with a bit of imagination and individual willpower.
This has never been more true than now, as Tan battles the brain-crippling effects of Lyme disease.
Still, throughout most of "The Opposite of Fate," Tan pokes fun at herself and her life. Her humility, combined with a fair amount of astonishment over her success, make the author's odd world seem accessible.
Actually, Tan prefers the word "writer" when describing herself.
In one of the early shorts in "The Opposite of Fate," Tan recalls discovering that "The Joy Luck Club" had been adapted into CliffsNotes, right up there with very dead authors like James Joyce and William Shakespeare.
Terrifying as this fact was, even more mortifying was CliffsNotes' analysis of her novel. Tan didn't plan for her story to be as feminist or profound as people seem to think.
Later on, Tan recalls reading a masters' thesis on feminist writers that harps on the author's many symbolic uses of the number "four" in "The Joy Luck Club."
"I'm not that smart," Tan confesses. In fact, now that all the fours had been brought to her attention, Tan considered their overuse a flaw.
When Tan's not criticizing critiques of her work, telling bittersweet stories about her mom, or discussing her career, she's happily shooting the breeze.
"The Opposite of Fate" explains, for instance, how some of Tan's most closely held childhood fantasies came true: When Tan was named one of Esquire magazine's "Women We Love," she could not suppress a sense of vindication, aimed at all the high-school boys who never asked her out.
As with her novels, Tan's nonfiction effortlessly blends dark and light, past and present, logical and magical.
So what is the opposite of fate? Tan's deeply moving book suggests that it's not just blind luck.
What's safe to say
Claire Messud reviews The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
As a novelist, Amy Tan has a large and devoted following; and although none of her subsequent novels has garnered the acclaim and adulation of her first, The Joy Luck Club (1990), she has none the less – as she reminds her readers several times in her new book – been canonised. Her works are required reading in American schools and universities; they are handily summarised by Cliff Notes, the august American crammer's aid; she is the recipient of honorary doctorates and the deliverer of umpteen speeches, at least one of which is included here. Tan refers to herself several times as a "literary writer'', but she is that rare phenomenon, a writer whose success has earned her a place in the broader culture: televised, filmed, interviewed, reported on, she is, insofar as any literary figure in America can be, a celebrity.
As such, she has clearly felt it time to collect her diverse musings – upon fate and faith, upon Asian-American writing, upon mother-daughter relationships, upon how to write and how to live – into a volume readily accessible to her fans. The book promises a "remarkably candid insight into her life", and speaks of a "journey" upon which the reader will be led; but its billing as memoir is rather misleading. It is true that a number of dramatic and highly personal events in Tan's life are recorded here; and that the pieces assembled provide, ultimately, a palimpsest which resembles a biographical outline. But The Opposite of Fate is in no sense a premeditated autobiographical narrative: it is, rather, a collection of previously published journalistic articles and lectures of various lengths and of widely varying merits, a sort of non-fiction scrapbook punctuated by family snaps from the Tan album.
Certainly, the personal facts upon which Tan's reflections build are forceful and intriguing. Her mother's and her grandmother's extraordinary lives, the inspiration for much of her fiction, are here recounted; and the tangled, intense relationship between Tan and her mother, documented at various stages and in various guises, offers a fascinating psychological portrait, not least in comparison to the mother-daughter relationships that suffuse her fiction.
The details of Tan's own history make for some of the book's most affecting reading: she suffered the loss, within a single year of her adolescence, of both her father and a brother to brain tumours. Her mother then uprooted Amy and her other brother, on a whim, to Montreux, Switzerland, for no other reason than to escape the lurking grief at home; and once there, Amy took up with a wildly unsuitable beau, with whom she had amusing adventures. Married in her early twenties (Lou, her partner of 30-odd years, is an oblique but clearly vital presence in this book), Tan and her new husband suffered the brutal murder of their roommate, one of their closest friends. She tells of her own near-death experiences; of the loss of other friends, and of her beloved mother; and of her more recent struggles with a debilitating and long-undiagnosed ailment which proved to be Lyme disease.
Had Tan undertaken to write a memoir, these elements would surely have been sufficient to make it a moving and potentially significant work. As it stands, however, such details are merely the starting points for Tan's worldly reflections, and it is upon her thoughts that this book as a whole depends. With the exception of a single, heated essay entitled "Required reading and other dangerous subjects", decrying the compartmentalisation of literary studies into ethnic and other interest groups, Tan refrains from strong opinions or meticulously articulated thoughts. Rather, she offers fuzzy tidbits (on her belief in amulets, and in ghosts, for example) or overly familiar homilies ("Those are the five writing tips: Avoid clichés, avoid generalisations, find your own voice, show compassion, and ask the important questions. I hope that you find them useful, if not for writing the next Great American Novel, then for thinking about your life and the world around you"), or observations remarkable only in their impressive banality. For example, of a wonderful old photograph of her mother and grandmother, Tan comments: "I look at that photo often, and it's safe to guess that my grandmother never envisioned that she would one day have a granddaughter who lives in a house she co-owns with a husband she loves, and a dog and a cat she spoils (no children by choice, not bad luck), and that this granddaughter would have her own money to be able to shop… because she makes her own living, doing what is important to her…" Yes, indeed, it's safe to say that Tan's grandmother never did envision her granddaughter's life thus; it's so very safe to say, that it barely merits the saying.
That Tan is no intellectual is of no importance; but that her thoughts are of no apparent interest proves rather more problematic. This limitation may be irrelevant to her fiction – indeed, it could be said to account, in part, for its success – but it is detrimental to her essays, if such they can be called. All memoir is, to some degree, fiction, and the events of Tan's past might have been as gripping as the novels she has fashioned of her maternal ancestors' lives; but as they are laid out here, they are diluted, even lost, in the haphazard service of something less memorable, a collection which feels, indeed, like the opposite of fate.
What the memory box holds
Jane Shilling reviews The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
Amy Tan, as many British readers will know, is an American writer whose Chinese parents travelled to the United States as immigrants. She is the author of four enchanting novels, the first of which - The Joy Luck Club - was turned into a feature film. And that, on this side of the Atlantic, is pretty much where our knowledge of her runs out.
In the States, however, Tan occupies an interesting public position. She has become, while still living, part of the literary canon: her work is taught in school and college classes. She is the subject of a set of crib notes for students, known as CliffsNotes. Her fame, moreover, is not entirely literary or academic. It trembles on the border of mainstream celebrity.
Internet websites exist to publish information about her, not all of it entirely accurate. She dresses up as a dominatrix to perform with a bunch of other writers, including Stephen King, in a rock 'n' roll band called The Rock Bottom Remainders. She was offered the opportunity to be a judge in the Miss Universe contest and to pose for a Gap ad - but said no. She has appeared as a character in an episode of The Simpsons. And so on.
All this information comes from Tan's new book, a work of non-fiction described by its author as "musings on my life". It is not a memoir, but a collection of fragments: autobiographical writings, journalism, speeches, even an email sent to friends. A prefatory note thanks "Sandy Dijkstra and Carole Baron for suggesting the book when it seemed impossible for me to write another sentence". Two years ago Tan fell ill with an inexplicable malaise, which grew steadily worse for 18 months, with confusion, hallucinations and physical symptoms that undermined her ability to write, before it was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease.
The product of that misfortune is a book that is at once delightful and rather ghostly: a literary memory box containing all sorts of tantalising odds and ends.
Tan's themes are those of memory and identity. She writes about feeling not quite American and not quite Chinese. She writes with bracing clarity about the appalling tragedies - suicide, fatal illness, accident, loss - that beset every generation of her family. She writes briskly about film-making, gushingly about being in a rock band, tartly about the misconceptions that readers harbour of writers, coolly about being in a near-fatal landslip, defiantly about interior decoration. Most often and most tenderly she writes about her difficult, angry, remarkable mother whose presence, even when Tan is not writing directly about her, haunts these pages like a furious but fascinating wraith.
The quality of the fragments assembled here is variable: one or two seem too fragile to bear the weight of reprinting. Sometimes the pieces overlap to give a dizzy sensation of deja vu; occasionally one feels inclined to mourn the full-scale memoir that Tan might have produced if she had not been ill.
But the regretting of unwritten books is a peculiarly hollow exercise. Besides, this collage or mosaic of bright shards has an immediacy and freshness of spirit that might have vanished from something more highly wrought.
Jane Shilling is writing a book on hunting, to be published by Penguin.
By DEBORAH MASON
THE OPPOSITE OF FATE
A Book of Musings.
By Amy Tan.
398 pp. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $24.95
Amy Tan turned Ouija-board thug at 15, sabotaging its responses in order to advance her own interests. Her mother had begun pleading with the board for advice after Tan's father died: ''Amy treat me so bad. . . . What I should do -- send her Taiwan, school for bad girls?'' The Ouija board clearly had strong feelings on the subject. ''The planchette deftly scooted to the correct answer: No,'' drastically altering the fate of this dexterous daughter.
The creative rewriting of their destinies is the trademark of many of Tan's characters in ''The Joy Luck Club'' and the three novels that followed. Now, in her first collection of essays, Tan reports on her own very American negotiations with the contract of Chinese fate -- from hammering out a detente with a depressive mother hellbent on raising an obedient daughter to, most recently, bucking the doctors who for years dismissed Tan's distressing neurological symptoms of advanced Lyme disease.
Many of the essays in ''The Opposite of Fate'' are sharp and invigorating, like ''Mother Tongue,'' Tan's defense of the fierce, primal authority of her mother's ''broken'' English. Some are slight and a bit precious (her paean to singing with a rock band of writers). Others are droll self-snapshots: copping, for example, to a home armed with Chinese ''good luck charms . . . strategically placed mirrors, and heaven forgive me, New Age crystals.'' But it is Tan's excursions into past lives -- her family's and her own -- that make for the most fertile reading.
In ''The CliffsNotes Version of My Life,'' she recounts a Northern California childhood pinned between two clashing ideologies: the God-will-provide-for-you faith of her Baptist minister father and the dictatorship of fate that ruled her mother. As a child, Tan was trained to appease two kinds of ghosts. Her father's Holy Ghost, she was told, ''sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.'' Her mother's old-country ghosts chose to stay in hiding. ''Yet they were there,'' Tan writes. ''I could sense them. My mother told me I could.''
In these essays, most of which have appeared in national magazines, the motherland is less a geographical place than an alternative universe of fraught symbiosis, love and, for years, emotional captivity. It is ''a world,'' Tan writes, ''in which the mother . . . can make the girl see yin when it is yang. The girl sees that her mother, who is her ally, is also her adversary.'' As a result, Tan says, her childhood was shadowed by a ''sense of double jeopardy; realizing that my mother could both help me and hurt me, in the best and worst ways possible.''
When Tan began to date, her mother offered this hardly reassuring advice: ''Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.'' In truth, it was Tan's mother, Daisy, who wanted to kill herself, threatening to do so ''sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, whenever she was displeased with me or my father or my brothers, whenever she felt slighted by her friends, whenever the milk spilled or the rice burned.'' What Tan didn't learn for decades was that horrific memories stalked her mother daily. Daisy Tan's own mother, the young widow of a vice magistrate in China, had been raped by a rich man and forced to become his concubine. The shamed widow killed herself by swallowing a large dose of raw opium as her 9-year-old daughter looked on. Later in her life, when being tested for Alzheimer's disease, Daisy growled: ''Nothing wrong my memory. Depress 'cause can not forget.''
The cunning willfulness of memory is a powerful refrain in this book. Tan considers how she, like her mother, became frozen in one frame of time, a slave to her own punishing recollections. In ''Scent,'' she relates how one whiff of a gardenia would plunge her into the ''unbearable grief'' of the year in her midteens when the living room was twice filled with funeral sprays after both her father and brother died of brain tumors. Now, she says, she is submerging those black memories into others of ''an earlier time, of happy expectations,'' when the scent of a gardenia meant ''prom nights and first kisses.''
In describing how we edit and manipulate memory, Tan produces some of her strongest essays. ''Confessions'' recalls a violent standoff with her mother over Tan's first real boyfriend, a mangy deserter from the German Army, that ended with Tan's mother holding a meat cleaver to her daughter's neck. Having repressed the memory for 25 years, Tan suddenly remembers it and, with the older woman failing, nervously brings it up. ''Angry? Slap you?'' her mother laughs. ''No, no, no. You always good girl, never even need to spank, not even one time.'' ''How wonderful to hear her say what was never true,'' Tan remarks, ''yet now would be forever so.''
Tan's novels swim with memories transfigured by the pulse of her imagination -- the sorcery of writing fiction that she says many academics ignore. Instead, they rope off her books under ''multicultural literature,'' scan them for sociology lessons and -- this really ticks her off -- imbue her with ''ethnic authority.'' ''Contrary to what some . . . assume,'' she snaps back in the riveting essay ''Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects,'' ''I am not an expert on China, Chinese culture, mah-jongg . . . racial tension, Tiananmen Square . . . Pacific Rim economics . . . or, I am sorry to say, Chinese cooking.'' The label she most prefers? ''American writer.''
In Tan's case, ''American writer'' also entails the odd life of a literary celebrity. Some of these essays reveal how she relishes it; others spill out its less comfortable aspects: the Web fanzines that get their facts all wrong; the notes pressed into her hand at book signings by would-be collaborators. One read: ''Father hanged, mother murdered, uncle shot, baby son drowned, wife insane, me, almost died twice, all horrible ways. Want to write about me? Call me. Let's talk.''
In the end, these essays ask, what does it take to construct and balance a life? For Tan, it requires engaging fate, ''both blind and blessed,'' with aggressive creativity and ducking from time to time into the big tent of fate's ''alternatives'': ''choice, chance, luck, faith, forgiveness, forgetting . . . the balm of love, a sturdy attitude . . . trolling for miracles, a plea to others to throw a lifeline'' -- the whole shebang anchored by stubborn hope.
Deborah Mason is a writer and critic who lives in New York.
Death as a
source of life
Amy Tan's collection of essays, The Opposite of Fate, is a mixed bag. She is at her best when she's her most trenchant, says Liz Hoggard
Sunday November 23, 2003
The Opposite of
by Amy Tan
Flamingo £15.99, pp389
When Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club, came out in 1989, it founded a new genre of mother-daughter fiction by native and ethnic Chinese writers. Since then, the Chinese-American memoir has become a literary cliché. At book signings, fans press their life stories into Tan's hands. 'A man slipped me a scrap of paper which I at first mistook to be a dadaist poem: "Father hanged, mother murdered, uncle shot, baby son drowned, wife insane, me, almost died twice, all horrible ways. Want to write about me? Call me. Let's talk".'
You can see the problem. People persist in seeing Tan's novels as documentary. Many elements are autobiographical - the tensions of familial bonds between women, the death of a 14-year-old brother and father from brain tumours, a grandmother who committed suicide by eating opium, a mother diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But what's interesting is how Tan transforms this material into fiction.
Made up of essays written over the past 10 years, The Opposite of Fate is a mixed bag. At times, the breezy, homespun pieces (for Elle Déco, Ladies' Home Journal ) sit oddly with Tan's harrowing first-person testimony. I'll never forget her account of the murder of her best friend, Peter (which he saw in a dream before he died).
Burglars broke into his flat and lashed ropes around his neck and ankles, so he slowly strangled. Thirty years on, Tan is still haunted by the image of his violated body. It changed her life: she gave up a PhD in linguistics, began working with disabled children (Peter's own vocation) and started writing stories.
Where Tan excels is in her evocation of the first-generation Chinese-American family - with all its cross-cultural tensions and linguistic muddles. She is especially good on the 'many Englishes' her family speak and scathing of our belief that the Chinese are inherently modest and polite. Because they have no words for 'yes' or 'no' doesn't mean the Chinese don't drive a hard bargain.
The book offers insight into the writing of The Joy Luck Club (Tan turned a book of 17 short stories into the episodic bestseller) and how Wayne Wang translated the novel into a hit Disney film. But I, for one, could have done without tiresome chapters on squirrel watching at Tan's countryside condo and her role as a dominatrix in Stephen King's rock band.
Tan is best when she's at her most trenchant. In a hilarious piece, she sets to right all the mistakes made by journalists (yes, she is still married to her first husband; no, she has never won the Pulitzer Prize). 'Inaccuracy I fear has become epidemic among publications whose writers rely on the internet for research,' Tan warns. I haven't stopped blushing.
Best of all is
her analysis of the inherent racism of the literary canon. She may be one of the
US's best-loved authors (even immortalised as a slightly worrying yellow-faced
cartoon on The Simpsons), but why, Tan asks, is she always portrayed as an
ethnic writer, a minority writer, a writer of colour - never as an American
writer? She deserves
explores the interweaving of fate, fact and fiction Tan takes a look at her
Reviewed by Clea Simon
Sunday, December 7, 2003
The Opposite of Fate
A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
PUTNAM; 398 PAGES; $24.95
Amy Tan has built a career exploring mother-daughter relationships, particularly the tensions between a Chinese immigrant and her American-born children. Because Tan is Asian American and has continued to revisit these themes in her fiction, her fans have made the easy assumption that she writes from experience. These fans, she notes in her new collection of essays, "The Opposite of Fate," often take for granted that she has lifted fiction directly out of fact, going so far as to congratulate her on her chess mastery (she doesn't play chess) or asking after the children that her apparently fictional stand-ins enjoy (and she doesn't have children).
But while the author does acknowledge that art grows from life, it is how it changes on the journey into fiction that makes the telling worthwhile. In her first collection of nonfiction writings (some of which have been previously published), Tan explores that passage, particularly from the bosom of her traditional family, with their overriding belief in fate, to the self- determined and often hard-won success she enjoys today.
"The Opposite of Fate," a breezy, readable book, is more an accompaniment to Tan's novels than a stand-alone book. Many anecdotes serve as correctives, providing the "real story" behind the fiction. We learn the details of Tan's difficult relationship with her own mother, a suicidally depressed woman who stressed the looming presence of a malignant fate (one typical motherly injunction ran: "Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill yourself."), and how the fictional Lu Ling's struggle with Alzheimer's in "The Bonesetter's Daughter" grew from Tan's own experience with her mother's final years.
Tan employs light humor, as when she clarifies her "relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime. " "Could this possibly be describing my Franz?" she asks, before explaining a mostly harmless teen relationship of the sort most notable for the reaction it provoked in one's mother.
Tan's family life has been full of drama, which she unfolds in vignettes and reminiscences here that, while overlapping and occasionally repetitive, bring a cumulative emotional weight to bear. Her maternal grandmother killed herself with an overdose of opium to escape forced concubinage, and her mother fled an abusive marriage, abandoning children in China when she ran off to San Francisco, where Tan's father awaited. Both that father and one of Tan's brothers were killed by brain tumors, a double loss that launched Tan's mother into a move to Europe with her remaining children in an unsettled quest for peace. The murder of a good friend, in a house Tan and her husband shared, continued that sense of doom. All this makes for intriguing stories, although it will be Tan's readers who will be most interested to learn how these mounting tragedies become transformed into the warm-hearted survival stories of her novels.
That transformation, Tan suggests, rests somewhere in the journey between the old world and the new, between her mother's traditional sense of fate and her own American sense of self-determination. "I was raised to have a morbid imagination," writes Tan, dismissing the role of fate. But as these essays play out, the truly fateful elements that helped steer her life become clear. There was the psychiatrist, for example, who kept falling asleep on her, a disappointment that moved Tan toward writing fiction. There were a few benevolent outsiders, such as her late editor Faith Sale, who nurtured Tan's talent. And supporting her through it all was her family's unshakeable pride.
There are also several essays here, toward the end of "The Opposite of Fate," in which Tan celebrates her views. Her refusal to be classified into an Asian American literary ghetto, for example, is proudly argued, as is her defense for both her mother's native language and the bilingual patois she grew up with. But it's in the closing piece, a rather odd narrative about her battle with Lyme disease, that Tan reveals her final ambivalence toward fate: Determined not to be dismissed as a hypochondriac, she marshals her own diagnosis and treatment. "As a storyteller," she concludes, "I know that if I don't like the ending, I can write a better one." In real life, however, that can be a struggle.
Clea Simon is the author of "The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats."
The Opposite of Fate:
A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
Putnam, 398 pp., illustrated, $24.95
"Tell all the truth," Emily Dickinson advised a century and a half ago, "but tell it slant." Fiction writers do this automatically -- it could serve as a capsule definition of the genre; writers of nonfiction have a tougher row to hoe.
In her fifth book, Amy Tan, author of four deservedly acclaimed novels including "The Joy Luck Club," crosses over from fiction to nonfiction.
The title, "The Opposite of Fate," sketches a thematic center for the book; its subtitle, "A Book of Musings," suggests a series of essays proceeding from, or at least circling around, and ultimately illuminating this theme. This double-barreled title seems to offer a latter-day feminine Marcus Aurelius -- orderly, top-down, a purveyor of emotion recollected in tranquility. It fails utterly to capture the true nature of this book.
"The Opposite of Fate" is in fact a miscellany. Among the pieces included are articles previously published in venues ranging from a scholarly book on linguistics to Ski Magazine. Besides these, there are obituaries, speeches, a panel discussion, journal entries, a college commencement address, faxes, e-mails, and family photographs. Their production spans not merely the writer's career, but her writing lifetime: one of the essays, "What the Library Means to Me," appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat when Tan was 8 years old. This carpetbag structure has both plusses and minuses.
On one hand, it affords a rich, cumulative picture of the author's interior world.
Because the pieces included in "The Opposite of Fate" range over four decades, they make us privy to Tan's changing view of her own ancestry, of China, of her redoubtable mother. What's fascinating is to watch not only a life but a consciousness unfold and grow. Because the various pieces in the book aren't presented in chronological order, the effect is like a kaleidoscope: same bits, different patterns. It's up to the reader to maintain an ongoing thread, much as one tracks one's own progress toward insight, backing and filling, considering and reconsidering.
Because the individual pieces have been allowed to stand as originally written, the picture they give of their author is immediate and deeply personal. We see Tan in illness, fear, exhaustion, grief. We see -- more vividly, we hear -- the people who've shaped her life from earliest childhood. Here is Tan's mother on how to cross the street: "You don't look, you get smash flat like sand dab"; on how to behave on a date: "Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself." And writers will love Tan's acerbic lowdown on the lit biz: reviews and reviewers, book tours, comments from readers, the lot.
And the minuses? Essentially, "The Opposite of Fate" has the defects of its virtues. Its hyperinclusive approach threatens to overwhelm the reader with a cascade of unsorted detail, like a hearing aid that amplifies all sounds equally. What weight are we to give the decor of Tan's San Francisco home? It receives more space than the deaths of her father and brother, within a short time, from the same cause, inoperable brain tumors. In addition to architectural inequities, the literary quality of the book is uneven. An essay composed at the age of 8 will naturally not stand up well next to the work of a writer several decades further along; but other pieces, too, like the prose poem to her husband, "How We Knew," disappoint.
The editorial decision to let these pieces stand without any attempt at dovetailing inevitably entails a good deal of repetition. (By the time we're halfway through the book we've been told seven times that the author's maternal grandmother committed suicide by swallowing raw opium.)
Some pieces recap, often less effectively, incidents or scenes already fully rendered in others; this is especially irksome when we encounter pale summaries of Tan's mother, whom we've already heard in her own pungent voice. "If I ran out into the street without looking both ways, I could be smashed by a car, flattened like a sand dab. . . . If I kissed a boy . . . I would wind up diseased and pregnant, as bloated as a rotten melon."
In the end, it's not enough to maintain, as the author does, that the pieces in this book are "linked by my fascination with fate, both blind and blessed, and its many alternatives: choice, chance, luck, faith, forgiveness, forgetting, freedom of expression, the pursuit of happiness, the balm of love, a sturdy attitude, a strong will, a bevy of good-luck charms, adherence to rituals, appeasement through prayer, trolling for miracles, a plea to others to throw a lifeline, and the generous provision of that by strangers and loved ones." Lists, by definition, do not unify.
Selecting and editing could have transmuted this cheek-by-jowl collection into a book with, as Tan herself puts it, "the weedy bits trimmed away . . . until the true seed could be found, then taken as the core." A true fiction writer, Tan moves most surely and vividly when she travels bottom-up. "What I draw from," she tells us, "is not a photographic memory but an emotional one. When I place that memory of feeling within a fictive home, it becomes imagination. Anything can happen." Tan's instinct is indeed to tell it slant. If only this book had given it shape as well as scope.
Ann Harleman is the author of a collection of short stories, "Happiness," and a novel, "Bitter Lake." She teaches writing at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The novelist tells (almost) all in her first nonfiction book
Contrary to rumors circulating on the Internet, Amy Tan never won the Nobel Prize. She never taught poetry at a university in West Virginia. She never worked in a factory, although she was a switchboard operator at her high school. She's never had a screaming fight with her publishers in a bookstore. To the best of her knowledge, she's had only one husband and they're still married.
Tan lays out the truth about her life and career in a new essay collection called "The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings." It's a highly personal work. It gives insight into the heart and mind of an author whose novels speak of mothers and daughters and being Chinese in the United States.
The most prominent character in "The Opposite of Fate" is Tan's own mother. A number of the essays chronicle Tan's attempts to come to terms with the woman who scolded and threatened and tried on more than one occasion to throw herself into moving traffic. Tan's defense against her mother ultimately turned out to be her own fiction. In the middle of a fight, Tan's mother once asked her "If I die, what will you remember?"
"The Joy Luck Club," with its dedication to her mother and her grandmother, was Tan's answer.
In "Mother Tongue," Tan describes the struggle of language itself, growing up with a mother whose English could be best described as "limited" or "broken." That broken English was also the language of the home, of intimacy and family. In the end, Tan demonstrates how expressive it really is.
"The Opposite of Fate" offers unique insights into Tan's writing process. "The Ghosts of My Imagination" addresses the age-old question: where do you get your inspiration? Tan charts the course of her novel "The Hundred Secret Senses," starting with a trip to China that gave her an eerie location, ending with research that seemed to fall into her lap. She shows how creative inspiration is inextricably linked to the stuff of day-to-day life. In "Inferior Decorating," she talks about the good-luck charms she has scattered throughout her home and study. "Why risk displeasing the gods (or God, the Buddha, and the muses)," she writes, "when a subtle sprinkling of good-luck charms and a few tasteful signs of respect can make heaven smile down on earth?"
Tan takes on political issues in an essay titled "Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects." She decries the practice of lumping "ethnic" writers together in book reviews and college courses and encourages the mainstream to become "a truly American literature, democratic in its inclusion of many colorful voices, men and women, gay and lesbian, of all ethnicities and races." She wants to be considered a storyteller, not an example.
Alternately humorous and dead serious, "The Opposite of Fate" is a portrait of a writer in midlife and midcareer. Tan has set her own record straight.
Katie Schneider recently reviewed "Lucky Girls" by Nell Freudenberger for The Oregonian.
A date with fate
Tan's memoir probes cosmic connections
INTERVIEW BY JAY MACDONALD
Amy Tan had fervidly hoped to publish her fifth novel this fall, but fate would not allow it. Tan, who exploded onto the world literary stage with The Joy Luck Club in 1989, had just returned from a four-month worldwide tour in June 2001 promoting her fourth best-selling novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, when she knew something was very, very wrong. She was plagued by insomnia and an overwhelming sense of dread. Her body shook from an internal vibration she came to refer to as "Dolby Digital Syndrome." She could not read, write or follow the thread of dinner conversations.
Doctors ultimately diagnosed and removed a tumor on her adrenal gland. Her Dolby buzz subsided, only to be replaced by full-blown hallucinations, once a week at first, eventually every day. Some days, she couldn't remember her own phone number or even her name.
That's when fate, or something like it, took an unlikely form: Madonna. In November 2002, Tan was scheduled to debut a new musical number, "Material Girl," with The Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-author rock band that includes Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Barry, among others. The Remainders previously had used Tan's limited vocal abilities to comedic effect on the Nancy Sinatra chestnut, "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'," with the diminutive Tan decked out in full dominatrix garb. In her new spotlight turn, she planned to one-up Madonna in the guise of a money-grubbing Enron wife.
After 13 hours of study, she could not remember even the first line of the song. Her band mates downplayed it—hey, everybody has their "half-heimers" episodes—and she eventually read her way through the number onstage.
"That was a really scary moment," she admits by phone from her San Francisco home. "I knew there was something desperately wrong with my brain right then, that realization that you know it's Alzheimer's or you're losing your mind or you're going to be a dimwit."
In fact, Tan had unknowingly contracted Lyme disease, the degenerative tick-born illness, three years earlier, shortly before her mother's death.
Its effects have been devastating on Tan's ability to distill her life experiences into the funny, moving portraits of mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese-American experience for which she is known worldwide. She has learned how to move her story ahead on the good days and resist tinkering with every sentence the way she still loves to do.
"What I feel I have to do now, when my mind is clear, is just get the story out, the continuity, because that's what I find very, very difficult on days when my brain is clogged, which comes from brain inflammation," she says. "I have a hard time with continuity, with segues and keeping pieces together. It feels like I have 12 pieces of fruit and vegetables being thrown in the air and trying to juggle them all. It's overwhelming."
When it was clear that no novel would be forthcoming this year, Tan's editor suggested publishing a collection of pieces she'd already written. To the author's surprise, a search turned up numerous essays, speeches and the like.
The problem was, Tan has a strong distaste for "hodge-podge collections" that have no unifying theme. But as fate would have it, she had just recently recognized the common thread running through her own work.
"It has to do with my upbringing with a father who very strongly believed in faith as a Baptist minister, and my mother, who very strongly believed in fate, and I'm trying to find things that work for me."
She proposed a collection based upon her lifelong search for a philosophical middle ground between faith and fate, to be called The Opposite of Fate. When her puzzled editor asked her what the opposite of fate might be, Tan cryptically replied, "Exactly!"
The Opposite of Fate captures a life fully lived in 32 chapters, from Tan's award-winning essay at age 8 to her unlikely adolescence in Switzerland (her first day on skis, she almost collided with the Queen of Sweden) to the ghost in her San Francisco condo who whistles the theme to Jeopardy to the filming of The Joy Luck Club and Tan's amusement at encountering the Cliff Notes edition of her first novel.
Pivotal in Tan's life and career were her mother, a complex, neurotic pessimist who believed in ghosts and spirits; her father and brother, who died within months of each other from brain tumors; the death of a close friend whose voice spoke to her for months after his murder, and the Remainders, who showed her how to boogie.
Tan calls The Opposite of Fate "a book of musings" rather than an actual memoir. That designation is a fair compromise to describe this loose and rambling autobiography that is weighted heavily toward the things that matter most to Tan.
"I've only had one life and these are the aspects of my life that I continue to dwell upon," she explains. "We as writers, when we talk about what our oeuvre is, we go back to the same questions and the same pivotal moments in our lives and they become the themes in our writing."
Tan doesn't blame her illness on fate, despite her mother's daily warnings of a curse on the family, but she does allow that such a curse did exist "because my mother strongly believed in it and she passed it on to my brother and me."
An equally strong belief in free will and self-determinism that she inherited from her father helped Tan "take that attitude of a curse into one of extreme good luck. I have been so incredibly lucky in life, beyond what I ever would have wished."
These days, Tan is wishing for more clear days. They will find her racing ahead with her uplifting stories of family foibles and the precarious yin-yang of the Chinese-American experience, or perhaps skiing down the gentle slopes of Squaw Valley and Vail.
This month, she plans to be back on stage with the Remainders in Austin, Texas, knee-high boots and leather whip at the ready, to show that Texas Book Fair crowd just what this literary dominatrix is made of.
Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Mississippi.
The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings
( Putnam )
`Fate' accompli: Amy Tan shares a lifetime of writings in her new book
Review by Rosemary Herbert
Friday, November 7, 2003
When teenaged Amy Tan would not break up with a drug-dealing boyfriend, her mother was so desperate she held a meat cleaver to her daughter's throat.
``She was on the brink,'' Tan said during an interview in Boston last week. ``She had just lost it. If I had said one thing wrong - `Do it! Just do it. I hate you.' - she might have killed me.''
Fortunately for her - and for millions of readers - the teenager gave in. ``I told her, `I want to live,' '' said Tan, who went on to write ``The Joy Luck Club,'' a bestseller about Chinese mothers and their first-generation American daughters, and other books.
Tan repressed the memory of her mother's fury for 25 years, but she reveals it now in her new book, ``The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings'' (Putnam, $24.95).
The new book is a collection of writings Tan penned throughout her life. The earliest piece, ``What the Library Means to Me,'' was written when she was just 8 years old. The most recent reveals the challenges 51-year-old Tan faces as a victim of Lyme disease.
Because it was not diagnosed until after it had progressed to her brain, Tan's case of Lyme disease has been especially debilitating. Before she was finally treated effectively, she said she experienced disorientation, disorganized thinking, ``paralysis of thought'' and some hallucinatory episodes.
The latter were particularly unsettling when she was away from home. Because she has been stalked, Tan needed to be alert to movements around her, especially when she was staying at hotels. What was real and what was an hallucination?
``For three years, I couldn't go out on my own,'' Tan said. But now she's able to go on a book tour accompanied by a pair of diminutive protectors. Two Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lily, are trained to scout out her hotel room on the calmly spoken command, ``Find bin Laden.''
Though Tan said she has no intention of becoming ``a poster geek for Lyme disease,'' she has earmarked speaker fees from this tour for the Lymeaid 4 Kids fund. She hopes her essay in the new book will help others who have the disease to find earlier and more effective treatment.
She also hopes the book will help humanize her in the eyes of fans who've put her on a pedestal. She writes about her mixed feelings on discovering she was the subject of a CliffNotes booklet, her frightening experience during a mudslide and her comical efforts at learning to sing with the literary rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders (band members included Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Barry among others).
Finally, Tan does not disappoint those who turn to this book for more about the mother-daughter bond. In writing about her mother succumbing to Alzheimer's disease, Tan tells how the older woman, who had lost the power to say more than two words at a time, suddenly ``spoke frantically: `I know I did something to hurt you ... I hope you can forget, just as I've forgotten.' ''
Tan told her mother not to worry.
``My mother died six months later,'' Tan writes. ``By then, she had bequeathed to me her most healing words. ... Together we knew in our hearts what we should remember, what we can forget.''
Rosemary Herbert is the Boston Herald's book review editor.
By Judith Long
November 9, 2003
THE OPPOSITE OF FATE: A Book of Musings, by Amy Tan. Putnam, 399 pp., $24.95.
'Fang pi bu-cho, cho pi bu-fang," Amy Tan's mother would admonish her whining daughter. "There's more power in silence." Tan used that line in her bestselling first book, "The Joy Luck Club" -- a mother teaches this art of "invisible strength" to her 6-year-old daughter, who later becomes a chess prodigy.
CliffsNotes, those purveyors of Significance and Symbol, declare Tan's "invisible strength" to mean "human will," "female power," "the power of foreigners." Huh? says Tan. "The strict linguist might want to note that the literal translation of that Chinese phrase runs along these noble lines: 'Loud farts don't smell; the really smelly ones are deadly silent.'"
Almost 300 pages on from this anecdote in the opening essay of Tan's first nonfiction book, "The Opposite of Fate," the phrase surfaces again, this time in a commencement address. Tan employs the "silent but deadly" concept to exhort the graduates to avoid the empty, the cliche -- hot air. "My mother's saying is a good quotation. You should use it often," she says with a wink.
Such overlap -- of phrases, people, events, themes -- is one of the joys of Tan's wide-ranging collection of casual pieces (the "musings" of the subtitle): journal entries, photos, an e-mail, a eulogy, on-the-fly "ruminations" of a half-page or 30, a prize-winning essay ("What the Library Means to Me") written at age 8, a love poem to her husband of more than 30 years, a speech written in a panic at 2 a.m. (later anthologized and -- the ultimate yes!, since Tan was a mediocre scorer -- used on the English SAT). Some appear here for the first time; others have run in such diverse publications as The New Yorker, Ski, Harper's and Elle Decor.
Taking the reader from old China to modern San Francisco, Hollywood, New York, Switzerland and back to new China, from the 19th century to the fall of the Trade Towers, from horror to humor and hope, Tan's musings, she discovered, are "linked by my fascination with fate ... and its many alternatives" and have an unintended side effect -- they explain her fiction. "I offer it here for fun," says Tan.
And fun it is. Readers of Tan's novels will enjoy frissons of recognition as they see how she has mined her own life for the small details and large themes of her books. In Tan's superb latest novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," Ruth loses her voice every Aug. 12; Tan lost hers every year on the anniversary of the murder of a close friend. As a child, Ruth, like the young Amy, uses a Ouija board to invent stock tips for her mother, who believes they come from ghosts. (Incidentally, Ma's modest portfolio did quite well.) Tan's grandmother (a widow in China who was forced to become a concubine and eventually killed herself) and her mother (who married "a very bad man" and fled to America, leaving behind three daughters and the grave of her baby son) appear in various guises in Tan's stories. Her computer, says Tan, has a "motherboard" and a "grandmotherboard" -- her personal ghostwriters.
Movie fans will rush to rent "The Joy Luck Club" after reading Tan's account of the filming, here and in China. Tan and her husband, her 4-year-old niece, Ma and her dapper 86-year-old boyfriend, and some real Joy Luck Club "aunties" are extras. "In striking contrast to the rest of the audience, my mother did not shed a tear," reports Tan, who feared the scenes from Ma's own life would upset her. "Pretty good," says Ma. "In real life, everything so much sadder. So this, already much better." Invisible strength.
But the book is hardly just about "poignant mother-daughter tales," as Tan ironically calls her fiction in one essay (only to reveal in another that she never knew she wrote about mothers and daughters until her first editor pointed it out). Tan also covers skiing, interior design, outwitting squirrels (actually, the squirrels win), a ghost exorcism (it works), her rescue from a flash flood, coping with illness and horrific untimely deaths and overcoming loss.
Tan tells of the pitfalls (the dreaded second novel) and joys ("my world of make-believe") of the writing life. And we get a hilarious tour (in spandex and sequins, then dominatrix attire) with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock and roll band she joined (also starring Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry and others) that plays the American Booksellers convention then goes on the road to wild acclaim from the bookish, and the not-so.
There's a riveting account -- I wished it were longer -- of a trip with her mother to visit relatives in Shanghai -- Ma in her element, Tan struggling to keep up. And there's a wry, imaginary meeting, in Montreux, Switzerland, between Amy, a flower-power teen with a boom box, and a grumpy Vladimir Nabokov, 60, with a butterfly net ("it is likely Nabokov and I might have crossed paths," says Tan, who reveres him). From an earlier essay, we know Tan lived in Montreux at age 16 -- the result of her mother's snap decision, while staring at a Dutch Cleanser can in her California kitchen, to move the family to Holland. (They found they couldn't fathom De -- undeconstructed, unpoliticized, un-PC -- is, of course, boundless. It's great fun to check out her list of favorite authors (I won't spoil it by divulging names here), which is short on "white whales" and "white males."
Whales and squirrels, Nabokov and spandex, feng shui and ghosts, seemingly unbearable loss: The musings here are grounded in hope -- the opposite of fate. The book owes much to her mother, whose life embodied the triumph of hope over fate and who once told her, "I think you know little percent of me," inadvertently launching the career of Amy Tan, American writer. No hot air.
Judith Long is copy editor at The Nation.
Tan's essays reveal impact of family, fate on her work
Ever wonder why your life turned out the way it has?
Consider your family's influence, people met, choices made, seemingly lucky breaks or unhappy events that shaped your life and steered its direction. In "The Opposite of Fate," novelist Amy Tan, author of the best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," pores over her past in an assortment of short, candid autobiographical essays. Artfully written and arranged thematically, these writings explore the roles fate, luck and personal choice have had on Tan.
Brought up with "two pillars" of beliefs - Chris tian faith on her father's side and "Chinese fate" on her mother's, Tan never fully accepts either view. Instead, she asks questions in a search for ways to make sense of her world.
She reflects on her nomadic childhood in California and in Switzerland; her murdered best friend; her relationship with her late editor; her foray into Hollywood filmmaking; of rollicking in a rock and roll band; of exorcising her home and contracting Lyme disease.
But at the heart of Tan's "musings" are her vivid accounts of the family's storied history: her parents' unlikely union; her grandmother's suicide; her father and brother dying of brain tumors within a year; and her relationship with her mother, whose battles with depression forced the family to move frequently.
"The richest source of my fiction," she writes "does come from life as I have misunderstood it - its contradictions, its unanswerable questions, its unlikely twists and turns."
Tan's troubled and idiosyncratic mother is omnipresent on the pages of her fiction and this collection of essays. A believer in Ouija boards and a cursed life, her mother struggles to be understood. Here, readers of Tan's mother-daughter dramas will delight in learning more about this muse, who inspires Tan's morbid imagination and incites her devilish sense of fun, "that bad f-word."
In the closing essay, we see a change in perspective of the main character, if you will - a storytelling ending Tan confesses in another essay that she appreciated as a child. "I am no longer governed by fate and fear," she says. "I have hope and, with that, a determination to change what is not right."
Tan's incisive wit and refreshing take on life are winsome. Even in her musings about her darker moments, her writing is keenly felt. Like her best-selling novels, her essays promise to delight, sadden and astonish. Readers, loyal and new, will find much to admire in Tan.
Cook is a critic in Cleveland.
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Tan without a plan
Author Amy's meditations on fate and family lack unity
By ANNA MUNDOW
The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
In the introduction to her latest book, Amy Tan tells us not to expect too much. "I call this a book of musings because the writings are mostly casual pieces rather than formal essays," she explains. "They are ... linked by my fascination with fate ... and its many alternatives."
Tan sees all those alternatives - choice, chance and other types of good fortune - as expressions of hope, a quality embodied by her mother, Daisy, who bragged that she always knew Amy would be a writer (after she gave up on her becoming a doctor).
Daisy is as central to these musings as she was to Tan's best-selling novels "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife." Whether the writer is recalling her California childhood, a visit to China, her first boyfriend or her literary influences, tiny Daisy is there, setting Amy straight or driving her crazy. "Thanks to my mother," Tan writes, "I was raised to have a morbid imagination."
Tan's father, a Christian minister, was similarly cowed. "He may have prayed to God for general direction in his life," Tan wryly observes, "but he received the specifics from my mother."
These family recollections form the lively core of a book that needs something to unify its disparate, uneven segments. Tan never writes less than elegantly. But elegant or not, an E-mail to friends - even a lengthy, descriptive E-mail - is an E-mail, not an essay. Perhaps not even a "musing." Such flimsy passages may have been included to provide contrast, but they look more like padding between Tan's weightier thoughts on language, writing and race and her witty replies to academic and Internet interpretations of her novels.
"Chinese people have always been referred to as yellow, the colour associated with cowardice, jaundice, bananas, Ping the Duck, and the middle-class Marvin Gardens in Monopoly," Tan laments. She prefers "colorful writer," and, at its best, "The Opposite of Fate" reveals how Tan mixes her colors - sometimes accidentally - to create a novel as dark as "The Kitchen God's Wife" or as warm as "The Joy Luck Club."
P.S. Worriers will love what Tan has to say about Lyme disease.
Originally published on November 1, 2003