Saturday, July 23, 2016


“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.”
~ from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Amy Tan was born on Tuesday, February 19, 1952 in Oakland, California to John and Daisy Tan, Chinese immigrants who settled in Northern California. Her father was both an electrical engineer and a Baptist minister.  When Amy was fifteen, her father and older brother died of brain tumors six months apart. Their deaths affected the whole family differently.  Daisy, convinced that the family was under a curse, moved Amy and her younger brother John Jr. to Switzerland.  Amy rebelled, but finished high school.  She won an American Baptist Scholarship to attend Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon and met her husband there, on a blind date. The two have been together ever since.  

Tan also attended San Jose City College and San Jose State University (Mario’s Alma Mater), where she was a President’s Scholar, and graduated with a BA in both English and Linguistics.  In 1985 she started to write fiction in her spare time.  She attended a fiction workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. There she met writer Molly Giles, who gave her advice on a flawed short story with too many inconsistent voices and too many beginnings of stories. “Pick one and start over.”  Giles' suggestions guided Amy to write the multiple stories that would become The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. After that came The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bone Setter’s Daughter, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Valley of Amazement – all of which are stunning. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks; many are assigned in high schools and universities as required reading.  Thank God. 
(A special thanks to Amy Tan’s bio page.  Read more here.)

When We Met:  I was making my way through the classics, somewhere between Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when a friend asked me if I read Amy Tan.  I gave her my standard, proud answer: “I only read the dead guys.” My puffed up answer makes me shake my head in embarrassment now, but for some reason I told her I would read a living person's book.  She lent me her copy of Joy Luck Club and told me that it was the best book she ever read.  I jumped in and drowned in the beautiful, graceful language that stretched its neck toward heavenly perfection.  I have never, ever, ever looked back.  Tan is one of the best writers on the planet, and encouraged me to read other living authors. 

Why She’s Good:  Tan reminds me of the person that can do an algebraic equation with their left hand while oil painting with their right.  She tells a beautiful story while constructing a structural foundation that will never collapse.  I admire the structure of her stories as much as I admire the language that builds them as much as I admire the ornamentation and colors that grace their ceilings.  She’s oh-so-intimate in conversations, and I have literally felt guilty for eavesdropping as I read.  She is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. 

Plot Variations:  Four mothers and their daughters take turns telling interlocking stories, all about being Chinese-American.  Intertwining narratives of a mother and daughter paint a picture of misunderstanding, loneliness and a desire to be known by the other.  A Chinese born young woman connects with her half-sister by telling her about secret tales and superstitions, things she understands because she can see ghosts.

Buy One:  Each is a gem, but none have affected me like The Joy Luck Club, the novel that made me want to be a full-time writer.  In its pages are the differing voices of mothers and daughters, a bittersweet symphony that casts eternal light on mother/daughter relationships.   Available here.

Favorite Quote:  Tan is funny.  She thinks on her feet and is as silly as she is serious. I am going to cheat here and steer you to a recent TedTalk she did.  Watch it to laugh and think deeply… 

Trivia: Many of you know how much I love Amy Tan already.  My own novel, Treasures In Diepsloot is what I pitch as Joy Luck Club in a South African township.  Tan’s trusted reader, Molly Giles (who won a Flannery O'Connor award for Short Fiction) accepted the privilege of reading my book and loved it!!  On a supernova high, I sent it to Sandy Dijkstra, Tan’s literary agent.  She wrote to me, saying “Alas, Janet, I wish I could sign on but I’m just not in love with the project, which is so essential when it comes to fiction. Please know that we’ll be cheering you from the sidelines and hope that another agent has the vision for this project!”  Tears. Disappointment. Suck it up and move on.

No One Ever Asks About the Language: Tan plays in a band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, with other writers, including Stephen King.  He tells a story of eating with her right before a gig in Miami Beach in his book, On Writing (available here).  He asked Amy if there was ever a question she was not asked by star-struck fans during the Q and A sessions at writer’s conferences.  She thought awhile and said “No one ever asks about the language.”  King expounds on the importance of this, citing that fans do not seek advice about language from commercially successful authors.  He writes in the preface that his book will be about “the language,” as Tan calls it.  Then. He dedicates the book to her.