Photo by Robert Foothorap
Spectral appearance: Amy Tan stumps next week for local public school libraries.
Bay Area author Amy Tan talks about fame and phantoms
By Gretchen Giles
It’s 11 o’clock on a bleary December morning in South Carolina and Amy Tan is just getting oriented. After nearly two months traveling across the nation to promote her latest novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan has lost track of herself. “Purgatory is one long airplane trip with only memories of hotel rooms,” she moans lightheartedly over the phone from her hotel room. “When I got up today, I kept thinking, where am I? What city am I in? It was first thing in the morning and I was actually standing up–awake–in the room, trying to figure out where I was.
“It’s like punishment for writing a book.”
But Tan is taking her punishment gamely, traveling coast to coast on press junkets and readings. On Wednesday, Dec. 20, she’ll find herself as close to her San Francisco home as she’s likely to get, standing on the stage at the Santa Rosa High School Auditorium, giving a reading sponsored by Copperfield’s Books to benefit local school libraries.
This writer of such popular fiction as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife now has her name emblazoned in type larger than the title across the cover of her latest work. Couldn’t Tan just bow out of the promotion game for a while, and let the book sell itself? “Maybe it’s that old Chinese guilt that makes me unable to say ‘No, I’m not going to do it,'” she answers reflectively. “In the past, I didn’t do much [promotion].
“But this time, I felt very vulnerable, and because it was the third book, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it will be a terrible book,’ and they were saying to me that we really need to flog this thing to get it going,” she laughs.
Hovering at the top of the bestseller list, The Hundred Secret Senses shouldn’t need much flogging to capture an audience. Concerning the lives of two half-sisters–Kwan, who is straight from China, and Olivia, an American with a Caucasian mother–The Hundred Secret Senses explores Tan’s best-loved themes of family love and cultural identity, as well as delving into the underworld of ghosts, named “yin people” by Tan. Kwan can commune with them, and over the course of the novel Olivia and her estranged husband, Simon, come to shed their doubts about otherworldly guests while rediscovering their love for each other.
Tan says that for her, The Hundred Secret Senses answers “a question about love, unconditional love. I thought, ‘This is a story about sisters and the about the peculiar relationships of families,’ but as I was writing I realized that the kind of love that Kwan was providing was this unconditional love that felt very comforting to me, and I thought that part of me is always looking for that. Somebody who seems sort of annoying because they’re intrusive and care about everything that’s happening in my life,” she laughs, “but who continues to give this ceaselessly and without expectations of anything in return.”
What also came up was the slow realization that her fictional character wasn’t the only one experiencing ghosts. “The word ghost itself is so very tainted with assumptions and negative connotations that you’re whacked out if you believe that such things exist,” she says briskly. “But when I was about two thirds of the way through writing this book, I really felt that I couldn’t deny any longer that I get help from somewhere, and I don’t know how to describe this. The best I can do is to call them yin people.
“That’s not a Chinese expression at all,” she chuckles. “I just made it up. ‘Yin’ means invisible or shadow. So, when I was writing The Joy Luck Club, for example, there were scenes in there that I thought came from my imagination, but were very strange to me.” One of those stories was a fictionalized account of her grandmother’s life, in which Tan changed her grandmother’s status from first wife to fourth–making her less a wife than a concubine–and had the character kill herself, rather than dying in the noble and unfortunate circumstances related to Tan as a child.
“When my mother read that, she was amazed,” Tan says, her voice growing in volume as her dog–who travels with her–begins to bark in the background. “She said, ‘How did you know that your grandmother really was the fourth wife? How did you know that she killed herself deliberately?’
“And you know, that could be coincidence,” Tan says in a confidential tone. “But there were other details that my mother says I couldn’t possibly know. My mother would always say, ‘You’re not Chinese, you’re American. You don’t know these things, so my mother [Tan’s dead grandmother] must be telling you these things.'”
Tan has said in print that The Joy Luck Club was written for her mother. Is she still writing for her mom? “This book not really so much,” she answers, unconsciously adopting the convoluted English she uses to write for the Chinese voice. “I wrote this book with the idea that it was for all of my friends who had died, actually. So it was originally dedicated to all of my yin friends.”
After helping a friend through an illness, Tan changed her mind.
“I dedicated the book for Faith, because it was about having faith,” she says simply.
Beginning her literary career as a freelance business writer for such technical firms as IBM and Apple computer companies, Tan has seen her notoriety grow in six short years so that some library catalog computers now use her name as an example for looking up an author. Has she gotten used to being Amy Tan, the celebrity?
“I have a public persona, and what I do with it now is to have fun with it,” she answers. “I used to resent feeling that I was giving away bits and pieces of myself–that my privacy was being invaded–but now I happily give away this part of my persona which is just the fun part. I used to dread the readings, and go home and gnash my teeth, and now I just do it and it’s over. I forget it and I just go back to the non-persona, the private persona, which can be fun too. I don’t take it seriously. I know that that name is out there.
“At times when I don’t want to be bothered with that name, when I’m buying underwear or dandruff medication and someone says, ‘Aren’t you Amy Tan?,’ I just look at them and I say, ‘You know, I’ve had other people who thought that too,'” she laughs. “I don’t lie, but it’s like, today I’m not. Or I’ll just look at them and say, ‘Really, is that what you think? I’ve had other people ask me that too. She is so old! Do you know how old she is! Give me a break!'” Tan, who is 43, cackles over the phone. “See, then I have fun with it, and I don’t feel put out about it. You know, the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen about [my own celebrity] is seeing my name on Cliff Notes.
“And that was like looking at an obituary–Amy Tan and Thomas Hardy.”
While Tan owes her success as a writer in great part to being able to lovingly lift the rice curtain and allow rare glimpses of Chinese life and culture, she assents that it is her gift as a storyteller that has given longevity to her career.
“I think that I got the storytelling primarily from my father, as much as from my mother,” she says. “He was a Baptist minister and his idea of quality time with his children–since he worked seven days a week–was to read his sermons aloud to me and see what I thought and if there were any words I didn’t understand. His sermons were like stories, they were very personable. Stories from my mother came more naturally, and I’d listen as she and my aunts sat a table covered with newspapers, shelling fava beans or chopping vegetables and gossiping about the family, and going on for hours and hours about some little detail that they found disgusting in some relative or friend,” she relates with a laugh.
“But what I find kind of amazing is that I’m rather blind to a lot of things that are happening,” she confesses. “Especially flirting things that are going on. There’s a certain stupidity about me in observing things. If I were writing about me as a character, I would characterize me as really dumb.
“But I notice other things,” she says thoughtfully. “I notice behaviors that have to do with sadness, or hidden things, or secrets. I think that we have different skills about what we observe.
“I think that the other reason that I’ve become a storyteller is that I was raised with so many different conflicting ideas that it posed many questions for me in life, and those questions became a filter for looking at all my experiences and seeing them from different angles. That’s what I think that a storyteller does, and underneath the surface of the story is a question or a perspective or a nagging little emotion, and then it grows.
“Conflicts. Tragedies in life,” she concludes, beginning to list her own biography. “Difficulties. A mother who was depressed. A father and a brother who died. Being the only Chinese girl in a school. Moving every year. Graduating from a private school in Switzerland among rich people and not being rich.
“You know, those are the things that make you either psychotic or a fiction writer.”
Amy Tan will read from and sign The Hundred Secret Senses on Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. as part of Copperfield’s Books School Library Book Drive. Buy any book on a school library’s wish list and receive a free ticket for the event. Santa Rosa High School Auditorium, 1235 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.Tickets will be available at the door for $15. 823-8991.
From the Dec. 14-20, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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