8 years after her last publishing, best-selling author, Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter's Daughter) delves into another exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters. This time the setting is Shanghai. The Valley of Amazement, explores three generations of women who continue to struggle with their identity as Chinese American women and the fates that challenge their sense of self.
One Mother's Day, Amy and her family visited an exhibition about Shanghai after lunch (her mother is Shanghainese). There she was intrigued by a picture of the famous "Ten Beauties of Shanghai," featuring the city's most desired courtesans. Surprisingly, they reminded Amy of a photograph of her grandmother. Her interest is peaked and she begins to obsess about what her life might have been like. It is the birth of a new novel.
For Tan, writing is very personal. It's a way for her to explore the questions and obsessions that fill her mind. The issues she writes about resonate with a broad public: identity, the expectations tied to being a woman, nature vs. nurture, and of course, relationships - especially mother/daughter relationships. Each time she writes, Amy finds a new way to approach these questions.
Most would now describe Tan as having a gift for storytelling, but she didn't start her writing career until later in life; she got poor marks on verbal aptitude tests and excelled more at math rather than literature. How did she find the courage to write? Tan sat down with Womenalia to talk about her new book and about her journey as a writer.
Womenalia: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Amy Tan: It was when i was about 35. I started writing fiction. I had been a business writer before that to earn money. But then I wanted to do something just for myself. And I decided I'd either play jazz piano or write fiction. And writing fiction won out.
W: Why choose writing over music?
AT: I made a discovery in the first story that I ever wrote and it was that even though I was writing fiction I found that something came out that was true about myself. And that I could trick myself into writing a story and something deep would come out. So, I loved that part of it... The other was that I loved writing when I was a child. I also thought that there were never enough words to describe what I thought or felt, especially what I felt. But I didn't think I had what it'd take to be a writer because I was not a man like Hemingway who had traveled through Africa and had interesting things to say. And I didn't think I could describe anything well in those few words. Like clouds, I couldn't describe clouds in any way that was interesting. And I got poor scores in the aptitude tests in the verbal area. I always succeeded in math. It's a very long answer to say that I had a lot of early discouragement but I always had a love of words.
I didn't think I had what it'd take to be a writer because I was not a man like Hemingway who had traveled through Africa and had interesting things to say.
W: So, writing is a very personal process for you.
AT: I get what you would probably call themes, but for me they're questions and obsessions. One that is pretty evident is that of someone who's an American and a Chinese person; somebody who lives in the world of the westerner versus the Chinese. What about ourselves is defined by culture and by race?
W: Do you ever feel like you'll resolve these questions?
AT: No, writing is the antithesis to resolution. For me, it's disturb as much as possible. To see and start seeing, and then each facet brings up more observations and conditions and contexts, and so, to me there would never be resolution. Resolution to me means the end of something. That now, whatever was interesting is over.
W: How do you reinvent yourself while still exploring similar themes?
AT: Boy, it doesn't come about as a conscious though, that I have to reinvent myself. In the beginning, though, after the Joy Luck Club I was aware that 'maybe I'm talking about mothers and daughters again'. and that maybe I was going to be redundant, and that maybe there was only one book that i was going to write. Then I decided it was OK. Because, I was so disturbed by the second book that I just had to write something without thinking about what others wanted and what they would think of me as a result. And that is one of the lessons that I keep trying to realize over and over, and that is to do what it is that I'm doing for myself. And the themes will open themselves to many stories. They're not just my themes; it's a classic theme, which is that of identity. Mine happens to be about women, who happen to be related as mothers and daughters.
"In the beginning, after the Joy Luck Club I was aware that 'maybe I'm talking about mothers and daughters again,' and that maybe I was going to be redundant, and that maybe there was only one book that I was going to write."
W: Women are central to your writing, would you ever write from a man's perspective?
AT: No, I wouldn't want to. I think I could, but it doesn't interest me. I'm writing, basically, for myself. And I wouldn't want to waste my time thinking about a transsexual change before I could become that narrator. It, again, has to do with motivation, desire for writing about that. I would never write something just to prove I could do it. In other words, I don't want do anything that's just reactionary. Not just in writing, but anything in life. I think I would have always focused on women because my reasons for writing had to do with that discovery that I made early on. And so, regardless, it's not a reaction. I would write for my own reasons. And that's the difference between writing as a man and getting published and writing for yourself, with whatever characters and not with the idea that it's to get published.
W: In The Valley of Amazement, Lulu and Violet struggle to maintain a sense of self. It's central to the story. Are these also your own personal questions?
AT: One of the questions I ask myself is what kind of person would I have become had I been born a century ago and that that was the life that I would have had? What parts of us are born and are always there and will never be changed... It's the same question I had with my grandmother. I would think "what did she dream is possible?" So, who was she as a consequence of what the opportunities of society were. It's this notion you know, that we're just born, it almost seems to me that it's by accident where we land... I don't know how to explain it. When I was a child I used to think about it all the time. That there's something basic in who we are, this being. And then we land into these families. I always felt that I landed in the wrong family. That there was something about who I was that didn't match the family. I had that notion when I was around 6 years old.
W: Do you believe in a "pure self"?
AT: I think that each person is unique. I'm trying to think how that ever would be explained through science, or through religion or through sociology, evolutionary biology. How would you ever explain what that is? It's a crazy notion, but I don't know – do you have that notion? That we're all this person. You look and say, "why am I the person I am?" "Why do I feel this way? I'm the only one who feels this way. How is it that I'm the only one who feels this way?" There's a sense of uniqueness that everyone has, regardless of the family they're born into. The soul, the spirit, the self, the collective conscious. Lulu, in the book calls it "My pure self-being". She has a childish notion almost, that expresses the childish notion that I have: "who I would've been if I had not been contaminated by other people, their thoughts imposed on mine. This is who I could've been." And it's a crazy thought and I also think that at its extreme, underlies people who want to know who they are.
"I would never say this notion that westerners have of 'follow your dreams!' That is not my motto at all."
W: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of leaving their career to write full time?
At: Who's going to support you? I'm a very practical writer. And I said that to myself, that while I was going to keep my job that made me money and then do the thing that I love. But I'm Chinese, and in the family sense of practicality, frugality, pragmatics. I'm my mother's daughter. I would never say this notion that westerners have of "follow your dreams!" That is not my motto at all. On the other hand I do think that it is good to follow the desire to write and to keep at it no matter what, but also know you have to sustain yourself. And then don't give up. Because if you depend on that for your livelihood and you don't make enough, you'll give it up. If you find that you make that time, you budget your time you'll stay with it. Find your reasons for writing; make them much more important than the fact that you have to do that job.