An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Ms. Amy Tan, in two parts.
Columnist Anna Roins
The Valley of Amazement
by Amy Tan
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New York Times bestselling author Amy Tan, revisits the compelling themes of The Joy Luck Club in her latest release. She maps out three generations of mothers and daughters sweeping over fifty years and two continents. The women are connected by passion, betrayal and a mysterious painting known as, ‘The Valley of Amazement.’ Suffused with Tan’s graceful insight and depth, the story canvasses nineteenth-century San Francisco, the elegant parlours of Shanghai courtesans and a fog-shrouded Chinese village. The Valley of Amazement is sumptuous and gripping.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Tan, thank you for sharing your time with us and congratulations on the success of The Valley of Amazement to date; an engrossing read. Its temperate tone heightens the themes of abandonment, and the stunning imagery provides a real sense of time and place.
The story developed by chance. You were already 200 pages into your new novel, when you came across an antique photo of high class courtesans from Shanghai. They were wearing the same outfit your grandmother wore once in a photo you have of her. Although it is not clear whether your grandmother was, in fact, a courtesan, it made you wonder how your family story might be recast. Would you like to expand on this?
|“I was confronted with evidence that the facts of my grandmother’s life might not be what were contained in the family legend.”|
TAN: The photo was of ten courtesans – “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai” – taken around 1911. They were the winners of a popularity contest among all the first-class courtesan houses in Shanghai, which numbered over a thousand at the time. Five of those beauties wore identical outfits, which made it likely this was some sort of a professional costume. It was also the same fashion worn by my grandmother in my favourite photo of her. I was confused when I first saw that, and then the questions blew up like a Gobi sandstorm. Did that mean…? The family stories about my grandmother recounted her as the first wife of a scholar, a woman who was widowed at a young age, and who would have remained an old-fashioned, honourable widow had she not been raped by a rich man and forced to become his concubine, a lowly fourth wife. After she gave birth to the man’s first son, she killed herself out of shame and anger. That happened in 1925 and my mother, a nine-year-old child then, had watched her die slowly of an overdose of raw opium.
And now, I was confronted with evidence that the facts of my grandmother’s life might not be what were contained in the family legend. I experienced an ancestor existential crisis of sorts. I had long believed that my grandmother’s traumatic legacy had given me my raison d’etre as a writer. She had passed on to my mother some of her beliefs, attitudes and emotional patterns, just as my mother had to me. One of the values my mother instilled in me had to do with knowing who I was. I had to decide for myself and not base my beliefs on the opinions of others. She was quite strident about this and I felt her mother must have given her this same advice. Was it the lowly concubine who rebelled internally against her lot in life and refused to succumb to society’s view of her? I knew that some part of my grandmother was in me and had influenced me. Yet I did not suffer from her trauma. Instead, I imagined myself giving her voice. She made it imperative for me to know my intentions and choices, and to act on them. My mother was the damaged little girl who remained suicidal all her life. She railed against the injustices of her mother’s past, the permanent “stain” that others had put on her back, and she would explode into all-consuming anger when she felt humiliated or disrespected.
I often felt both my grandmother and my mother, after she died, were present in the room with me, as muses, when I wrote. They gave me clues as to whether I was headed in the right direction. And now, even thinking my grandmother might have been a courtesan, might risk angering them. Maybe instead of providing inspiration and encouragement, they would be disappointed in me. Perhaps the force of their anger would melt my hard disk drive. For a while, I tried not to think what I now suspected. After all, I had no proof, only a photograph – and eventually four photographs showing my grandmother in these racy fashions.
I contacted three academic experts on Shanghai courtesan culture from the turn of the century. I interviewed older relatives – those in their 80s who had lived in the house on the island where my grandmother killed herself. I went searching for clues that would support the legend or the suspicion. Bit by bit, I found more evidence that leaned toward her having lived in “the world of flowers” – chief among them, the contradictions in the family legend. I discovered that my grandmother had not been the first wife of a scholar, but the concubine, a standing that made it less shameful that she would have later become the concubine of another man. She also had not been quiet and old-fashioned; she had a bad temper and strong opinions and others feared disagreeing with her. Even though she was only the fourth wife, she ruled the rest of the household. She was considered the favourite wife, was given the best room, smoked opium with her husband and demanded that her husband buy her a house in Shanghai after her baby was born. She was not a woman weeping in her room. She was headstrong. In looking at her photos, I could see new meaning in the poses she had struck. She had “attitude” – a sense of self apart from what others had to say about her.
|“That question feeds into the on-going one I have about my identity and the world I create by my choices.”|
If my grandmother had indeed been a courtesan, she must have been a victim as well – as are nearly all women in the history of the sex trade. But the context of her life and what she strived for and struggled against would have been quite different from that of a quiet, traditional, stay-at-home widow. She would have been more active than passive in the decisions of her life. She would have taken more risks, and would had much more of her self-esteem at stake. She would have thought more about the consequences of shame on her children. So what part of my nature, attitudes, and opinions come from her via my mother? That question feeds into the on-going one I have about my identity and the world I create by my choices. What influenced me and why? What would I want to change? If anything, the discovery of potential meaning in the photograph has emphasized my need to always question what is true. Who I am is contained in the questions I ask, and I find clues in thinking through the puzzle of my grandmother. In the end, it does not matter whether she was a courtesan or not. What matters is that I remain true to myself and my truth enables me to know my grandmother in mind and heart.
AUTHORLINK: That is truly fascinating. What happened to the rich man’s son? And likewise, was leaving out Lulu’s son from the story on purpose and connected to this?
TAN: My grandmother actually had two children by her first husband, a son (my Uncle I called Jiu-Jiu) and a daughter (my mother). But the baby she gave birth to shortly before she died was the rich man’s first son and that child was given the privileges accorded the most important son. Tu, the rich man, also adopted my mother and treated her like a daughter, at least in terms of privileges. She went to private schools, wore beautiful clothes, and they held her wedding at the YMCA, which, at the time, was a posh venue. I think my mother was conflicted about how she felt about her step-father. He spoiled her, yet she also believed he was the reason her mother had killed herself. Apparently, my grandmother and her husband had a fight over the house in Shanghai shortly before she killed herself.
I am quite close to my cousins, the children of my uncle Joe, who has since passed. But there was also a small tension among us. My cousins’ feelings about their grandfather Tu differed greatly from my relatives on my other uncle’s side of the family, who cited the rape and suicide as the reason my uncle Jiu-Jiu joined the Communists in his youth. (He eventually rose to become vice secretary of labor.)
|“I had a suspicion their relationship might have been a love story. “|
In recent years, while doing research and family interviews, I learned more about Tu, that led me to wonder if I had been unfairly maligning my mother’s step-father. He was the hero of the island, the man who built the schools, roads, hospital, utilities, and such. He eventually had a total of seven wives, and when one of the younger ones asked to leave so she could marry another man as his first wife, he gave her his blessings. And another, a sixteen year old, wanted to go to school, and do something else with her life. So he let her go and paid for her education. That hardly sounds like a man who would have raped a woman by knifepoint the first night he met her. If he had killed her, he would have gone to prison, and, worse, he would have ruined the reputation of his family generations back and forward. Something did not add up. She was thirty-six, hardly a young beauty, yet she was instantly the favourite wife, who was installed in the best room. He promised her a house in Shanghai, which, by the way, is something that some courtesans demanded of their patrons who wanted to marry them. What concubine would dare negotiate a deal like that? I had a suspicion their relationship might have been a love story. I still get a slight frisson of fear in saying that. It goes against all that I was brought up to believe. If it was not a love story, I now wrong my grandmother. If it is the true story, I have wronged for many years the man I should have been calling my grandfather.
There is no emotional or thematic connection to my grandmother’s son and Lulu’s son in The Valley of Amazement. Lulu lost her son many years before, and the baby she held in her arms for one day became more of an illusion—that if she had him back, the life she believed she deserved would be restored to her. Instead, that illusion led to her losing even more that was dear to her. And even when she has an opportunity to claim back that son, she knows she should not. She would have ruined his life as well.
AUTHORLINK: That’s so interesting. You once said, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.” Does being a writer for you then mean not being able to just ‘be’ in the moment?
|“. . .when I sit down to write – to do the work – my thoughts are devoted to notions about life . . .”|
TAN: I am in the moment, as most people are, while waiting in line for a table at a popular restaurant or when swimming in the ocean with a shark in front of me or when seeing that the dog has peed on the doorway. But when I sit down to write – to do the work – my thoughts are devoted to notions about life – what has happened, what could happen, what might have happened – which could include all those things I mentioned, the ordinary, the wondrous, and the dog pee. I invent a story based on a question and I put into it thoughts about life. If I were inventing a widget, I would have real world concerns, like safety, price, competition, lawsuits, manufacturing, and financing. But my work enables me to construct an imaginary world where such concerns don’t exist – except for deadlines, which my assistant reminds me are indeed real. (Many apologies that I was not able to obey more promptly.)
There are times, however, when I experience life as a reader might who pauses in the middle of a story to reflect on his or her own life and beliefs. While waiting on line at a restaurant, I might smell the food going by me on a tray, which immediately triggers a disturbing or pleasant memory from childhood. I might decide to include that in a story. If I experience an unexpected and profound moment, I will be conscious of the need to remember the emotions, the ephemeral intensity of them, and I will search my writer brain for a mnemonic device to retain the memory and write about it later. When I spend days by myself writing in solitude, I emerge disoriented, an alien. I feel like that character Chance in the Peter Sellers’ movie “Being There” – the gardener whose prior existence of flowers and television programs has left him unprepared for what the real world is like. He is now out there, but people interpret everything he does quite differently from what is meant. I do think that most people interpret my work differently from what I intend. And that is how it should be, because no one else has had to deal with the actual messiness of my mind over sixty-two years.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. When you were 15, you lost your father and your elder brother within six months of each other. This must have been a terrible blow. You then learned of a shocking secret that your mother had been previously married in China and that you had three half-sisters. This incident provided the basis for your first novel published in 1989, the New York Times bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, which is an all-time favourite. Do you feel it’s true that the emotional injuries of one generation resurface in perpetuity to be inflicted onto the next? Can one choose to stop their parents, “crazy traumas” as you once described them, from imprinting on ones’ life?
|“In our family, the crazy traumas repeated and then morphed by the time they reached me.”|
TAN: I don’t think we can deliberately choose to keep a familial emotional pattern from imprinting on us. Emotional patterns are insidious and we don’t distinguish them from the rest of our character and emotional makeup. Would awareness of the pattern and situations keep us from repeating trauma? What I do as a writer is ponder this very question of emotional inheritance and who I am, what influences me, how I have changed, and what of me will never change, because it is essentially who I am.
In our family, the crazy traumas repeated and then morphed by the time they reached me. My grandmother threatened to kill herself often, tried a few times, and succeeded with an overdose of raw opium, which my mother witnessed as a little girl. My mother often threatened to die – once a week perhaps – and made active attempts a number of times, but never succeeded. On one occasion, she held a meat cleaver to my throat and said she was going to kill me, then my little brother, and then herself. The threats and attempts came during periods of intense rage, often having to do with perceived betrayal. What fell within the category of betrayal was a motley assortment – from disagreement with her opinions, failure to follow her advice, failure to phone, promises not kept, or even tardiness. She did not talk of suicide when she was in quiet moments of depression, the periods when she simply wept and lamented.
In contrast, I am not suicidal. I am more resilient. However, does that have to do with the circumstances of my life? I grew up with choices – what I wanted to do, who I wanted to marry, where I wanted to live. If I was betrayed, I felt rage but not a sense of permanent despair. My feelings did not escalate into self-destruction. I knew from childhood that I was not powerless.
But again, if I did not have these external options, would I have been able to choose to reject the emotional pattern? When I was writing The Valley of Amazement, I cast my imagination into a Shanghai courtesan house of the early twentieth century, imagining what I would have done in situations I could not change. How resilient would I have been under those circumstances? What would I sacrifice to find security or love? How would public perception influence my self-esteem? To survive emotionally, what compromises and pragmatic decisions would I make?
My father and brother’s early death was certainly traumatic on my mother, younger brother and me. My mother could not stop thinking about the ways she could have prevented them from dying. My younger brother has amnesia about his childhood and remembers almost nothing of my father and brother. And for a short while, I became what I would describe as “disaffected” in my emotions. Fortunately, that did not last long, and I eventually fell in love and have been with the same man for forty-four years.
|“What has persisted, however, is a daily consciousness of death – not a fear, but an awareness . . . “|
What has persisted, however, is a daily consciousness of death – not a fear, but an awareness that it is there and will most certainly happen. The fact of it astounds me daily. How could these thoughts and feelings I have cease to exist? What are those feelings anyway? I am aware that I should not waste my days and that I need to know some things about myself in the budgeted time remaining – what I truly think and feel, and if my thoughts are truly mine, if my feelings are genuine. Sometimes, mortality is the gauge for what I should be doing. The decisions are suddenly much clearer. I am also consumed with thoughts about memory. Forgotten moments are like small deaths. I am a continuum of all those moments, and thus, it’s important to retain them in a form that captures the essence, but not the unnecessary details. And that form is a fictional story, one that captures the essence of the emotional discoveries and their relevance to the whole of my life.
AUTHORLINK: You are right about death and memory – they are intrinsically linked. In a TED talk in 2008, you said that your mother believed, “there was a reason for everything. And one of the reasons, she thought, was that her mother, who had died when she was very young, was angry at her.” And this anger caused the death of your father and your brother both from brain tumours’. Did this belief system; that no matter what good you did in this lifetime you would pay for the sins of your parents or grandparents in any event, create an emotional impediment to your creativity?
TAN: If anything, those kinds of beliefs inspired my writing. I had to examine who I am based on what I believe and where those beliefs came from. My mother actually had many beliefs beyond her notions about karma and causality. They operated simultaneously and thus in contradiction with one another. She believed in a merciful God and an angry one, in feng shui and endless hope. She sought other religions and also medical miracles. My father, in contrast, was a devout Baptist, ordained as a minister, although he made his living as an electrical engineer. He had consistent beliefs, one being that faith in God would bring about a miracle and cure his son. Of all the beliefs floating in our family, I think it was my father’s that affected me more early on. I feared that a lack of faith would kill my brother and father. And later I was angry that faith had failed me. It had failed my father, and I knew it caused him anguish that God did not deliver the miracle in spite of his great faith. He wondered if God had forsaken him or if his faith had not been great enough. But to others, he expressed that we cannot understand God’s will and that we must trust that God has a plan that will be understood when we join him in heaven.
|“That’s why I’m a writer. I have to imagine the answer a thousand different ways.”|
I would have none of that. I was a teenager and I saw hypocrisy in what people said and did. I hated the reliance on religious thinking to explain terrible events in our lives. I knew that many people did not admit what they really thought. I rejected all the beliefs and took faith in nothing. I needed to ask my own questions and find many answers. As Walt Whitman said in one of his poems: “Resist much, obey little.” I was so angry then. It was a fallacy that there is a moral right and wrong that applies absolutely in all situations. There was no one set of spiritual beliefs prescribed by one group that provides compassion for all and the elimination of hatred. My beliefs are not based on anger and rejection anymore. But they are always evolving, always open to questioning, to messy and contradictory thinking. There are no absolute answers but a story comes close to saying what truth feels like. That’s why I’m a writer. I have to imagine the answer a thousand different ways.
End of PART ONE
|About the Author:|
Amy Tan is an American writer whose works explore mother-daughter relationships and what it means to grow up as a first generation Asian American. In 1993, Tan’s adaptation of her most popular fiction work, The Joy Luck Club, became a commercially successful film of which she was also a co-producer and co-screen writer.
She has written several other books, including The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction essays entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. In addition, Tan has written two children’s books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. Her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York. She was the literary editor for the Los Angeles Times’ West magazine.
If you would like to learn more about Amy Tan, please see her website at the following link: https://www.amytan.net/
|About Anna Roins:|
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar