The award-winning writer unpacks her sixth novel, The Valley of Amazement, a sweeping tale of two women’s search for identity.
Writer Amy Tan
Tavis: Amy Tan’s impressive writing career has seen every one of her novels reaching “The New York Times” best-seller list, beginning with, of course, “The Joy Luck Club.”
Her latest tome, “The Valley of Amazement,” her first novel in eight years, again mines the rich territory of mothers and daughters as they try to navigate cultural expectations and limitations. Amy Tan, good to have you back on this program.
Amy Tan: Good to be here.
Tavis: It’s been eight years since I last saw you.
Tan: I know, I know.
Tavis: Where have you been?
Tan: I’ve been working. I was doing an opera and I was building a house and I was writing, and I wrote one story for about five years, and then I started a new one.
Tavis: Do you ever – you were writing during that entire time –
Tavis: – but when you’re eight years between books like this, do you ever wonder, ever fret that the gift might just up and disappear on you?
Tan: Yeah, yeah, no, I’ve feared brain disease. I was getting to that age where you just wonder what’s going on with your brain, yeah, yeah. So it’s always gratifying when you finish a book, and the reviewers don’t say, “She must have been brain-damaged.” It’s been great. I’ve been so lucky.
Tavis: We’ll get into the “The Valley of Amazement” here in just a second more specifically, but what is it about – I suspect some of it has to do with your own back story, but what is it about mothers and daughters and these relationships that so fascinates you that you find such a rich field to mine?
Tan: Well, I feel I’ve always been writing about self-identity. How do we become who we are? So much a part of that for women are our mothers. Mothers have this huge influence, and I feel like they’re always teaching us from the day we’re born what to be afraid of, what to be cautious of, what we should like and what we should look like.
Then we spend half of our life trying to be not like them, and then we reach another part of our lives where we see these things we can’t get rid of. So I’m just writing from experience what’s concerned me.
Tavis: How much of your own experience works its way into these novels about specifically the issue of identity?
Tan: A lot of it. That one, for example, thinking about my grandmother and my mother and the things that have passed down generationally, so it’s not just my mother, but what did she get from her mother?
So I see this continuum. You could go back for 500 years, if you could, and see that there’s perhaps a streak of independence that was honed there for certain reasons, historically, and it’s come down.
That was something my mother always said, “You have to be your own person.” You can’t let people’s opinions determine how you think about yourself. There’s a difference between identity and self-identity. So that was definitely part of what I put in the novel, emotionally.
Tavis: What do you see as the distinction between those two things, identity and self-identity?
Tan: Well, for example, popularity. Popularity is given to you, and if you think that just because you’re really popular you’re a better person, it could be a real crash when you find the popularity goes down.
Or you could think that somebody dislikes you in high school. You’re not popular and people don’t like you. Or maybe you’ve been rich and then you lose your money.
How do people deal with these changes? Sometimes you change to survive, and some things you don’t give up, or you’re too prideful, and then you think well, what’s pride? Is it a good thing? Maybe it’s a bad thing.
So that’s what I look at in my life. It’s always a question in my life l look at, and I never find the answer, because if I did, probably I wouldn’t have books to write. (Laughs)
Tavis: That’s fascinating. We’ll talk about “The Valley of Amazement,” but what strikes me, in part, as interesting about one of the characters in here, the main character, in fact, is this struggle for identity about – yeah, I want to say – yeah, struggle for identity about the white and the Chinese part of –
Tan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story, though. I don’t want to give the story away, but I’ll let you tell – tell me about “The Valley of Amazement.”
Tan: Yeah. Well, the dichotomy, and it is a dichotomy, between white and Chinese was very present in Shanghai during the early 20th century. There was an international settlement, and the whites really looked down on the Chinese, even though they worked with them.
I feel that comes from my life, in part. If you’re the only Chinese girl in a white school, then you have that as well. “The Valley of Amazement,” it shows that through a girl who thinks she’s all-American. She says, “I knew exactly who I was at seven years old.”
She comes to realize she doesn’t know who she is. She thought she was all white, but she’s not; she’s part Chinese, and she’s cast in the world of Chinese, and she wonders what she can take with her.
Certainly not her American privilege. Her mother was somebody who ran a first-class courtesan house and a social club for Western men. She was white, from San Francisco, and in the chaos of the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty, mother and daughter separated.
Effectively, Violet, the young girl, feels that she was abandoned, and that was something that happened in my family as well. My mother, at some point during the turnover between the communists and the Kuomintang, she left China to follow her lover, my future father, and left three daughters behind.
So I’ve always been fascinated, or puzzled, by how she could do that, and what happened to those daughters in terms of their emotional development. I’ve, of course, since met my half-sisters, and we’re all very close, but I’ve talked about that – abandonment.
Tavis: How did your – let me step away from the novel now and I’ll come back to it in a second. How did your mother, as best you can tell, or as best you are told, how did she come to terms with that, leaving three babies behind?
Tan: The way she talked about it, she made it seem as though she had no other choice. She had an abusive husband. She tried to leave him; he had her thrown into jail. He wouldn’t let her have the girls.
I think perhaps she left thinking she could come back or send for them, but then the US and China closed down, and she could not see them for the next 30 years.
Those girls always believed that they would have been happy if she came back, that all their problems would be solved, and they also blamed her, because they were sent to the countryside to work in the rice fields, one of them for 19 years. She never left.
They were in part sent down because their mother left for America – punished for a mother’s crimes. So by the same token, I think my mother ended up feeling she could do that because her mother effectively abandoned her when she killed herself.
My mother always thought if her mother hadn’t left her, she would have been happy. All the problems she had never would have happened. So I think that that same emotional crisis was one that allowed her to say, “Well, sometimes that happens – a mother leaves her daughters for other reasons.”
Tavis: When I read – I’m going to come back to the book now. When I read your books, I always get the distinct feeling that the cities, the locations, are as much characters as the individuals.
Tan: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: In this book, be it Shanghai, be it San Francisco, that the cities are as much characters as the –
Tan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, Shanghai during that period was just booming, because it had all this foreign trade. It was very cosmopolitan. People from all over, refugees, people making a ton of money off the opium trade, all of them coming together.
It was a very sophisticated city, and there was a lot of poverty. I think that imprints itself on people who grew up there. Among my friends who are Shanghainese, either their mothers were born in Shanghai or they were born in Shanghai, there is a quality of them that’s very fierce, and people recognize that. You’re really fierce of your Shanghainese.
That’s part of the character of Shanghainese people. They’re good negotiators, they’re very persistent, and you grow up in an atmosphere like that – very competitive. That becomes part of your personality, Shanghai personality becomes part of yours. Just like New Yorkers, they’re often like that.
Tavis: Let me jump again one last time away from the text and back into real life – the novel, I should say, and back to real life. I wonder whether or not, to your mind, at least, these kinds of identity crises are issues that the current generation of Chinese Americans deal with.
I ask that because just reading a study the other day, and we all know this is nothing new, there’s more intermarriage in this country now than ever before. So in a real way, while your novel is set way back when, it is the case that in this country now so many of us are still wrestling with these identity questions in a nation that is more multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, and all that’s mixed up in ways now that it never has been, starting with the president of the United States.
Tan: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think there’s anything about the book that is relatable to the identity crisis that many people are struggling with today?
Tan: Yeah, yeah. I thought that some of that would have dissipated or gotten much better, but I continue to meet young people, even high school kids, who tell me they read that book or they read “The Joy Luck Club,” and they really identified with it.
That they felt misunderstood or left out. I think a lot of it has to do with the communities they grow up in, and the opportunities. So even though we have a Black president, is everybody getting the same opportunities? No. It’s a myth.
People think that Chinese people are the model minority, and that they get everything. But the greatest poverty in San Francisco, for example, second to African Americans, is the Chinese, or elder abuse, or suicide rates.
So there’s a hidden part of the problems that don’t get recognized over time, as they see people think there’s improvement. The problems are still there.
Tavis: So then is that a compliment to you, or does that concern you, when young people relate to certain parts of your book?
Tan: I’m touched when they are – you see a guy, you see a guy with a nose ring or something and he says, “I really loved your book, I really identified with that and I understand my parents better.” I’m really touched.
It I think is because they’re identifying with a lot of things having to do with their identity, and also their parents, and their parents come from another country, or that their friends are different.
They don’t feel alone as much. I think we often write because we feel a loneliness, and people read for the same reason, and then they come away feeling a little less lonely.
Tavis: That’s your contribution – making us feel a little less lonely. Amy Tan’s new book is called “The Valley of Amazement.” She, of course, a perennial “New York Times” best-selling author. Everything she writes goes on the top of the list, starting, of course, with “The Joy Luck Club.”
But this one, once again, is called “The Valley of Amazement,” the new one from Amy Tan. Amy, congratulations, and I hope it won’t be eight years before we see each other again.
Tan: (Laughs) Yes, I hope so too.
Tavis: It’s good to see you.
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