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How Amy Tan’s family stories made her a storyteller

Amy Tan was going to write a book about writing. But what came to her mind instead were memories of childhood, reflections on family treasures, photos, documents. In “Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir,” Tan explores revelations about her family and how her experiences steered her toward a life as an author. Tan joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the long-lasting and powerful influence childhood has had on one writer.

    Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Imagination and memory, tools Amy Tan has mined since her hugely successful debut in 1989 with the novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” followed by five other novels, two children’s books and more.

    In her fiction, she’s written of mothers and daughters and the Chinese-American experience.

    Now she explores just where the writing comes from in a new book titled “Where the Past Begins, A Writer’s Memoir.”

    And welcome to you.

  • Amy Tan:

    Good to be here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You actually call this an unintended memoir. When did you realize that’s what you were actually doing?

  • Amy Tan:

    I was going to write a book about writing, you know, how does the mind work, how does my writer’s mind work, creativity, imagination?

    And it wasn’t until I started writing things spontaneously and seeing that they kept reverting to what had happened to me in childhood, that it became more of a memoir.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the things that comes through in the book, as you’re pulling out documents and looking at photographs, each one is clearly a story, connecting to you as a storyteller, right?

  • Amy Tan:

    It was finding out that my father and mother were illegal, and that’s why my parents had lied on a form. Or it was finding out that I wasn’t my father’s favorite, things that were traumatic in a way, to discover at this age that you were lied to.

    And then I went into the reasons why and who I became. And that became part of the memoir. But it also had to do with my sensibility as a writer.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But your mother, of course, stands out as the most, I guess, vivid person in your life, and she was always looking, sort of living in the past, in a way.

  • Amy Tan:

    She hid that past, but it always kind of snuck up in different warnings that she gave me, like, don’t let a man kiss you, or don’t let a boy kiss you, and then you will end up pregnant, and you will kill the baby, and then — I mean, not knowing where that came from, and realizing later she was married to a sociopath, not my father, but somebody else.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In her life in China.

  • Amy Tan:

    Yeah, and then — the past then was always present in our lives.

    I found, you know, in unearthing all these things, one of the — I found poignant things about our relationship, the letters she wrote to me and the letters I wrote to her.

    I had always thought that we were apart. And what I realized in writing this, that we were almost dangerously, like, symbiotic twins, that there was almost a pathological need to be within each other’s feelings and to understand each other, which then I realized became part of my skills as a writer.

    You have to empathize with the characters. You have to sympathy for them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, I was almost wondering as I was reading. Obviously, these are real people in your life. But as you’re going back and looking, to what extent are they characters? Because you are a writer who writes characters.

  • Amy Tan:

    They were never characters.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No?

  • Amy Tan:

    It was like going back into my past and being that kid again, and this is my mother and my father, and I’m in that scene again, where my mother and brothers and I are in the car. My mother is in the front seat. Something is going on between my mother and my father.

    And I can — I notice everything that’s going on and I tell myself to be strong. My mother is about to commit suicide, and I know she’s going to do it, and then she opens the door and her foot is out.

    I was there again, reliving something that I had pushed out of my mind a long time ago.

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    Yes. She didn’t. I mean…

  • Amy Tan:

    She didn’t kill herself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No, no, but this was the threat.

  • Amy Tan:

    It was a constant, because she actually tried a number of times. We couldn’t ever dismiss it. It always made us quake.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I have seen your fiction referred to as semi-autobiographical. Is that fair? Is that true?

  • Amy Tan:

    Everybody’s — everybody’s novel is semi-autobiographical. I mean, you have questions, or the way you think of life, or the kind of people you think are interesting — or not interesting. People who have impacted your life and made you who you are, that’s who you put in your story.

    So they’re all autobiographical. People say it’s autobiographical even if I have written about a ghost, you know?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There are ghosts in your past, right, I mean, from the family. They are much alive as some of the real people.

  • Amy Tan:

    They are always with me.

    When I’m writing, what often happens is — are strange coincidences, and then I think, these are the clues. It’s like a little thing I have to follow, and I keep following more coincidences. I’m on the right track. And then I find something that is shocking, that maybe my grandmother was a courtesan. You know, my mother had been in jail.

    All of these things come together, and they make sense. Fiction makes those things happen faster, because I let myself go, and I’m not as self-conscious. But all these things from the past, they somehow rise up when you let go and say it’s fiction.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re used to praise and criticism for the fiction.

    Does this feel different, putting this out into the world, this slice of your real self, right?

  • Amy Tan:

    Yeah, I wrote this thing so spontaneously, and I didn’t get to edit it in the way that I wanted. And it feels very raw. It feels too new.

    So, it’s not criticism about the writing, so much as about privacy and misinterpretation of who I am. And it’s almost as though I can’t bear to hear people talking about me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you’re the one who put it out there…

  • Amy Tan:

    I know.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … yourself, right?

  • Amy Tan:

    It’s a contradiction. It’s a contradiction I have in myself, to be very private, and then I write about privacy.

    I’m uncensored in a way and contradictory as a writer. So, I’m very ambivalent about this book. It’s out there. I told my editor I hate it. It’s too early to be out there. I’m still the kid. I haven’t grown up yet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, well, it’s out there. And it’s called “Where the Past Begins, A Writer’s Memoir.”

    Amy Tan, thank you very much.

  • Amy Tan:

    Thank you.

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