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What inspired Amy Tan to go from a technical telecommunications writer to writing novels?

Amy Tan with her mother. Still from film. Courtesy of KPJR Films.

When Amy Tan first ventured into creative writing, she was on a mission. Tan had spent most of her career as a freelance technical and marketing writer — creating ad copy, direct mail campaigns and  various materials for telecommunication companies. She was working nearly 90 hours a week and had made a successful career for herself. Still, there was something missing: she lacked passion in what she was doing. She simply was no longer interested in the work that consumed so much of her time and her energy. She ached to do something she truly cared about, something that mattered to her. That’s when she discovered creative writing. “I was looking for something more meaningful, and that’s why I started writing fiction.”

As soon as she began to write for herself, Tan found what had up to that point been eluding her. She became compelled by her work. For the first time, she felt like writing was a gift – a way to better understand herself, her family, and the world in which she grew up.

“The things I discovered about writing at that point were so important to me. It was the notion that you could write and find out what you really believed and felt. All these things that had been submerged, they just came out. And it was through fiction, because fiction gave you a place of safety. It wasn’t about you, it was about these characters. But, it was about you…And at that point, I knew I would write for the rest of my life.”

Not long after Tan discovered her true calling, she received a phone call informing her that her mother had suffered a heart attack. She felt overcome with despair. She worried that she’d missed her chance to hear her mother’s stories, to bond with her on a deeper, more meaningful level. She promised God that if her mother survived, she would truly get to know her.

As it turned out, her mother hadn’t had a heart attack after all. She had been hospitalized with chest pains after a stressful trip to the fish market, but she would be fine. Awash with gratitude and relief, Tan decided to keep her promise to God. She would listen to her mother’s stories. Really listen. And she would write about her.

From there, “The Joy Luck Club” was born. This novel, which consists of eight intertwined Chinese American mother-daughter stories, would launch Tan head on into celebrity status as a writer and win her widespread literary acclaim.

Tan wrote “The Joy Luck Club” to better understand and honor her mother, with whom she often had a strained relationship. In exploring the theme of relationships between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters, she gained profound insight into her mother’s unique challenges as a Chinese immigrant living in America. She had no idea the impact that these stories would have on other Chinese Americans, writers of color, and immigrant families.

The novel became an instant best seller, and was initially met with enormous praise. It resonated with people from every background, every walk of life. It was among one of the first novels authored by an Asian American writer to become a mainstream success. It was honest, vulnerable, and universal.

The author Isabel Allende remembered reading Tan’s novel for the first time and seeing the similarities between her own Latin American family, “Those grandmothers are like my grandmother and that makes it so close, so personal, so touching in so many ways, and I think that’s what every reader feels anywhere in the world, in any language, when they read Amy.”

While Chinese Americans recognized an authentic voice in Tan’s writing, non-Asian Americans also saw the humanity in the characters whom they realized were not so different from themselves; they shared the same hopes and suffered the same heart aches.

It wasn’t long before the world looked to Tan to represent her entire culture — her entire demographic — all on her own. It was an enormous weight for any one person to carry. “I didn’t seek to be a representative of a whole community of people. I just hoped to write some good stories. And yet, when I was given this mantle of speaking for the Asian American community, suddenly there were these expectations.”

There was also criticism that came from within the Asian-American community. Although “The Joy Luck Clubwas applauded for portraying its characters as relatable, human, and authentic, critics felt Tan relied too heavily on Chinese tropes in an effort to cater to Western consumers. They believed her use of broken English, Chinese fables, and stories of concubines were stereotypical and offensive.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know what to say,” Tan said of the criticism. “I would be caught off guard. But then I realized, what they really wanted was role models. They wanted me to right the social wrongs, the social injustices, and finally they had somebody in the limelight who should now address that and not be pandering, so to speak, to the mainstream.”

Initially, the pressure seemed insurmountable to Tan. After all, she had never undertaken to represent an entire culture or to pander to Chinese stereotypes – she drew simply from her own experiences and relationships. “My mother speaks broken English, my grandmother was a concubine,” Tan explained.

Ultimately, Tan decided the best and most realistic option was for her to just write about what she knew and understood. She knew that accurately representing the experience of millions of Asian Americans or appeasing her diverse readership was unachievable. She realized that trying to be an activist as well as a writer would diminish the authenticity of her writing.

Once she returned to her roots and gave herself permission to continue to tell only her own story, Tan was able to put the weight of the criticisms and expectations to rest. “You have to write what’s personally important to you,” Tan said. In doing that, she ensured her ability to continue to breach cultural divides and gift her readers with a rich and authentic glimpse into her world, without apology or reservation.

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TRANSCRIPT

♪ ♪ [ Seagulls calling ] [ Foghorn ] ♪ [ Birds chirping ] -All right. What's that?

Where is her photos?

What did I put -- do with them?

I used to have this all organized, and now -- Okay, let me see.

This is my mother as a young woman with her friends.

This is the back of the mansion where she lived just out of Shanghai.

In my office is a time capsule.

Seven large, clear plastic bins safeguarding frozen moments in time.

A past that began before my birth.

During the writing of this book, I delved into the contents.

Memorabilia, letters, photos, and the like.

And what I found had the force of glaciers calving.

I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain.

I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know.

The latter can be satisfied with information.

The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.

♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ [ Clock ticking ] You know, when you're writing, I think you're naturally going through some kind of subconscious, philosophical construct, your own cosmology, how the world is put together and how events happened and what's related, what's coincidental.

Okay.

It's not as though I want to change the past.

It's really trying to understand how these things come together to bring you where you are.

-If you want to visit the overflow crowd, or if we've hit your time where you need your down time. -Whatever you want.

-No, it's whatever want, actually.

-I often think I'm just dreaming my life.

You know, I really -- There have been so many times I've nearly died, car accidents or whatever.

Maybe something really happened, and I've been unconscious or in a coma all these years, and I've dreamt this life up.

[ Indistinct conversations ] -Please join me in welcoming Amy Tan.

[ Cheers and applause ] -What I'd like to do tonight is tell you what kind of experiences went into me to propel myself into writing.

A lot of people think, well, you know from the beginning... [ Birds chirping ] My father was the oldest of 12, and he became an engineer.

Being the oldest, my father had the most responsibility.

But, as it turns out, he was also the most handsome, the most articulate, the best English.

Many women would have loved him, but he chose my mother.

This is 1959.

Here we are having a carefree moment.

The family goes off into the future.

And this shot, that's my little brother, and that's me.

[ Piano music playing ] -I have fond memories of my mom playing piano.

She would play Mozart, Beethoven, um, Bach.

She was brilliant.

They really wanted us to be engrossed in the American values, and that's why I don't have an accent.

They really wanted to be perfect Americans.

But I know later in years, they also wanted to make sure that we understood where the Chinese culture came from, our heritage, and what was respected.

-This is me on my 4th birthday.

She's my best friend to this day.

The one at the end, Sandy.

Her mother and father were members of the original Joy Luck Club.

♪ -All my parents' siblings were in China.

So, I always considered Amy and her siblings to be my cousins.

[ Laughter ] The Joy Luck Club was formed by a few couples, all Chinese, who decided they wanted to be an investment group.

They would pick stocks, review them, and then they would socialize afterwards.

Mostly women played mahjong.

The men preferred to play cards.

Then, about midnight, they would have a feast.

We would love it, as children.

Get to stay up late, get to see our aunties and uncles.

[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪ What I remember is there is this comfort level of being with like people, especially for my mom who grew up in Shanghai.

Auntie Daisy, Amy's mom, was also from Shanghai.

I can imagine how comforting that would feel.

♪ I loved Amy's dad, Uncle John.

He had a really warm smile, really warm and welcoming demeanor.

♪ -My father's avocation was the ministry, and it was my mother who made him quit the ministry because it was a life of poverty.

He went back to his former occupation in engineering.

He worked seven days a week.

My mother worked, as well.

He also was going to school, getting a master's degree, and, in his spare time, he was still substitute preaching.

♪ -Auntie Daisy was a spitfire.

She was small. She spoke rapidly.

I could hear her voice, like, 'Amy-ah,' with this furrowed brow.

♪ -This is a mother who would tell me things like, 'You should never let anyone tell you who you should be or what you should do.

You should never let anyone talk down to you.

You should never feel you have to get married if you don't want to get married.

And no one should tell you you must have a baby -- not your husband, not your mother-in-law, not your friends.'

She said, 'But you should have a good job, because if you do get married and your husband is mean, you can leave him immediately without question.' [ Laughter ] My mother had other advice like that, like crossing the street.

A lot of parents look both ways, you know.

My mother did the look both ways, but she said, 'You don't look, maybe a car comes, smash you flat like a sanddab, both eyes on one side of your face.'

[ Laughter ] You never forget after that.

You never forget.

I remember this fear of shame.

When it was my birthday, I was so afraid my mother would do something like bring Chinese food.

And I remember being relieved when she brought the requisite cupcakes.

My father was an amateur photographer, and he liked to pose people.

Posed. Posed.

He was a good photographer.

See how they loved my older brother?

The golden child.

They were constantly comparing me and my brother Peter.

He was always doing well.

He skipped a grade.

He was independent and polite and behaved, and they would say, 'Why can't you be more like Peter?'

I loved my brother Peter. He was my hero.

He was the person who taught me so many different things, and he never made himself to be superior, but I really sensed it, especially from my father.

This past year, while examining the contents of those boxes, I was gratified to learn that many of my childhood memories were largely correct.

But there were also shocking discoveries about my mother and father, including a little white lie they told me when I was 6.

When I was in the first grade, the woman came to our school, took me into this little room, gave me -- I don't know, she probably called them puzzles or something because I was a little kid.

About a few weeks later, I came home from school, and there she was in the living room, and she was talking to my mom and dad.

And then the woman left, and my parents said to me -- They were all excited, and they said, 'You know, you took this test, and the lady said to us you are smart enough to be a doctor.

You are going to be a doctor.' [ Laughter ] So that's how my career was decided, on the basis of a test.

Now I was going to be a doctor and a concert pianist on the weekend.

A lot of people think I'm joking, but this truly was the expectation.

[ Piano music playing ] ♪ -When I was 9 years old, my mother's version of believing in me was believing that I could be anything, anything she wanted.

The best piano prodigy this side of China.

-I resented the piano.

It was a little slave master, you know, where I had to get everything right.

You know, the right rhythm, the right fingering, the right notes, the right expression.

So, I didn't really get a chance to enjoy music as my mother would have hoped.

I was getting ready for my first recital, which was a talent show at the church.

And you can see, I have on patent leather shoes and this beautiful violet dress.

[ Applause ] I had memorized a piece -- Bach.

Simple minuet.

I started playing.

[ Piano playing ] ♪ And I got stuck about five measures in.

I started over again, and I got stuck in the same place.

I did it over and over until the audience started to clap, and I knew I was being sent away.

[ Piano playing ] [ Laughter ] I told my mother I did not want to play the piano anymore.

And she said, 'Okay, fine, why you listen to me?

No play piano, go outside.

Play there.

Don't have to listen to mother because maybe soon, I dead anyway.'

♪ She was not a tiger mom.

She was a suicidal mother.

And that's very different from simply being a demanding mother who wants that kind of perfection.

It was, 'If you don't feel the way that I do, I might as well kill myself.'

Very different.

♪ ♪ There was a Sunday when it was my birthday.

We all went to church.

My mother decided to stay behind.

I don't know why, but when we returned home, I had been expecting a cake.

And instead, the furniture was turned upside-down.

All the chairs in the living room, the coffee table was just as though she had thrown everything.

There was going to be no cake and no lunch and no dinner.

♪ My father took me out that day.

We went up to a hill, and he took some pictures.

My father posed me and told me to look at him, and I wouldn't because I was crying.

♪ I know that the situations that would cause her to become almost insane is if you did not, in her mind, respect her.

So, she might have said something, and you just ignored it, or you said something critical about her in front of somebody else.

That was suicide.

That was gonna trigger suicide.

She had no way of coping with anything like that.

♪ The girl and her brothers are sitting in the back seat of the car, coming back from church.

Her mother turns to her father to say something, and right away, she knows it's bad.

Her voice is broken, squeaky, and jagged as words scrape through her throat.

'That what you want? You want to go, then go!

Or I go first.'

Her father reaches for her mother's hand.

But she snatches it back.

It's getting worse.

And just as she thinks that, her mother grunts something that sounds like, 'Mm-hmm.

Maybe I'll kill myself right now, then everybody happy.'

[ Door creaks ] She hears the car door creak.

It's cracked open.

The car swerves one way and then the other.

Her mother puts her right leg out the car door.

The road grabs her mother's right shoe, and it's gone in an instant.

Her mother leans her whole body out, then the car swerves again, and she feels the tires slip and go off the road.

And soon, she hears the sound of crunching gravel until they stop.

[ Tires screech ] When she sits up, she sees her mother is still in the car.

Finally, her mother gives up and says, in a howling kind of voice, 'I want to die.'

♪ And then the girl feels her cheeks.

She's crying, and she doesn't know when it started.

She just wants everything to be over.

♪ At that time, I wrote.

I wrote stories.

Writing was almost like letters to myself, and often, they had to do with angry feelings I had say with my mother or, um, something I was frustrated about.

So, it was like a confidant in a way.

But it never occurred to me that I could be a writer.

I wanted to be an artist.

Drawing was very private, and I could do it for hours.

Pencil drawings mostly -- a cat, a horse, a girl, a tree, a house, whatever it was.

It was private.

I think what intruded was this notion it had to be perfect, and I saw other kids who were better at drawing.

And then ultimately, I had an art teacher who said I wasn't very creative, that I had no imagination and that I didn't have what it would take to get to a deeper level of creativity.

And, you know, at that point, um, it seemed there were enough signs that I should not pursue that.

Plus, my parents would be extremely disappointed if I did something that was purely fun.

Whether it's encouragement or discouragement, it just stays with you.

I remember I asked my mother, 'Would I be considered beautiful in China?'

She says, 'Well, maybe average.'

And I was so crushed, because I thought, 'Well, I'm -- I'm kind of ugly in American culture.

Wouldn't I be at least beautiful in Chinese culture?' No.

[ Chuckling ] I was average.

So much for my mother's honesty.

♪ -Auntie Daisy and Uncle John were two of the founding members of The Joy Luck Club.

And Uncle John actually came up with the name Joy Luck Club.

And they were regular members until Peter had his brain tumor and Uncle John had his.

-Shortly after this Christmas, my older brother Peter was discovered to have an inoperable brain tumor.

My father, the Baptist minister, prayed to God and had the congregations pray for a miracle.

My mother joined him in all of this, wrote letters.

Every day, it was a visit to my brother who was unconscious.

♪ At the end of six months, two weeks before my brother died, my father was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, with a brain tumor.

♪ -When Peter was diagnosed with his brain tumor, it seemed like a short period of time from when he died.

Six months later, Uncle John died.

And, s-- I think Uncle John might have been in the hospital when Peter died.

So he couldn't really be where he wanted to be, with his son.

-Two weeks before my father died, a minister came to counsel me because I had been discovered reading a very bad book, 'Catcher in the Rye.' [ Laughter ] Banned book.

He was a youth minister, and he came into the room, and we were sitting on the bed, and he was talking about how I had caused my father more pain than the brain tumor.

So, I started to cry, of course.

And then he said, 'Let's pray for forgiveness.'

And we did, and I was still crying.

He said, 'You shouldn't cry now.'

And I was still crying, and then he started to tickle me on my side.

And then he threw me on the bed.

And he tickled me even further.

He tickled me all over.

He tickled me under my dress.

And when he was done, he said to me, 'You have a very dirty mind, and no one's going to believe you.'

So I came out of that room a very angry girl.

I was a daddy's girl. I loved my older brother.

They were my protectors, and they were gone.

I was left with this crazy, suicidal mother.

♪ After my father and brother died, my mother was in such turmoil over what we were going to do with the rest of our lives.

She thought it was a curse, and she started seeing omens in everything.

One day, she was washing dishes, and she picked up this can of, I think it was called Old Dutch Cleanser.

and she just said, 'Holland.

Holland is clean.

We're moving to Holland.'

With anybody else, that would be a joke, but with my mother, that was the reason why she decide we go to Holland.

Maybe we would be able to outrun this curse that was after us.

-We packed all our clothes.

The furniture went to relatives.

I didn't even know that she sold the house.

We ended up on a boat.

-This is my mother and all of us going to the Netherlands.

We arrived with no idea where we were going to live.

And we ended up drifting.

We ended up going to Switzerland.

-We lived on a little chalet on a mountain.

Beautiful. We could see Lake Geneva every day, waking up to Lake Geneva.

-And here's the house where I used to live.

Here's the window in the bedroom.

There's the view of Montreux.

And what happened there was not only all the pent-up anger I had had and was not able to express about the death of my brother and father, it was now the freedom to have boyfriends, to be friends with rich girls who wore makeup.

I started smoking.

I almost ran off and eloped with a German army deserter.

My mother thought he was going to ruin me, and she could do nothing to dissuade me.

-When my mom was on her own, there was a lot of grief and a lot of shouting.

She was angry of everything that was happening.

-We had many, many arguments.

I remember times when I would go into the bathroom so she couldn't see me. I would be absolutely placid, and I'd go in the bathroom, and then I'd have dry heaves.

And then I'd come out, and I didn't want her to see that it affected me whatsoever.

Nothing that she said could change me.

-It was part of my decision to not be like her at all, to not have those emotions.

But I came home one day, and she was raging.

She had this way of breathing.

It was [Breathing heavily] like that, and her face was crazed.

And she pushed me, and she kept pushing me into the bedroom, and she locked it from the inside, and she tossed the key somewhere.

And she had this cleaver.

And she backed me up against the wall, and she just said, 'It's enough. It's time.

I'm going to kill you first and then D.D.' -- That's what we called my brother -- 'And then I'm going to kill myself, and we will all be with Daddy and Peter.'

And sh-- Her eyes were different.

Her eyes were glazed.

In a way, they were gone.

It wasn't just anger. It was, she was gone.

And I thought, she's really -- She's crazy.

She's gonna do it.

And I remember looking out the window, looking out on Lake Geneva and the French Alps and I just looked, and I said, 'This is it, and it's so sad.

It's so sad that this is what it has come to.'

And what came out of my throat -- I thought was a complete betrayal to me -- was a voice.

The voice said, 'I want to live. I want to live. I want to live.'

♪ When that voice said, 'I want to live.

I want to live,' that was the end of it.

That's all I remember up and to that point.

After a while, I found out that I could graduate a year early.

I had my reason to leave home.

-After they moved, we didn't see them for a few years.

And then when Amy and her family came back from Switzerland, I guess I was a freshman in college at San Jose State.

And Amy and her boyfriend, Lou, had transferred from Linfield College.

I looked them up, and we started seeing each other again.

I had to get used to the idea that there was this guy now in the picture.

-Lou was actually a blind date.

I was in a sorority, and somebody decided for some crazy reason to ask him to go to a function.

And when I found out what she had done, I said, 'I am not going out with this guy.'

-It wasn't exactly love at first sight.

It was more maybe cluelessness at first sight because I wasn't, uh, adversely reacting to all of the things that Amy did to make it seem that she wanted nothing to do with me.

-He was mellow, nice, handsome.

-He was built in a muscle way that I've always found unattractive in men.

I always feel that the amount of muscle mass kind of detracts from the mass in the brain.

We overcame these faults of his somehow.

-Within a month, it was pretty evident that we were going to make a go of it.

-Dad, Mom? -Hi.

-This is Rose Hsu, my girlfriend.

-Hello. -Hi.

-His parents did not like me and always trying to get us to break up.

She said it was because of the Vietnam War.

-He's going to be working with his father in the company, and, uh, he's going to be judged by people of a different standard, and they won't be as understanding as we are.

-Mrs. Jordan, you sound as if Ted and I are getting married.

That's hardly the case.

-Oh, I know, dear, it's just that, well, the way the world is, how unpopular Vietnam was -- -I'm not Vietnamese. I'm American.

-I would not want to dismiss them as hard-core racists.

They weren't that.

But they still had difficulty accepting Amy that was a cloud on the relationship really, through-- throughout our lives.

-We were so young, and he didn't know how to stand up for me to his parents.

And so I said, 'This is it.

Either we get married, or it's over.'

So that was the proposal.

[ Chuckles ] And he said, 'Oh, okay.'

[ Laughs ] Four months later, we got married.

[ Chuckles ] He was such a nice guy, and I had the thought that my father would have liked him.

-I lived with my mom in San Leandro.

I think I was 16 or 17 years old.

Amy and Lou had come down to visit.

-Shrimp, my favorite.

-And my mom had made over -- I would say, 200 to 300 pot stickers.

And they came, and they ate most of them.

Oh, my God. He just, like, wolfed those down.

I was so pissed. [ Laughs ] I said, 'Don't ever bring him back.'

-All this needs is a little soy sauce.

-[ Gasps ] -The entire world assumes it must be me.

I can't count the times I've -- I've met people, and they say, 'I know you.

You were the guy who said, 'All it needs is a little soy sauce.'' And I think the irony to that story is that I actually managed to make a halfway decent first impression.

-He's like a brother to me.

I mean, when I lost my brother, he came into my life.

He supported me as much as possible.

And he was very conscious of keeping my mom happy and so forth.

-There was a brief period of time that I actually probably had a better relationship with Amy's mother than Amy did.

They were at loggerheads because Amy was finally telling her mother, 'No, I'm not going to be a medical doctor and a concert pianist by night,' you know.

'I'm going to do this my way.'

There you are, puffing away. -Oh.

-[ Laughs ] -You've turned it on?

-Yeah. -Oh, no.

My mother will see this, and she'll be... -She won't approve.

At that point, I really had the love-hate relationship with my mother.

I knew what kind of support she needed to not kill herself.

So I'd started writing letters to her when I went to college.

'Dear Mom, Boy! It sure was good talking to you on the telephone, even though I didn't say anything too profound.'

And in a way, it was similar to what I do now with characters.

I have to make myself emotionally like those characters.

And that's what I did with my mother.

It was necessary 'cause she was alone in the world.

She needed that.

-Lou and I talked about kids, and I was a little afraid that, what if I had a child who would be -- A, like me once they are a teen, you know, a lot of trouble, or would be -- be sick, like my brother, die.

I would have been a terrible mother.

I would have been like my mother.

I would have been worried all the time about every single possibility of disease and danger.

And so that became the decision.

-Hi. -Hello.

-Oh, look at you. -Whoops! Look at you!

-I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about your pre-'Joy Luck Club' world.

-You know, I had another bestseller.

It sold -- You know what these numbers are.

When you have a bestseller, you have to sell a certain amount in the first week.

I'd sold 80,000 copies and went in for two reprints.

It was called 'Telecommunications and You.'

[ Laughter ] It was published for IBM, and -- [ Laughter ] I was a business writer before I started writing fiction.

-Amy was a linguistics and English major.

And I remember her wanting to write.

John, my husband, started a business.

He had one phone line that was Dial-a-Joke, another phone line that was Dial Michael Jackson, and another one that had astrology.

So he hired Amy to write astrology.

She was very creative, and she would make it up.

[ Laughter ] -I was doing a little bit of ad copy, direct mail, the really sleazy stuff.

You know, like, 'Do these exercises, and your vision will become perfect,' or, 'Study this course, and you'll be a doctor.'

I had materials I wrote for a telecommunications company.

I was the subject matter expert on ISDN and wide area networks and the divestiture of AT&T, all subjects I had absolutely no interest in.

I was doing really well. I had a lot of clients.

I was working about 90 billable hours a week, and -- which meant I didn't have a lot of time to sleep or eat or be social.

And I was looking for something more meaningful, and that's why I started writing fiction.

I met somebody who encouraged me to read fiction again, and she gave me a reading list, and she was a writer.

And I started to write, and the things I discovered about writing at that point were so important to me.

It was the notion that you could write and find out what you really believed and felt.

All these things that had been submerged, they just came out.

And it was through fiction, because fiction gave you a place of safety.

It wasn't about you. It was about these characters.

But it was about you.

And at that point, I knew I would write the rest of my life.

I would write fiction the rest of my life.

1985. 33 years old.

I never was so egotistical as to think I could make a living doing that.

-The telling moment for Amy and her mother was when we were on vacation in Hawaii.

She got a phone call from her brother.

He said that mom had just had a heart attack, and this sounded like a life-threatening situation.

-As I went to a phone booth to call the hospital, I was sure it was too late.

As I waited to be connected, I made a vow to God and whoever was listening, if my mother lives, I will get to know her.

I will ask her about her past, and this time, I'll actually listen to what she has to say.

Why, I'll even take her to China, and, yes, I'll write stories about her.

All at once, I heard my mother's voice.

'Amy-ah.'

'Oh, Mom. Are you okay?'

'Yes. Fine. Fine.'

'Listen, I thought you had a heart attack. I thought --' My mother cut me off with a huff.

'Heart attack? No, no, no, no.

I go to fish market, and the fishmonger, he try cheating me.

Make me so mad.

All sudden, I got a pain in my chest, hurt me so bad, so I drive to Kaiser Hospital.

Turn out I have angina caused by stress.

So you see, that fishmonger, he wrong.

Stressed me out.'

-Buy something like this.

-What is it? Looks good.

-After I hung up, I heard a voice saying, 'Hey, don't forget, now.

You promised.'

♪ I started to ask her about her life, and I listened.

Instead of saying, 'I'm really busy now.

I can't -- I can't listen to you,' I would listen to everything.

And that profoundly changed everything.

I wasn't fighting it anymore, and I learned a lot by simply being quiet and actually listening.

-Remember you used to want to go back to China to live?

Why?

-At about that time, Amy really started writing as a mental health break from all of the business work that she was doing.

While Amy was writing these stories, she would frequently sit down and just let her mother tell her life story.

-Okay, no.

-Uh-huh, mm-hmm.

Mm-hmm.

Mm-hmm.

What month was that? -That's... -My dad and my mother never told us about their lives in China when we were growing up.

And then later in the years, she finally said, 'You have sisters in China.'

And I said, 'What? Sisters? What do you mean, sisters?'

Yeah, she told us that we have three past sisters.

I was just kind of, like, dumbfounded, like, what? I don't -- I don't know what are their names and how -- how old are they, where they've been living.

That kind of information took a while to figure out.

Amy and Lou and Mom went back to China to go visit the family.

-Yeah. Look where we are. We're in Shanghai.

[ Indistinct conversations in Mandarin Chinese ] -We went to China so Amy could really get close to Amy's mother's history and family.

[ Indistinct conversations in Mandarin Chinese ] -We're on the train on our way to Qingdao.

-It doesn't get any better than this.

This is the, uh, front of Communist Martyrs Hotel.

[ Bird chirping loudly ] Piano that accompanied the building or the hotel, I guess.

-Come on. Come on.

[ Piano playing ] ♪ -I can't do it.

♪ ♪ [ Indistinct conversations ] -After that, they decided to see if any of the siblings would want to come to America.

-Amy. -Yeah?

-[ Chuckles ] -Yes.

Oh, that picture is good.

-Yeah.

♪ I didn't understand until I was an adult what she meant by sacrifices.

They were all that she had left behind in Shanghai, where she had had a life of privilege starting from the age of 9, when her widowed mother married the richest man on the island outside of Shanghai.

She went from being the honorable widow of a poor scholar to a wealthy man's fourth wife, one of his concubines.

One version of clan history cast her as the victim of a rape by the rich man, which resulted in pregnancy.

-[ Crying ] -To teach her husband a lesson, she swallowed opium.

She had only meant to scare him, my mother explained.

She died by accident.

But there were a few times when she acknowledged that her mother killed herself because she could not take it anymore.

Sometimes she felt the same, she would say.

♪ She was about 18 here, and I think, to judge by how innocent she looks, it was before she married what -- who she called 'that bad man,' a pilot who was supposed to marry her stepsister.

The man threw that woman over to marry my mother because she was beautiful.

This is when you were 18?

Yeah. Mm.

You wore a white dress?

Mm.

Mm-hmm.

Mm.

Mm-hmm.

Yeah.

Mm-hmm.

Mm-hmm.

Just so you know how bad he was, he was somebody who made his daughters bring home their schoolmates so he could rape them.

[ Audience groaning ] This is a man my mother could not leave.

By the laws of marriage at that time, she -- she had to stay with him.

And during that time with him, she had four children, a son and three daughters.

That first son that you had then, how did he die?

'Si ren bu guan,' meaning doesn't something matter?

Yeah. Oh -- 'Si ren bu guan.' -Uh-huh.

-'He dies, I don't care.'

-Uh-huh.

♪ -My father took this photo in Tianjin.

He was working for the U.S. Information Agency, and she was visiting that town with her sister-in-law.

Once she met him, she stayed, effectively abandoning her marriage.

And this was during the height of my mother and father's affair.

Unfathomable love during this time that could conquer everything.

♪ They had this affair for at least two seasons, and then her husband, who hired a detective, had her hauled back to Shanghai and put in jail.

She tried to kill herself, of course, in jail, was hospitalized.

And during that time, my father had his conscience stirred.

And he felt that he played this terrible role in destroying this marriage and this family.

He pledged that he would love her forever, and if she could free herself, she should join him in the United States, and then he left.

She got the divorce eventually through trickery and through the help of relatives.

What happens to a person when they leave their daughters behind?

What kind of guilt comes up?

♪ As my mother tells it, when they announced that John Tan's bride was coming from Shanghai, there were several women who shrieked and then ran out in tears.

[ Chuckling ] I don't know whether that's true.

She was in love, so she did what she needed to do.

♪ -It was hard to wrap my head around all the different aspects of Aunty Daisy's past.

What helped is that I had a half-brother, and knowing the story of my grandmother being a concubine, which was not easy to say, because the culture is different, talking to people in the -- in the States.

It was hard, I think, for them to understand what that meant.

I learned about Aunty Daisy's past, I think it was as Amy was developing her stories.

-Amy had written a few stories that she didn't really connect up with as a novel or anything, but she went to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and got a lot of good feedback to encourage her to keep writing.

-I was teaching at Squaw Valley, and we had Wednesday afternoons off.

So a bunch of us took the tram up to the top of the mountain.

I didn't know Amy. She was in the tram.

We got up the mountain.

It started to hail, and the lightning was going.

Our guide, who said he knew the mountain like the back of his hand, did, in the winter.

He was a ski instructor.

He did not know how to get us down in the summer.

So it took us maybe two or three hours.

I mean, we're all good writers but bad athletes.

We're -- None of us were exactly in shape.

And we edged our way down the ravines.

And when we got to the bottom, Amy Tan unzipped her fanny pack and pulled out a single cigarette.

And I remember they took a picture.

This white jersey skirt of mine was -- had been hailed on.

It had mud on it. It had blood on it.

It was just sort of dragging around my ankles at that point.

But Amy looked perfect, and then the one cigarette.

Perfect. [ Laughs ] The next day, she felt that we'd been through something together, and she asked if I would take a look at her story.

And I did, and I loved it, and it was a mess, and I still loved it.

And I remember saying to her, this would be wonderful.

You should break this into 12 separate short stories.

And Amy said my favorite word as a student, 'Okay.'

And she did it. So that's how it started, and it happened fast after that. It happened very fast.

-Molly Giles said, 'I think you should meet a writer I'm working with, Amy Tan.'

And so Amy came armed with an outline.

And the title was 'Wind and Water.'

And I said, 'Well, coming from California, I will be laughed out of Manhattan if I come in with a book called 'Wind and Water.'' In the synopsis were these four magical words, the Joy Luck Club.

And I got goose pimples when I saw those words.

That's my goose pimple test.

And I said, 'Could we use that as a title?'

And Amy said, 'that's just a club my parents have.

You know, they meet on Thursday nights. They play mahjong.'

-It was like 'The Girl Scouts of America.'

I mean, it just sounded so prosaic, you know.

-It's a stock planning club, you know?

And I said, 'Well, you know, who doesn't want joy luck, and who doesn't want to be a member of that club?'

By the way, there's now a restaurant in New York which is a derivative called the Soy Luck Club.

[ Laughter ] -One of the nights we were at Amy and Lou's house was the night there was a bidding war for her first book.

She would excuse herself from our table, and she'd talk to her agent, and she'd come back, and she goes, 'Knopf just bid on my book.'

And then another phone call would come in, and, 'Putnam just bid on my book.'

-Amy thought, 'Well, I've got this contract.

I get to write my book, and it will be published.

But in six months, it will be life back as we lived it before.'

And when it took off, did I expect it?

No, I did not.

-'The Joy Luck Club' went right to #1 on the bestseller list.

-When 'The Joy Luck Club' hit, it really hit.

It was a revolution. [ Laughs ] -The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

-It was the longest running #1 book on the -'The Joy Luck Club' was so massive when it came out.

I mean, everybody loved it.

It was just a magical book to appear.

There was nothing like it.

-And now I see that I am not the only one with the mother that says all of this stuff that sounds unbelievable.

-It was hard to believe the success.

Everybody embraced the book.

-I have to tell her that she has accomplished a mission with me, showing that women do have histories.

I don't experience that as a, you know, like, a political experience.

That's a deeply emotional experience for me to feel like now my history is part of a larger history, also.

-It was published in 1989, and even then, I said to myself, 'This is not gonna last.

I have to go back to the work that I had before to make a living. This is for fun.'

And it took me from March until October to finally realize I could do this for the rest of my life, just write stories.

-Tell me what you think your gift is that enables what you say to resonate with so many people.

-I think in part, it's nothing unusual.

It's the fact that I'm a baby boomer.

I'm an American born in this country, and I'm a baby boomer, and I have feelings that a lot of women my age have, and one of that is this fear of, what would I lose if I lost my mother?

Um, what do I lose by not knowing about the past?

In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.

They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they're stupid when they explain things in fractured English.

They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed, American-born minds, 'joy luck' is not a word. It does not exist.

They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.

♪ -I was a voracious reader from an early age, and she was the first Asian-American author I had read, and she was the first person that was reflecting back to me part of a world I knew.

She showed me the glamorous Shanghai of the '30s.

She showed me all these back stories that I knew about and could relate to from my family story.

And then, the counterpoint of that was to showcase the Asian-American experience, the second generation of daughters who have to deal with these mothers who came from China.

There were moments there that I could so relate to as an immigrant.

-My mother saw danger in everything, even in other Chinese people.

Where we lived and shopped, everyone spoke Cantonese or English.

My mother was from Wuxi, near Shanghai, so she spoke Mandarin and a little bit of English.

-Being bi-cultural is an asset for a writer.

It gives you curiosity.

You want to ask questions. You want to understand deeply.

And uh, in the answers, you get stories.

That's what Amy has been doing.

She observes her mother and her aunts and the culture, and at the same time, she totally belongs here.

So it's in the contrast, in the complexity, that she finds her language and her inspiration.

-Not to do any disservice to the amazing Asian-American writers that came before Amy, but I think this was the first book to really cross over into becoming a mainstream, mass-market success.

It had such a huge impact on paving the way for other writers of color to tell their stories.

-When I actually was about to be published, I gave my mother the book to read, and her remark was, 'It was so easy to read.'

She, more than anyone, knew what was fiction, and that it wasn't some sort of autobiography, but she also knew the emotions and the situations, the conflicts that we had that were embedded in the story, and felt that I understood her completely.

She didn't have to tell me why she was angry about things or why she was worried about me.

It was all in the book.

♪ -Amy and -- and myself, we write about emotions and relationships, and those are universal.

So reading Amy, I realize that, wow, these people are just like me, like my Latin American family.

What's the difference?

Those grandmothers are like my grandmother, and that makes it so close, so personal, so touching in so many ways.

And I think that's what every reader feels anywhere in the world, in any language, when they read Amy.

-You gonna make a curry, um, potato?

Ooh, yum!

-Garlic.

-Uh-huh.

[ Sizzling ] -Lowest tech, huh?

[ Rain pattering ] [ Cable car bell dings ] -Well, good evening, everyone, and thanks for coming out on this rainy night in San Francisco.

I want to welcome you to the 25th anniversary of 'The Joy Luck Club.'

How about a round of applause?

[ Cheers and applause ] [ All speaking indistinctly ] -She is right, you know. This cabbage -- -Don't put Chinese cabbage... -I remember when the 'Joy Luck' movie came out.

Now, The 'Joy Luck' movie probably did more for her than the book.

And, uh, it had all beautiful Asian actresses in it.

It was the first one of its kind that I can recall.

[ All speaking indistinctly ] -You look younger all the time. How is that?

-I gave you my good skin. -Really?

-I must have seen it five times on the big screen.

This was back in Texas. I was still living in Houston.

And all my friends were white, but I was so proud to show them this movie, you know, of English-speaking, contemporary Asians.

[ Chuckles ] -'Cause after the party, we're going to Lake Tahoe, and he actually asked her to come with us.

-Oh, my God. -She'd have a great time.

-Where's Jennifer?

-Oh, her Aunty June is putting her down for a nap.

-When I started to act in, uh, Hollywood, many films were just coolies or dragon ladies, railroad workers, restaurant owners.

And I'm happy that this film portrayed Chinese as they are.

-I really didn't register how big this movie was gonna be and what a long-lasting effect it would have on all -- all of our lives at the time.

-Mm-hmm. -Amy had the very straight... -Yeah. -...bowl cut, and such a woman of style, and very, very, uh... -So down to earth. -Very down to earth, but with a certain gravitas.

-When I first started writing, I made this list of things about who I should be as a writer, because I knew that it was very likely I would get sucked into all kinds of things and lose my way as a -- as a writer.

So, one of them was to make writing my focus.

Don't get involved with things like film.

Ron Bass, who was a screenwriter, he said, 'Well, why don't you take a scene and write it?'

And I said, 'No, I'm not getting involved with this.'

-I said, 'But I won't write the screenplay without you, because it is not just a wonderful book, it is an iconic book.

It is a book that has meaning to people of literature and people who are in your community.

I need your voice.'

-And he said, 'Well, just try.

You know, I'll be writing it, but you just do one scene, and I think you will learn something about earning a scene.'

Now, that's like heroin for a writer.

Like, earn the emotions of a scene.

So I thought, 'Well, okay, I could do one scene.'

And it went from there.

-And, action!

Here she's got a book that is iconic.

And I would make suggestions, and she loved suggestions, and she would love to talk it through.

She had no pride of anything like, you know, 'Well, the public's gonna expect that, uh, this and this --' No.

Just, what tells the story the best?

-My grades, my job, not getting married.

Everything you expected of me.

-No expect anything.

Never expect.

Only hope.

Only hoping best for you.

-I remember one night, I went to the market.

and after I shopping, I go to my car.

I see one big man ran to me.

I was scare, and I-I was trying to holding my -- my purse and -- and ready for an attack or something.

And the man say, 'No, w-wait a moment.

I-I just want to say that thank you so much for your character in...' -Aww.

-'...in -- in 'The Joy Luck Club.'

I cried and I cry. I just lost my mother.'

-Oh. -'I lost my mother, and I see you scene, and I-I just want to say thank you.'

So I drive home, and tear came to my eyes.

I realize that 'Joy Luck Club,' how wonderful the story is.

It's about the relationship, mother-daughter or mother-children.

-Mm-hmm. -It doesn't matter that we are Asian or not Asian.

Everybody has a mother.

-[ Crying ] ♪ -Unh-unh.

-June, since you baby time, I wear this next to my heart.

Now you wear next to yours.

It will help you know... I see you.

♪ I see you.

-[ Crying ] ♪ -That bad crab, only you try to take it.

Everybody else want best quality.

-When we went to the premiere in Hollywood, my mother was there.

And I was a little afraid of what was going to happen, because there were scenes in that movie that were based on what had happened to her as a little girl. -Yeah.

-Uh, watching her mother die.

And the lights come up, end of the movie, everybody's crying, and I look at her, and she's clear-eyed.

And I said, 'Are you okay?

I mean, was that too sad or too har--' She goes, 'Oh, no.'

You know, 'Everything in China, oh, oh, so much worse.

This really better.'

[ Laughter ] And now I thought, okay.

-One of the things for Amy is that early success was so huge that she had to feel, well, now, how do you follow that?

-Was it scary to follow up a hit like 'The Joy Luck Club'? -Scary isn't the word.

I think it was more like, um, near death throes.

[ Both laugh ] After I wrote 'The Joy Luck Club,' I was stuck.

I made probably seven starts at a novel and abandoned them all.

Meanwhile, my mother is saying, 'Write my true story.'

She had read 'The Joy Luck Club,' but she knew it was fiction.

She wanted to be able to tell, 'Yeah, this is my story.'

And I said, you know, 'Ma, it's -- That's not how fiction is written.

It's not really about true stories, and --' But when I got stuck, I thought, you know, what is the reason for me to write this?

It's really to understand myself and how I came to have these thoughts.

And it's -- it's also to give my mother a gift that I was really listening.

So I said, that's what I'm gonna do.

She loved the idea she was helping me to write.

You know, she'd -- she'd call me up at different hours of the day to, 'I have something else to say,' and she'd go on for an hour, and I said, 'You know, I --' I didn't want to get her upset, but I said, 'I-I have to get some work done.'

'Oh, okay, okay.'

Yeah.

Mm-hmm.

Mm. Mm-hmm.

[ Typewriter clacking ] I remembered the many nights he used my body after he had already been with another woman.

He even brought a woman right to our bed and forced me to watch.

Of course I did not, but I could not shut my ears.

So many years gone by, and still the anger can never come out completely.

You can hear this in my voice.

That bad man was using my body.

Every night he used it as if I were -- what? -- A machine!

-So you've -- you've done it.

You finished book number two. -Finally.

-My next guest's second novel, 'The Kitchen God's Wife,' is still #1 on the bestseller list this week.

It has been for the last seven weeks.

Please welcome Amy Tan.

-Her second novel looks as though it's gonna be an even bigger smash than the first book.

-'I've told you about the early days of my marriage so you can understand why I became weak and strong at the same time.'

-What else struck you, Amy, about your mom's upbringing?

Was it the repression that she experienced?

-It -- It was repression, it was -- but it was also her strength, that she never gave up.

Even though she lived in a society that offered her no choices, um, that -- that gave her unbelievable sorrow, she somehow could find a strength and rise above that.

-[ Speaking indistinctly ] [ Laughs ] -Chinese-Americans are becoming an increasingly dynamic and visible element of American society, in business, science, the arts, and literature.

We have the views of novelist Amy Tan, who was born in... -The Chinese-American community, uh, has been a great success in North America.

-So, when you started writing, did you feel that suddenly you were responsible somehow to the history of, you know, your people in the United States, if such a thing is possible?

-Well, first let me say that when I -- when I think about 'your people,' I-I think of myself as being an American, as well.

-Indeed. -And so, 'your' includes both being Chinese and American, or Chinese-American or whatever... I didn't seek to be a politician.

I didn't seek to be a representative of a whole community of people.

I just hoped to write some good stories.

And yet when I was given this mantle of speaking for the Asian-American community, suddenly, there were these expectations.

I started getting a lot of criticism.

Some said I did it wrong, that I had created stereotypes and pandered to those.

Mothers speaking in broken English or concubines who had killed themselves -- you know, these were stereotypes.

-The chapter opens with language highly reminiscent of fortune cookie wisdom, Charlie Chan aphorisms, and the kind of Taoist precepts scattered throughout Lin Yutang's 'Chinatown Family.'

-Tan inscribes Kwan with a linguistic exoticism that could only stem from an outsider's ears.

-Tan's success hinges on her ability to revive Orientalist tropes as if she rejects them.

-Amy Tan opens her 'Joy Luck Club' with a fake Chinese fairy tale.

The fairy tale is not Chinese but white racist.

-In the beginning, I didn't know what to say.

I would be caught off-guard.

But then I realized, what they wanted really was role models.

They wanted me to right the social wrongs, the social injustices.

And finally, they had somebody in the limelight who should now address that and not be pandering, so to speak, to the mainstream.

What they were asking me to do was to write propaganda.

When you occupy a space that has rarely been occupied -- Now, we're talking 30 years ago -- that is gonna be placed on you naturally, and I understand it. But to be true to myself, I could not give in to that kind of pressure.

♪ -The moment you start mixing activism and writing, then you're not writing fiction anymore, or not good fiction.

And I think that Amy has that very clear.

-The crazy thing about fiction is it is a representation, the deepest representation of truth you can find.

It's not limited to facts.

It has really to do with human nature.

And so, my mother speaks broken English.

My grandmother was a concubine who killed themselves.

And I said, you have to write what's personally important to you.

♪ -Every author has the same need to understand their own lives.

Who are the -- the characters in Amy's work?

Her family, and people who really have gone through hell and somehow have come out of it.

And I don't think it's a conscious choice.

It's the way it is, because w-we are surrounded by those people.

We belong there.

In a way, we are one of them.

♪ -We have a legacy of trauma and tragedy, suicide, rape, of children left behind in China.

It's embedded in me.

And I don't always know how it is embedded until something comes out and clicks and makes me respond, and not always in a good way.

I have had bouts of depression in the past.

They had occurred after big changes in my life, what should have been happy periods, including the unanticipated success of my first book, 'The Joy Luck Club.'

On the day my book was published, I cried.

They were not tears of joy for a dream come true.

I was afraid.

I was overwhelmed with a sense that this book would upend the happiness I already had.

Everyone expected too much, and I was certain I would fail.

♪ -You're uncomfortable with success.

We just have a few seconds. Are you getting used to it now?

-I don't think I'll ever get used to it.

I don't think I should, but it -- it's been wonderf-- a wonderful reception to both books.

-Well, we're certainly very glad that you've been successful.

We look forward to your next novel.

I don't want to give you an anxiety attack, but hopefully we'll talk then.

Amy Tan, thanks so much. -Thank you.

-Then Amy Tan wrote a children's book, 'The Moon Lady.'

The latest book is another children's book called 'The Chinese Siamese Cat.'

-'Just like our ancestor, Sagwa of China.'

And that's the end.

-Wow, that is one of the best stories Elmo has ever heard, Amy.

-As a short story writer, I've never had expectations, and you learn to work without expectations just for the joy of it.

You know, I think Amy is unusual in that she's had more expectations than any writer I've known.

And there was just pressure to keep doing this.

-But my first guest is already one of the world's leading female authors.

She's written a third book, 'The Hundred Secret Senses.'

-Family used to always ask me, 'Where's Amy?'

And I said, 'Well, how would I know?'

And then she'll end up on some TV show.

-Miss Tan, I loved 'The Joy Luck Club.'

It really showed me how the mother-daughter bond can triumph over adversity.

-No, that's not what I meant at all.

You couldn't have gotten it more wrong.

-But -- -Please, just sit down.

I'm embarrassed for both of us.

-Her books have sold more than five million copies worldwide, translated into 35 different languages.

-'The Hundred Secret Senses' as the character Kwan... -Over the years, with each book, she realized how much time was being taken away from writing.

She knew that she had to be pretty public and show appreciation to her readers, which she's so great about.

She will take the time to sign. She will take the time to talk.

-Oh, thank you. -This is for my daughter, Katie.

She's at -- -Okay.

-When I was young, I really craved privacy, and I think it was, in part, to get away from demands and family chaos, and I would go in my room, and I would draw.

And that is something I had with my fiction at one time.

It was private, and I wrote it for my own reasons, to be in that place.

And when you have a lot of expectations, the little, private room is very crowded with editors and agents and fans and detractors, and all of that made it very difficult to write.

I was writing in a -- at a different place.

It was not as meditative.

It was full of anxiety.

I felt the burden of expectations a lot.

[ Reporters speaking indistinctly ] [ Birds chirping ] ♪ -One of the main achievements of this band over the years has been to reduce the reputation of Amy Tan to rubble.

[ Laughter ] We're gonna bring Amy Tan out to do a song where she reveals her inner bad girl.

-All right.

[ Cheers and applause ] ♪ [ Laughter ] -♪ You keep sayin' you've got somethin' for me ♪ ♪ Somethin' you call love but confess ♪ My friend Kathi said, 'You know, I'm thinking of putting together a rock band. What do you think?'

And without thinking, I just said, 'Yeah, sure.'

-The band was started by a woman named Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who was a literary escort in San Francisco.

She, over the years, had met many authors, me being one, who had been in bands at one point or another or who wanted to have been in bands.

So she came up with the idea of start-- of having an all-author rock band perform in Anaheim, California, in 1992.

And so she sent faxes out to every author she knew, and the ones who answered yes became the band.

And Stephen King was one of those authors, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan.

-♪ Bye-bye, love ♪ Bye-bye, sweet caress -People were laughing, and they were dancing, and we pretty quickly decided we had to do this again.

-And the next year, we went on a -- like, a multi-city tour.

And we were still terrible, but we got a little bit better.

We all just loved it.

-And I realized this was my outlet for the kind of boxed-in feeling of being in public, because there were no expectations.

There is no reviewer.

It was just for the fun of doing it.

And that was immediate, and it was exhilarating.

You couldn't expect it.

-What Amy has told me is that to come out and dress like she's hot [bleep] and just carry a whip was so liberating for her.

-Why don't we do it in the road?! ♪ ♪ No one else is watching us ♪ Why don't we do it in the road? ♪ I feel like to have fun, I sometimes have to take risks.

Being in the band taught me that.

You have to go beyond what you're comfortable with.

And you can't just imagine the dangers and the horrible things that could happen at the end of it as a consequence.

You have to just be there and have a great time.

And with a lot of risky things, the potential for having fun is so much greater, because you find these things in yourself where you just have to go to an extreme.

♪ I used to be scared of swimming in the ocean.

I would never do it, because I imagined that there were all these scary things under there.

I was my mother's daughter, imagining dangers.

I would die a horrible death.

And then one day, I actually looked under with goggles, and I saw this beauty.

And it built from there until more recently.

I went swimming with sharks.

♪ And I'd watch these sharks looking at me like, 'Who are you? What are you doing here?'

I just loved that.

♪ -The treasurer?

[ People speaking indistinctly ] -Okay, there was, uh, no purchases made since our last, uh, meeting, but I have deposit the, the $600 collected last meeting... -In 1995, my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

She was several months shy of her 80th birthday.

The plaques on her brain had likely started to accumulate years before, but we never would have recognized the signs.

Language difficulties, gets into arguments, poor judgment -- Those were traits my mother had shown her entire life.

How could we distinguish between a chronically difficult personality and a dementing one?

-When her mother was developing Alzheimer's, I'd say the worst part of that time is when the person who is suffering from it knows that things aren't right, but has enough intact mentally for it to really haunt them.

♪ -We were eating dinner in a restaurant, and she was obsessing about a family member whom she believed did not respect her.

Lou, my brother, and I didn't exactly disagree with her.

The trouble was, we didn't wholeheartedly agree.

Her anger mounted until she leapt up from the table and ran out of the crowded restaurant, with us chasing after her.

-She went charging out of the restaurant to get run over in traffic. [ Car horns beeping ] And as far as I could tell, she was ready to act on it.

But I went chasing out after her, and I picked her up and carried her back to the car.

-I think it was just an urge she would never be able to get rid of, probably as -- as strong as alcohol is to an alcoholic or, you know, cocaine to a cocaine addict.

It's not something you could just say, 'You don't have to do this anymore.

Your life is happy.

You don't have to threaten anymore.'

It was -- It was an impulse.

It was a-a desire that came up from her.

She couldn't control it.

[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪ I'm a different person than I was from my last book, only because I've gone through more of life.

Ruth was amazed at what her mother could recall.

She knew not to expect Lu Ling to remember appointments or facts about a recent event.

But her mother often surprised her with the clarity of her emotions when she spoke of her youth.

It didn't matter that she blurred some of the finer points.

The past, even revised, was meaningful.

-This book is about memory, losing memories and trying to hang onto certain memories.

And so, um, it is intensely personal about the things I went through over the last five years.

-After all, Bao Bomu says, what is the past but what we choose to remember?

They can choose not to hide it, to take what's broken, to feel the pain and know that it will heal.

♪ [ Indistinct conversations ] -Hi! Hi! -Hi.

-So nice to meet you! -Nice to meet you.

-We all have books. -Okay.

-Thank you so much for paving the way for Asian-American representation... -Oh. -... in writing and in art.

-Are you writers? Are you -- -[ Laughs ] We're all... -Aspiring. -...aspiring creatives.

-You mean you're not in pre-med, or?

-[ Laughs ] -No.

-I'm pre-med, actually. [ Laughter ] -Oh, you are? -We had to have one at least.

[ Indistinct conversations ] -Thank you. -Thank you.

-Sure. -Thank you.

-Thank you.

And for you, as well. -Yes, yeah.

-At the end of June 2001, after a four-month book tour that had taken me to 40 cities across the United States, then to a dozen more in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, I returned home to San Francisco.

I lowered the shades, crawled into bed, and began the long rest I felt I deserved.

I slept for nearly 24 hours that first day.

After the tour, I told my husband, Lou, that I felt as if something in my body had broken.

Something was not right.

♪ -There were these times where she'd be really quiet and disengaged.

And I would wonder if it was me, our relationship.

She was just ill and didn't know it.

-I started running red lights and stopping at green lights.

I would get lost and suddenly find that I didn't recognize where I was.

-Soon the hallucinations started.

-Some switch in my brain that controlled dreams now seemed to fail to turn off once I opened my eyes, and before me would spring forth the embodiment of my nightmares.

I would whisper, 'Who's there?'

and the dogs would instantly leap to attention, scan the room, sniff the air.

When they settled back to sleep, so would I -- that is, I would to sleep after having seen a corpse lying next to me or a pudgy poodle dangling from the ceiling.

At the worst, I would say it had to do with feeling that I was losing my mind.

I know what it feels like to have Alzheimer's.

I couldn't read. I couldn't remember anything.

I couldn't speak.

-At the time, we were perplexed, and, you know, I was mystified.

But I know with hindsight, exactly what happened.

We attended her editor's daughter's wedding on the Hudson River in New York in 1999, and she had a tick infect her from that afternoon, although she didn't know that at the time.

-It was only when Tan went on the internet and saw a tick rash like this one that answers started to come.

-And I said, 'Oh, my God.

That is the rash that I had on my leg four years ago.'

-What several doctors who misdiagnosed her didn't know was Tan had been bitten by a tick this tiny.

It infected her with Lyme's disease.

-As soon as I started taking medication, the anxiety went away completely.

N-No amount of therapy would have done that.

It had to be medication to get rid of Lyme disease.

And it was because it went into my brain, and it caused brain inflammation, and it caused scarring in my brain and the reason I have epilepsy.

-That Lyme disease, it went after her.

So that set her back.

But she is incredibly tough and resilient.

♪ -It's her first non-fiction book called 'The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings.'

-The book is called 'Saving Fish from Drowning.'

Amy Tan, good morning, great to see you.

-We haven't seen anything from you in eight years.

So what took you so long?

-I started one book, and then I -- Suddenly, I saw something.

A family mystery developed.

And I had to start another book.

-It's called 'The Valley of Amazement.'

It goes on sale tomorrow... -I've probably learned as much working with Amy on her books than I have any other writer.

For Amy, actual writing is not a challenge because she's so fluid and so good at getting down what she knows she needs to get down, and she's got such a good ear for language.

She hears the language in a way that a poet hears it.

I think the biggest challenge is a psychological one, that is, writing.

Not writing.

It's just writing.

-What's this?

Oh, that's 'Sonata'? I like that.

[ Piano playing ] ♪ ♪ [ Piano stops, both laugh ] [ Piano playing ] ♪ -One day, I got a phone call.

I don't know how long it -- it was into her Alzheimer's.

I would say it was at least two years into it.

At that point, she didn't remember a lot of things.

She was not that verbal.

And her voice sounded like her voice from the past.

She said, 'Amy-ah, Amy-ah, I-I -- I-I don't know where I am.

I'm scared. I think I'm going crazy.'

And I had not heard her talk like that, and it was like she had come up from out of the deep of the ocean, and she was like, flailing and trying not to drown again.

She said, 'I'm --' And I said, 'You know, we often can't remember where we are.

Don't worry about it. You're fine.'

And she said, 'No, no, no.

Something is wrong with my mind.'

And -- And then she -- she said, 'I just want to tell you that...' [ Sniffles ] '...I knew -- I know I did some things to hurt you.'

And -- And I was saying the whole -- 'No, no, don't worry about it.

It's fine.' She said, 'I-I know I did some things to hurt you.

And I don't remember what they are, but I know I hurt you, and I just wanted to say I'm sorry, and --' [Sniffles] 'I'm sorry, and I hope that you'll forget just as I've forgotten.'

And I don't know what she was remembering, um, but it was enough to erase everything, everything that I had ever been hurt -- you know, that she'd done to hurt me.

Um...and then she was gone.

She was gone again, and she didn't talk like that.

Um, she was again incoherent, unable to say complete sentences.

It was a gift.

[ Piano music playing ] ♪ Shortly afterward, my mother fell into a coma.

10 to 20 family members were in her rooms at all hours.

We played poker and mahjong.

We ate pizza and Chinese takeout.

We played videos of her favorite movies.

I put on a CD of Chopin piano music and whispered in her ear, 'That's me playing.

I've been practicing harder.'

[ Piano music continues playing ] ♪ ♪ [ Birds chirping ] -'Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir.'

You actually call this an unintended memoir.

When did you realize that's what you were actually doing?

-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. -Mm-hmm.

-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.

The past was always present in our lives.

Remember that test I told you about?

The one that predicted I was going to be a doctor.

It wasn't until like three years ago that I said, 'What was that test, anyway?'

That was so irresponsible, for a woman to give a child one test and then say she was going to be a doctor.

Why hadn't I questioned it before?

That couldn't be the case.

-So I typed in, '1958 Oakland first grade longitudinal IQ.'

And the first thing that came up was a study by a woman named Dolores Durkin.

Out of 5,003 students who enrolled in the first grade that year, 49 of them were found to be able to read.

I was an early reader.

-There I was in my bedroom reading this, and it was 63 years of self-esteem in front of me, and it had been a lie.

It was based on a lie.

It had nothing to do with whether I was smart enough to be a doctor and my thinking I never was smart enough.

I continued to read.

And she had five interviews in there with parents.

My father said that I had always been a scribbler and that even before the age of 4, I enjoyed drawing pictures and making up stories about them.

'Her imagination was amazing,' my father said.

And there I had it.

After all those years of being told I was going to be a doctor, to read that my father said I had an amazing imagination made me cry.

And that was only recently that I read that, that I saw that.

-I read your second memoir, 'Where The Past Begins,' and I wondered, was that easier to write than a novel or -- or harder?

-At the end of the -- each day, when I was done writing, my husband, he'd have dinner waiting, 10:00 at night.

I'd go up there.

And I would be shaking because of what I had just finished writing.

So I did that once a week for about four months, and then I had a book.

It was the fastest book I've ever written.

It was the most emotionally eviscerating book I've ever w-written.

And I think it is the reason why I have a really hard time now writing, because I'm actually rather afraid to have that experience happen to me again.

My childhood, with its topsy-turvy emotions, has in fact been a reason to write.

I can lay it out squarely on the page and see what it was.

I can understand it and see the patterns.

My characters are witness to what I went through.

In each story, we are untangling a knot in a huge, matted mess.

The work of undoing them, one at a time, is the most gratifying part of writing.

But the mess will always be there.

[ Birds chirping ] -She's at a point where she would like to continue to be a writer, but she's also thinking about not having a publishing contract hanging over her head.

And she does have one more book under contract, and I think that the writer's block element to all of this would free up if she were able to complete that and then felt an inspiration to write something without feeling the added pressure of a business obligation to do so.

[ Birds chirping ] -Oh, they're fighting.

In 2016, I started to draw what I saw out the window.

And I realized that, you know, it was bringing up this love that I always had for drawing.

Some of these are incomplete.

I have a lot of false starts.

You start something and then forgot all about it.

If I could simply do what I wanted to do all day for a month, all I would do is look at birds and draw.

I don't have anyone expecting me to produce anything, and in fact, when somebody says to me, 'Can you draw me a bird?' like my publisher did, and I said, 'Sure,' and then I couldn't draw him a bird.

And I realized that was a part of it.

The freedom to do what I enjoyed had to come with no expectations and that I did it only for myself.

I joined a nature journal group.

I would post things. I would post my mistakes, even.

It was good exercise to say I didn't have to be perfect.

And it's not just powers of observation, of details and behavior.

It's wonder. It's wonderment, you know?

Because when you look at these things, you wonder, how -- how this is possible.

How did -- Why is this bird on this branch?

What is, you know, the behavior?

Why is it doing this?

And allowing no answers and just saying, you just have to observe it and be in wonder the whole time.

[ Birds calling ] ♪ ♪ -Oh, wow. -It's like crispy hair.

I mean, what was it like before it was -- Yeah. -Yeah.

♪ ♪ ♪ -[ Speaking indistinctly ] ♪ -Oh, that one.

There's so many there, and I just -- It's not completely exact.

-That one is poison oak you're doing.

-Yes.

♪ Spontaneous epiphanies always leave me convinced once again that there is no greater meaning to my life than what happens when I write.

It gives me awareness so sharp, it punctures all layers of thought so that I can rise.

That's what it feels like, a weightless rising to a view high enough to survey the moments of the past that led to this one.

♪ Too soon, that feeling dissipates, and I am hanging onto contrails as I come back down to a normal state of mind.

Has my imagination worked this way since birth?

What enables me to draw a bird that looks like a bird?

When did I start noticing that one thing is emotionally like another?

When did emotion and imagery start colluding with velvety sharks?

♪ Whatever imagination is, I'm grateful for its elasticity and willingness to accommodate whatever comes along, for giving me flotillas of imagery circumnavigating a brain that finds emotional resonance in almost anything.

I just have to let go of self-consciousness for it to spill out freely... ♪ ...as if all I am doing is listening to music.

[ Piano music plays ] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

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