Amy Tan — one of American literature's freshest, most energetic Asian-American superstars — has successfully allied herself with two driving forces in the book market of the late twentieth century: feminism and cross-culturalism. This favorable union of themes and style, however, doesn't spring from a calculated attempt to manipulate the fiction market, but from Tan's internal wars with society, self, mother, and the past.
Tan herself resembles the first-generation Chinese-American characters who people her best-selling inter-generational tapestries, The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), and The Hundred Secret Senses (1995). Inspired by the stories of memorable women throughout her mother's life, Tan has in these books honored a sisterhood whose power and vitality are as influential to her writing as is her unique cultural background.
Born An-Mei Tan on February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California, Amy Tan was the second of three children and the only daughter of John Tan and Daisy Tu Ching Tan. John was a Beijing-born electrical engineer and volunteer Baptist minister, and Daisy was an industrial nurse and medical technician from Shanghai. The Tans had immigrated to California in the late 1940s, when post-war China was remolding its society to fit its concept of communism.
Coming of age in a predominantly Caucasian society in a succession of California cities — Fresno, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Clara — Amy Tan gave little thought to her Chinese relatives or to her mother's first marriage prior to her emigration from China. Because she was brought up as an American, she felt disconnected from her Asian-American heritage for which her mother was both spokesperson and role model. In fact, Amy resented her parents' earmarking their savings for needy Chinese relatives.
Amy challenged parental authority, yet met John and Daisy Tan's expectations of high achievement by studying piano and excelling in science and math. Amy's emotional rootlessness led her to distance herself from Daisy, who chose Amy's careers — concert pianist and physician — instead of a vocation in one of the less remunerative liberal arts.
Family relationships were severely strained by two agonizingly slow deaths — in 1967, Amy's seventeen-year-old brother, Peter, and in 1968, her fifty-four-year-old father, John — both victims of brain tumors. Amy's normal adolescent stresses, heightened by intense grief, pushed her into serious rebellion. Daisy Tan felt it necessary to leave California, so the family moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where Amy and her younger brother John were enrolled in a private school. Despite the foreign setting, Amy's rebelliousness flared up and she enjoyed a brief flirtation with a German involved in crime and drugs before her mother helped the police take him into custody in a risky trap at the border.
When the family returned to San Francisco, Amy's scholarships and part-time work at a pizzeria paid her tuition at Linfield, a small Baptist college in McMinnville, Oregon. She pursued a medical degree on her way to a career in neurosurgery, a choice that met Daisy's standards.
Amy's need to rebel and to shock her mother lessened after she gave up scruffy overalls, stopped dating hippies, and settled on Lou DeMattei, a pre-law student and likely husband material. The romance flourished during six months of silence between mother and daughter. Then, transferring in her sophomore year to San Jose State University to be with Lou, Amy encountered a new adversary — a disapproving future mother-in-law. This relationship required the intervention of Daisy, a tenacious, eighty-pound scrapper, who defended her daughter and won.
No longer certain she wanted to be a doctor, Amy switched majors and received a degree in English in 1973, followed by an M.A. in linguistics from San Jose State and groundwork for a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1974, she left graduate school, married Lou, a tax attorney, and settled in a San Francisco condominium.
Four years later, after Daisy returned from a trip to China, Amy and her mother patched up their differences as adults — woman to woman — having survived the worst of their alienation. For the first time, Amy Tan could acknowledge the double strands of Chinese and American traditions embellishing her past.
As an employee of the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens, Amy worked as a language consultant to the mentally handicapped before becoming a journalist in 1979. For three years, she wrote and edited news, and then launched and helped publish a professional journal, Emergency Room Reports.
During this period, her mother divulged the hard facts of her previous marriage in China, of a son who died in infancy, and of three daughters she had left behind and never mentioned to her American children. Amy began a sisterly correspondence. In 1991, she helped one sister, a nurse, emigrate from China to Wisconsin with her surgeon husband and their fourteen-year-old daughter; the couple found work managing a Chinese restaurant. In The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan includes as one of the main characters a half-sister born in China and brought to the U.S. to be part of her father's second family.
In "Watching China," a 1989 article in Glamour, Tan reported the violent backlash against striking freedom fighters in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese students risked death in their push for democracy. Closer to home, Tan faced an insidious threat to her well-being. Overwork and inner discontent preceded three stressful events: Daisy's hospitalization for an acute attack of angina, Amy's own unsuccessful psychiatric therapy, and her third career change. She now freelanced a diverse and demanding load of technical writing, including speeches and monographs, and provided a telephone astrology service, which consumed ninety hours a week, providing enough money from fees to pay for Daisy's new home. Amy tried relaxing with sessions of jazz piano, evenings of billiards with Lou, and books by notable female writers — Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Isabel Allende, Kay Gibbons, and Louise Erdrich. Yet she needed a more substantial safety valve than piano keys, pool cues, and books to relieve mounting pressures.
She began penning flimsy, imitative works based on popular fiction; the stories received a steady response of rejection notices. At the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop, she came under the influence of award-winning writer and feminist mentor Molly Giles. With further encouragement from agent Sandra Dijkstra, Tan began writing articles and short fiction for Atlantic Monthly, FM, Glamour, Grazia, Ladies' Home Journal, Life, McCall's, Publishers Weekly, Threepenny Review, San Francisco Focus, Seventeen, and Short Story Review. She also worked on novels, including historical fiction, and polished "Endgame," the complex short story begun at Squaw Valley that later formed a pivotal episode in The Joy Luck Club, a blended narrative about four Chinese-American women and their mothers.
A skilled raconteur capable of juggling wit, insight, and pathos within a single unified scene, Tan excels in oral tradition and complex emotional involvements. These skills, as first reflected in The Joy Luck Club, earned her a Commonwealth Club gold award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers award for best fiction, an American Library Association citation for best book for young adults, and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle's best novel and for the Los Angeles Times' best book of 1989. Tan sold the paperback rights to The Joy Luck Club to G. P. Putnam's Ivy Books for $1.23 million, and the work has since been translated and distributed in seventeen languages. In 1993, Wayne Wang directed the Disney studio's screen version, which was co-produced by Oliver Stone and co-scripted by Amy Tan and Ron Bass, Oscar-winning author of Rain Man.
After The Kitchen God's Wife was successful, Tan began writing more to please herself than for the fickle critics and media who seemed intent on defining her as a feminist/Asian-American/memoirist. She teamed with illustrator Gretchen Schields to create The Moon Lady, a children's legend extracted from the misadventures of Ying-ying in The Joy Luck Club. Focused on wish-fulfillment through personal action rather than through divine intervention and graced with Manchu-style drawings, the story is a visual and textual success. More recently, the two collaborated again on another children's book, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994).
Turning from female protagonists extrapolated from her mother's side of the family, Tan began work on The Year of No Flood in which the main character is a young boy. This historical novel about mission work — her father's calling — is set during the nineteenth century's Boxer Rebellion. She eventually set that work aside to complete her third published novel, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), which debuted in sixth place on the bestseller list. It continues to draw upon her unique experiences with family relationships as well as upon her cultural heritage, especially the traditions of Chinese spirits and ghosts. She has also published The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (2003), and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005).
As a multiple dropout — from medical training, from her profession of speech pathology, from journalism, and from psychotherapy — Amy Tan finds greater solace and inner worth through composing family-based fiction and nonfiction. Although she achieved stardom in both feminist and multicultural literary circles in a remarkable three-year period, she shuns arbitrary categorization and keeps her options open. No longer denying her cultural roots on either side of the family, Amy Tan is remarkably at home with things Chinese, which serve as the counterpoint to her American independence and entrepreneurial spirit.