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‘I recognise the holiness of death’: An interview with Amy Tan

Layers of memory | All roads lead to the amygdala.   | Photo Credit: Rohit Chawla

Amy Tan says the word amygdala as though it were a part of her name. While writing her recently published memoir, Where the Past Begins, all roads led to the amygdala — that tiny, almond-shaped nuclei at the base of the brain, repository of a million memories. For 30 years, Tan has been excavating the layers of memory as a novelist, charting the Chinese-American immigrant experience, particularly the lineage between women, mothers, daughters, sisters. Tan is small but powerful, compact yet generous. At 65, she says she’s less concerned about legacy than about kindness. Throughout our conversation she evokes her mother and grandmother — a concubine, who committed suicide by eating raw opium buried in rice cakes in 1925. A grandmother she never met, but whom she feels she knows intimately. Tan lives between San Francisco and New York with her husband of 48 years, Lou DeMattei, and two dogs. Dogs, she says, protect us from loneliness. Excerpts:

At what point did you think you’d be a writer?

I was late coming to fiction: 33. I felt my life had become meaningless. I was happy. Parts of my life were wonderful — my husband, a house, being comfortable, but I was doing these things without a framework, in a way. I decided I was working so hard and not getting any happier, I should do something else. It would either be improvisational jazz piano or fiction writing.

I took lessons. I started reading a lot of fiction and then I started writing stories. They were bad stories. I still have some of them. It didn’t matter. There was something about them. I’d get to a point where something took me by surprise. It was a part of myself I recognised but had forgotten or didn’t understand. That’s the point I knew I was going to be a writer.

What was it like to have this incredible success with your first novel, The Joy Luck Club?

I’ve always been a pragmatic person. It’s how I was raised — made to think that good things don’t last. For example, if your sense of beauty has to do with other peoples’ perceptions, then you’re in trouble when fewer people start to think you’re beautiful. It was the same with writing. I was scared to allow myself to deliver my soul into the hands of readers. And it was scary because a lot of this is based on sales and numbers. People give you attention.

I kept telling my husband, it’s going to go away, because it was like some phantom had taken over my life. And then, 10 months after publication, I finally said, you know, this is my life, and I’m going to write. It was frightening. I was depressed part of the time because I never asked for it, and I was not prepared for it.

There’s a hope that as you keep writing it gets easier, what’s your thinking on this?

There are two levels to that. I never want to repeat myself, to not go beyond what I’ve already done. And there’s the other part — the demands of public expectations. It’s really hard to get rid of because they’re looking to see, are you doing the same thing? You have the danger of being categorised. Oh, she’s always writing about mothers and daughters! Whereas, I don’t think I’m doing that. People say, that’s her success, and if I don’t write about that no one is going to buy it, and I have to say, it’s okay if no one buys it, I have to do the other thing. Because there are a thousand ways to die, and that’s one of them as a writer.

I know your mother is no more, but as you get older do you feel you understand her better?

The more I understand myself, the more I understand my mother and my grandmother. I never knew my grandmother. She died in 1925, but I feel I know her. Things I recognise in myself that came from my mother, they came from my grandmother.

You know, we often talk about getting rid of pain or overcoming pain, but there’s something about pain you have to honour. That’s what my mother did. She always wanted me to be her symbiotic twin.

I did it… but I hated it, so I recognise it and some of this is unavoidable. It’s embedded in my emotional core.

Did you ever think about having a daughter of your own, a continuation of this mother-daughter legacy?

One of the things my mother said was no one should tell you to have a baby. Not your husband, not your mother-in-law, your friends, society. The question wasn’t the default one: why did you choose not to have kids, but why did you choose to have children? It’s not that I hate children. I worked with children for years...

I know that was the deepest kind of love you could experience, and I didn’t need it. I did think about a daughter. If I had one, she’d be like me. She’d drive me crazy. I got pregnant at one point; I had a miscarriage. I’ve often thought if I would have had a daughter, oh, she would have been 12 now, she would have been 20, she would be in jail now, getting married to the wrong person…

You suffered sexual abuse as a child. What do you feel about this moment now when we’re experiencing the #metoo campaign?

I’m so grateful that people have finally come together and exposed this because it’s so common. I said at one point, why did these women not confront, or go to the school or the church… and I realised, I never had. I’d talked about this, but never confronted the church, and now it suddenly makes me aware that I have to do that.

A lot of women felt they couldn’t confront (their aggressor) because they felt their lives would be tarnished. That fear has been taken away, there’s a greater chance you’re going to be believed, and that creates its own momentum. We’re not simply saying, Oh I’m a victim. It creates the strength to do more… Every single woman I know had this happen to them. Every single woman. So, we all have this strength now.

You’ve experienced loss and hardship. As you’ve written about it, have you arrived at a philosophical understanding of loss?

It happens as you get older, you see more and more people dying, and it’s not just your parents or your friend’s parents, it’s your friends, your contemporaries. So death has to do with loss, but it also has to do with what you retain. Recently, I had friends, I was at their bedside when they’ve died, and I recognise the holiness of death.

There’s the first breath, there’s the last breath, and everything that goes between. What we put in there as people and what we’ve left, what we’ve given. Not these pages in a library. This legacy. I think it’s false to count your symbolic immortality on published books. It has more to do with what you give to the world that lasts forever…

Nothing is remembered by the next generation or two generations. What lasts is how people were changed by what you gave. Either bitterness, by what you did, or kindness and encouragement, that gets passed on. That’s how I think of it.

The interviewer’s latest book is a collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.


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