- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
There is a scene toward the end of the PBS documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir where the author shows the viewer a series of bird portraits that she drew herself. She flips through a drawing pad of half-done sketches and meticulously detailed illustrations, and we hear her say via voiceover, “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 [without] anyone expecting me to produce anything…I realized that the freedom to do what I enjoy had to come with no expectations—and that I had to do it only for myself.”
I was struck by her words. Because there are few living writers so prolific, who loom so large in the public imagination—especially the imagination of Asian American writers like myself—as Amy Tan. Her first book, The Joy Luck Club, was hugely successful, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and later adapted into the first big Hollywood film with a majority Asian American cast. She went on to have an active and celebrated writing career, publishing five more novels, two books of nonfiction, as well as children’s books.
But I was also struck by the beauty of her bird drawings. Her desire to create art away from all our perceptions, expectations, and obligations of what her work represents—of what “Amy Tan” represents—was a reminder of the burdens of such success, especially for those whose rise to fame can lead to a flattening of their work and public persona, for better or for worse.
Tan remembers rebuffing director Jamie Redford when he first came to her to pitch the documentary, which was released this month under the PBS series American Masters: “What I’m not is an American master,” she told him. “I can think of a lot of people who I consider American masters, but I just have not ever thought of myself in those ways.” Redford asked again, then again, until Tan agreed. She recalls a shift taking place when she and Redford spoke about their lives together, especially their shared experiences of pain. Redford passed away in late 2020 from cancer—the documentary about Tan was his last. “His pain was different from mine. His was an actual physical pain, and he had to be resilient,” Tan says. “It was that commonality and our ability to talk about [pain] that felt important.”
Soon after she finished filming the documentary, Tan was approached by MasterClass, a site which offers video courses taught by experts across a wide range of topics, including writing. Once again, though she does not embrace the label of “master,” here was another instance of the external world deeming it so.
So when she appeared in a Zoom box on my laptop screen, instantly recognizable but for her hair in new, chic bob (cut by herself during the pandemic), I couldn’t help but blurt out that I was nervous. “I'm very friendly. You don't have to worry,” she said with a warm laugh. And while I approached the conversation with the nervous excitement of a wide-eyed newbie (my debut novel, Days of Distraction, was published last year) approaching a master, she remained unpretentious, uninhibited, and wonderfully talkative. We spoke about what it was like for Tan to see her life played out in a documentary, the influence her childhood—growing up with a suicidal mother, and experiencing the deaths of her father and older brother—had on her writing, what she’s found in fiction, and who she is as a writer today.
You’ve spoken in the past about having a very visual relationship to your writing. What was it like to see your life played out in a this highly visual documentary form?
The director got his degree in creative writing, so he was very skilled at creating a narrative. You’ll notice in the documentary that there are many artifacts, photos, letters, documents. It started off with me being a little reluctant, but after we got going, I would say, “Hey, Jamie, I found another box of stuff, photos and videos, do you want these? I was going to throw them out.” And he would say, “No, I want them.” He’d come right over and load up everything. It would be years and years of magazines. I used to keep all the magazines that had stories about me and my books and of course I never looked at them again. He would take those as well and use them and then we'd throw them away. My archives, the things that meant the most to me are there, kept in the documentary.
What were some of those artifacts from your life that stood out to you?
One of them included a video of my mother telling a story. I had not had access to that in many, many years because it was old technology. They were VHS tapes and Jamie took them and digitized them. There I am, watching my mother talk to me. I'm the interviewer, with a little Sony camcorder. It’s deeply personal storytelling, but also clearly a mother talking to a daughter, because she would say things like, “You and John [Tan’s brother], you treat me so bad.” I thought, This is part of the story. It was good to see the things that I had written into stories right there in front of me—like her pride when I was playing the piano. You see me making mistakes, but there is her incredible pride in me being able to play. That was lovely to see, a big surprise—and an embarrassing surprise.
Then there are times when my mother is saying something very dramatic and very true about the trauma in her life, about this man who she was married to, about the baby she lost. My whole plan was to let her keep talking without interrupting her. If she stopped, then I would say something to bring her back into the scene. Like, what kind of food did you eat? That was all she needed as an anchor to go off into some emotional scene, acting out things that she were recalling. It was as though she had PTSD, and if you asked her about something, she would relive it.
I could see that Jamie wanted to show how trauma and resilience shaped who I am as a writer. The things that he used brought back to mind what my life was like then. I’m able to see now with a great deal of understanding that everything that had happened between my mother and me, despite how terrible it was at times—this is what made me a writer. This is what shaped me and my values.
It seems as though your mother, Daisy, wanted someone to listen, to hear her story, and that you became a conduit for her to tell some of these stories.
When I first started writing stories, [those conversations were] very gratifying. I was willing to listen for hours and hours, trying to get more details. “How did that make you feel?” And not simply in a mercenary way, just to get stories, but with genuine interest, realizing that this is the mother who shaped who I am. Her reactions, her warnings, her fears, her anxieties, those are all part of what she gave me. And they're basically hardwired in me now. However, I didn’t inherit the damage—meaning her tendency to become overwhelmed with her memories and her emotions and her frustrations, wanting to kill herself.
To me, The Joy Luck Club would be “Daisy Lite,” but the documentary is like, This is Daisy. This is who she was: She was smart. She was funny. She was charming. She was coquettish and beautiful. And she was very damaged.
Watching the documentary and listening to you now, your mother sounds like a muse and a motivation for your writing. But in your essay “Mother Tongue,” you also write about your mother as the audience for your fiction.
During those early years of writing, there was an overall importance to finding meaning in the writing. In writing fiction, I felt that I had to decide who the reader was. When I thought the reader was my editor or a reviewer, or even somebody who was a fan of my writing, it paralyzed me. Then I'm trying to please people, but I don't know who these people are or what pleased them with the first book. It led me in the wrong direction with my second book. I had a number of first starts that I had to abandon. Realizing what my mother got out of The Joy Luck Club gave me more of an understanding of the truth of a story, the authenticity of story, the urgency behind it.
When I started writing The Joy Luck Club, for some of the stories, I imagined what my mother was trying to say to me. One of the stories, “Magpies,” was about the girl who goes to live with her mother and this rich man her mother has married as his fourth wife, who later kills herself after her son was born. That is probably the most factually true story. That was the one where I tried to very much imagine my mother's voice telling me this story and what it means. It's been a constant learning experience about the importance of the imagined listener. It has to be somebody who knows what I'm capable of understanding and then helping me to understand.
In the preface of the 30th anniversary printing of The Joy Luck Club, you write about being a realist. You thought that you were going to go back to your previous life of business writing, but instead went on to have a life of writing fiction. How did your sense of what was “realistic” shift over the course of your career?
I have always lived with the understanding that everything that happened from that first book on could be taken away from me. That I should just think of my writing life as one in which I always need to improve. Whatever that unexpected success was about, that would diminish, that would go away. Or if it didn't go away, I should always be conscious of not taking it seriously, not taking it as a factor in why I write or trying to manipulate my writing so I could sell more books. I have seen over the years writers who have done that, fallen into this sand trap and become very unhappy trying to recapture some earlier success. Recently, I had made a decision to withdraw more from public life, and I would say jokingly that I would like get to the point where when there’s a gala, nobody would ever think, “Hey, let's try to get Amy Tan.” They would forget that I was somebody who they would even want to see at their gala.
Even though you’re ambivalent about being a public figure, your motivations for writing itself seem very clear: the untangling of the mess. Answering questions like, “Who am I? Why do I believe the things that I believe?” How have those themes changed through your life?
Jamie’s desire to do a documentary did not match with my plan [to recede from public life], but there was something about Jamie as we were talking about these big themes in our lives, about pain and a kind of isolation in your pain, about resilience. What does that involve? Are you born with resilience? What is it that enables you to be resilient?
But who I am at this stage in life includes a different focus on mortality. I started to write a story for my next book and it was going to be much more lighthearted. It involved two families, a promise and a betrayal, and something funny about our current times, of the relationship between the U.S. and China, and our perception of China based on the past. Well, then Trump was elected, and racism showed its ugly face in more places than I had ever experienced. And suddenly, it just became meaningless to me, and I couldn't write that book. There you see that at this stage in my life, as I get older, I don't have room to do something for someone else. I have to continue to do it for myself. I have to keep writing with the notion that every day and every year could be my last, and that keeps me focused. That notion of mortality is very practical.
It even came up today. We're having our loft remodeled—we've owned this loft for 25 years, and nothing had ever been done to. We were talking to the architect and the builder on Zoom. We love our architect and builder, but one of the things I saw was a furniture layout. He had Le Corbusier chairs. And I thought, Le Corbusier chairs? I just said to him, “Listen, we may only live another ten years and we don't even go to New York to live full time. So no, these expensive chairs are not on the checklist for the last ten years of life.” But then he said, “Well, actually these chairs were left over from another project I did with somebody who wants to get rid of them, so you can get them for a really, really low price.” And I said, "Okay, then that fits with the ten year plan."
It’s funny you bring up the chairs, because I wanted to ask about your style. What’s important to you when it comes to personal style?
I will say that, yes, I definitely have a style. The style has nothing to do with au courant fashion. It doesn't have to do with designer anything, whether it’s Le Corbusier or Stella McCartney. It just has to be practical, and it has to be something that can last for a very long time. My hairstyle had not changed in many, many years until the pandemic. I could no longer go to the hairdresser, so I started cutting my own hair. I'd probably cut off over six inches or more in the last year. I just keep having to cut it, so now this is my style. And I actually like this style now, so I'll probably keep it. It's very practical. And I color my own hair. All of my clothes are machine washable, hang dry. They're merino wool or cashmere. Even my summer clothes are merino wool. It has to do with packability, timelessness, comfort. You can put anything together and it goes. I can hike in the clothes. I can go to a gala in the evening and just put some jewelry on. I'm a big fan of [Issey] Miyake for the same reason. You can bring just a few on book tour. They crumple up. You just jam them in, they come out. They're like pajamas. Once, 20 years ago, when I was in a hospital overnight, I wore Miyake.
You mentioned earlier how events in the external world, like Trump being elected, shifted what's meaningful to you in your writing. I would be remiss not to ask about what’s going on now with the increasing visibility of anti-Asian racism. How has racism affected your life as a writer, and has that become more prominent for you in recent years, when, as you say, racism is rearing its ugly head even more?
Certainly, like every person who's not white, I've experienced racism. But I would like to say there's a continuum we need to look at when we talk about racism, because so many people deny that they're racist. It has to do with ignorance. Ignorance, even with no intentions, can bear into consequences. Ignorance is not innocuous; [racism] begins there, and we need to address that.
I recently wrote something on Facebook about an innocuous comment somebody once made to me. I had given a talk at a university, and there was a reception afterward. The university’s big benefactor came up to me to share how much he liked my talk. Later he asked, “Are you able to spend a few extra days visiting our beautiful town?” And I said, “Unfortunately, I've been on the road for a long time and I really need to get home. I leave tomorrow.” He said, “You're going to fly all the way back to China tomorrow?”
It bothered me, but it goes along with the same types of comments I've received in the past. “Where did you learn English? You hardly have an accent.” They hear an accent because they expect an accent. Only with this man, he was assuming I came from China. So with a person like that, who's got some degree of ignorance about people who are different, where will he go with that ignorance in the future? Is he the kind of person who would say, “I'm not racist. In fact, I'm very good friends with Amy Tan. She and I discussed things in China and she would agree that COVID is an invention of the Chinese people just as they invented fireworks and wonton”? This is the kind of pernicious attitude that can lead into full-blown racism in a very volatile situation like the COVID pandemic. We need to understand that if we're going to make any headway.
The documentary also addresses criticism or critique of your books, and their representation of the Asian American experience. How do you feel about that?
There are the attacks that were placed on me or my writing by people within our own Asian community. We have to get rid of the notion of what “model minority” means. That is why people think we're homogenous, that we believe the same things, think of our representation as all being the same. There are people, for example, like Frank Chin early on, who attacked me and David Henry Hwang and Maxine Hong Kingston—anybody who had the limelight. And they were frustrated, obviously, because they felt that we were not depicting Chinese people accurately. But there is no accurate representation by any one person.
Recently, I had a number of people share this article from The New York Times with me. A man was writing about the movie Minari, and he starts off his piece with a story about being an Asian writer himself and hating Amy Tan. But I’m not saying that I'm representing everybody. That's when you have to be confident in why you're writing; you cannot write for other people. That also means we have to allow for differences within our own AAPI community and not attack each other. I don't want to shut down that dialogue, but we have to look again at what we mean by the intolerance of these differences and various representations of who we are in America, who we are in our community.
I think that there was also a flattening of you as a person into what you represent more so than who you are as a human being. And that’s in part because at the time of your meteoric rise in the literary world, there were few visible Asian American writers.
Thirty years ago, the burden to get it right, so to speak, was huge. And there was a whole notion that if you were popularly read, you were obviously inauthentic. That has lessened because of the number of people now who are getting published. I’m very much heartened whenever I see other Asian writers not just getting published, but also winning prizes, winning recognition—and not just for “being the best Asian American whatever.”
Ha Jin won the National Book Award a number of years ago. Viet Than Nguyen won a Pulitzer. There have been other really great books out there and the thing that I also find wonderful is they don't have to be about Chinese mothers and daughters or generations or this and that. Celeste Ng’s book [Everything I Never Told You] is not about being Chinese. It’s not hidden in any way either, but the story itself is more manifestly about something else than this girl’s identity. That's exciting to me because once we get to the stage where we have more and more stories—and not just immigrant stories, but stories about many things that are relevant to anybody—I think we’ll also be able to look at these books from a different point of view. They won’t just be in a category of Asian writing. Early on, I was very aware that I was the Asian or the minority included [in a group of authors]. I always had that in the back of my mind—whether that’s why my books were chosen.
Right, and that speaks to that desire to not be a public figure. But also, being published is necessary to having that experience of communion. For example, if you had not been published, then I would not have been able to read your stories. And there's that reminder too, that it is also a very meaningful way to communicate with others.
I talk about this in the MasterClass, about the value of literature and why it is absolutely critical to continue to have books, especially fiction. If we are ever to understand our commonality as human beings and also to take interest in our differences, then we need to have books. We need to have stories that are so deeply personal, so real, that even though they're fictional, people are engaged in them to a point where they are the characters. They have entered into their imagination and that imagination took them to a place that allows them compassion for who these characters are and, hence, the people they are going to encounter in real life with those same qualities. That is what changes people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is available to watch at pbs.org/amytan or via the PBS Video app.
You Might Also Like