Luck, Amazement, and how all things are possible: Amy Tan

Luck, Amazement, and how all things are possible: Amy Tan
Amy Tan speaks at Santa Clara University on Jan. 17, 2013. Her talk was part of the President's Speaker Series. Photo by Charles Barry
by Amy Tan |

Introduction by Ron Hansen M.A. ’95

Amy Ruth Tan was born in Oakland, California, the daughter of John Tan, a Chinese immigrant who was an electrical engineer and a part-time Baptist minister, and his wife, Daisy, who fled Shanghai just before the Communist takeover in 1949.

After the sudden death of Amy’s father and brother, Mrs. Tan took Amy and her surviving brother to Montreux, Switzerland, where Amy finished high school. Although Amy’s mother wanted her to become a concert pianist or a medical doctor, Amy chose to study English and linguistics at San Jose State University, achieving both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree there.

It was at San Jose State that she met Louis DeMattei, a tax attorney whom she married in 1974. Amy studied for her doctorate in linguistics first at the University of California, Santa Cruz and then at U.C. Berkeley. But she became interested in the problems of developmentally challenged people and took a job at the Alameda County Association of Retired Citizens. She found her way into the career of a corporate freelance writer while freeing her creativity with jazz piano and fiction writing. One of her short stories was printed in Seventeen magazine, and another, “Rules of the Game,” became the foundation for The Joy Luck Club, a novel about four Chinese women and their conflicts with their Chinese-American daughters.

Published in 1989, The Joy Luck Club was an immediate national sensation, spending eight months on The New York Times best-seller list. It has since been translated into 35 languages. It was the basis for Wayne Wang’s highly successful 1993 film adaptation, with Amy and Ronald Bass co-writing the screenplay.

She followed that novel with The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning. With two children’s books—The Moon Lady and Sagua, the Chinese Siamese Cat—she has also published The Opposite of Fate, a collection of musings, family lore, formal essays, and a harrowing description of her misdiagnosed and debilitating neurological infection of Lyme disease. With medication, she has been able to control the worst symptoms of the disease and has resumed writing; her latest novel, A Valley of Amazement, came out in November.

With Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow, she has also played for charity in the occasional combo The Rock Bottom Remainders.

Publishers Weekly called The Joy Luck Club “Intensely poetic, startlingly imaginative, and moving.” Of The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Los Angeles Times noted that “Amy Tan has a command with language in which event and concrete perception jump into palpable metaphor and images from the daily world act like spiritual agents.” The Boston Globe called The Hundred Secret Senses “the wisest and most captivating novel Tan has written.”

Reviewing The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The New York Times observed, “For Amy Tan, the true keeper of memory is language. And so the novel is layered with stories that have been written down by mothers for their daughters, passing along secrets that cannot be said out loud but must not be forgotten.” In Booklist, Donna Seaman viewed Saving Fish from Drowning as “Amy’s most politically astute and shrewdly satirical tale to date” and concluded, “Writing with stinging irony about oppression, genocide, culture clashes, religion, media spin, and corruption, she slyly considers the unintended consequences of everything from a thwarted seduction to war based on lies.”

There is more I could say about her achievements and awards, but you are at Santa Clara to hear Amy Tan, who is not just our finest and more popular Chinese-American novelist but a jewel in the sparkling tiara of Bay Area writers. I give you Amy Tan.

Amy Tan Speech

Thank you, Ron. Thank you very much. I have a special pleasure in being here, and that is because my father is an alumnus of Santa Clara. He was a master’s student in engineering and he used to bring home his homework and read these very complex formulas to me and I pretended I understood everything.

I lived in Santa Clara from 1964 to 1968; those were pivotal years. I was talking to a class earlier today about issues related to the novel and what happens between a certain number of pages from beginning to the end. One of the things I said had to do with your voice and what you notice during your life, starting with childhood, and all of the things that seem magical and then later prove to be fact.

There was a magical time to during the period 1964 to 1968 when—well, I’ll just tell you what happened. The setting is a house, a duplex in Santa Clara where I lived with my mother and my father, my older brother, Peter, and my younger brother, John. My brother Peter was the smart one. He played the piano well and was treasurer of his senior class. I followed in his footsteps; I became secretary of my freshman class.

My father was, as mentioned, an engineer. He was also an ordained Baptist minister. But he didn’t have a ministry—he would volunteer. He came from a family in China of 12 children and he was the oldest. My grandfather spoke perfect English. It was the language he first learned to read and write because he went to a missionary school. Everyone on that side of the family, the Tan family, was very religious, including my father.

My father was perfect. He could sing and he could speak English perfectly. Characters like that—people like that in your life—don’t make good characters because you don’t want perfect people. My mother, on the other hand, was not perfect. My mother was born in Shanghai and was the daughter of a woman who lost her husband during the Spanish influenza pandemic. Her mother became a widow and, the story goes, she was forced to become the fourth wife to a rich man and later, after her son was born, she killed herself. And my mother watched this happen—mother was nine years old.

My mother was later married to a man—throughout my life I knew him as that bad man—and anything that I learned about dating or men or pregnancy related to that bad man, which basically meant that I would end up in jail wanting to kill myself.

My parents came to the United States in 1949. I did not know a lot of these things—they’re backstory, so to speak. I didn’t know that my mother, for example, had been married before and that she had three daughters she had left behind. I didn’t know that her mother had killed herself. She told me that my grandmother had been the first wife of a rich man who died accidentally.

I am now a child in 1964. I’ve grown up all my life in the Bay Area. I think I’m just like every other kid in my school. There are no other Chinese kids there. I am a little embarrassed because my mother cooks five-course Chinese meals and does not let us have frozen dinners. I was from a family that didn’t have a lot of money. We never went on vacation. If we went to a restaurant, it was often these $1.99 buffets—all you can eat. In the summers, I would read and watch caterpillars turn into cocoons and watch them hatch. I went to church every single day. I went to Bible study, choir practice, youth night—that was my life.

Everything changed one year when my brother became ill. Now, there’s a point in a story I call “what happened?” Stories don’t always begin chronologically. It has to do with pivotal moments in your life—not that you are writing about these pivotal moments, but your stories somehow keep coming back to those pivotal times that formed you as a person and as a writer. For me, that was the year 1967, in Santa Clara, when everything came together: my mother and my father and what they believed and what I had been learning, how I was this kid who was your typical teen growing up. And I had to ask myself what was happening and why this was happening and how this had happened: My brother had a brain tumor.

Now, my father’s religious beliefs came into all of this; he believed that there would be a miracle. It was a test of God and there would be a miracle if we believed enough. My mother also believed in a miracle, but secretly she also wondered if somehow we had done something, or she had done something, that had angered her mother or another relative. My mother, in fact, believed in ghosts. She didn’t talk about this, except in very oblique ways. For example, when I was a little girl, about 6 years old, she would protect us from all kinds of bad things in the world, though she believed that ghosts were sort of good.

When I was 4, somebody came over for the Joy Luck Club meeting and I wanted to stay up. She said, “No, you have to go to bed and wash your face and brush your teeth.” And I said, “I can’t go in there.” She asked, “Why?” And I said, “Well, there’s a ghost in there.” I had made this up. She took me to the bathroom, she turned on the light, and asked, “Where? Where is she?” My mother thought from then on that I could speak to ghosts. It was this thing that really frightened me when I was younger.

My mother also thought that I was somebody who came back from a past life to haunt her because she had done something terrible to [a former] me and I came back to torment her, to torture her.

She was a mother who always protected us. Like all kids, if we were to cross the street, we had to look both ways. But my mother would add a little emphasis so we would never forget. She would say, “You don’t look, you get smashed flat just like a pom-pom fish, both eyes on one side of your head.”

See, you never, ever forget things like that.

Her advice for not going crazy about boys was: “Don’t ever let a boy kiss you, because maybe you like and you can’t stop and then you’re going to have a baby. And you’re going to be so ashamed you’re going to put the baby in a garbage can. And then police going to come, take you away to jail for the rest of your life. You might as well kill yourself right now.” I didn’t know what that meant. I barely knew what the real stuff meant. And I was thinking to myself, What is so good that you can’t stop? That was the message.

So my mother, the protector of our family, was trying to find out the answer to what happened and why did this happen and how did this happen and how can I make this go away and not happen?

Well, despite all these things and all the prayers that my father had and the congregation had, my brother did not get better. In fact, my father came down with a brain tumor. It was so strange. In those days, people just didn’t get brain tumors. It’s really spiked up recently, but it was a very rare thing to have two very bad brain tumors in the same family.

My mother asked the doctor, “Why did this happen?” He said the worst thing possible: “We don’t know, Mrs. Tan. It’s just a lot of bad luck.” She went looking for the reason for that bad luck. She looked at karma, at things she had done to past ancestors. She looked at the feng shui of our neighborhood and hired these people to go around and check the balance of good energy. She hired people who spoke in tongues to come to the house—I came home and there were people talking in tongues. She prayed for a miracle. She worked with the congregation to try this. She also berated the doctors to try any kind of new medicine. She believed that across the street from us, where there was an orchard, there was too much electrical power going on with the transformers. She was early on with this, before other people had thought about electromagnetic energy. She thought that we had eaten something—barbecued beef. She looked at everything as if she could find the reason why—because, then, she could undo it and make them better.

Well, my brother died. And then my father died. This sent my mother into such a crisis that she began to look for answers elsewhere. I was a teenager, I was cynical. I was angry that my father and brother had died despite all these things we had done.

One day when I came home, my mother pointed to a Ouija board that my friends and I had bought to ask about guys we had crushes on (“Is he going to ask me out?” or something—I had no boyfriends, by the way). My mother looked at this thing—something my father would have found blasphemous, talking to the devil with this Ouija board—and wanted to use it to contact my brother and my father and talk to them. She made me sit down. “I don’t want to do this,” I’d say. She’d ask questions. She began with, “Do you miss me? Do you still love me?” And I had to give her the answers I knew she needed. So I would say, “Yes, yes.” And then she’d say something like, “Amy treat me so bad, what I should do? Send her to Taiwan school for bad girls?” And I said, “No!”

My brother ended up going to Taiwan, but I did not.

She also found answers to what she should do next ... under the sink. She was cleaning the sink using Old Dutch Cleanser. She looked at it and she said, “Holland! Holland is clean. We are moving to Holland.” My mother believed germs had something to do with it. You laugh, but she sold the house, she sold the car, and she sold most of the furniture. She bought us Samsonite bags and duffels and we packed everything into these bags and sailed on the SS Rotterdam to Holland—I had never been out of California. We went to $1.99 restaurants, We had had two vacations our entire lives: to Disneyland—that was it. And now we were on a boat to Holland.

We couldn’t find a place in Holland, so we had to keep going. We went to Germany; couldn’t find a place to live in Germany. This is during a period when, if you rented an apartment, you had to put the light bulb fixtures in. They were not furnished at all.

She bought a car, a VW Bug, and we started driving down the highway. She would look at this book and say, “How about this town?” And I would say, “There’s no school here,” and we would keep going. That was our guide to how we were going to live our life: by a book of English-speaking schools.

One day, we ended up finding a town—Montreux, Switzerland—and it happened to have an English-speaking school. It also had two openings for day students. Private school, Switzerland—I know what you’re thinking: rich people, abroad. We were the $1.99 family. That education: We had one-to-one [instruction] in piano, one-to-one in art, three-to-one in Spanish, four-to-one in math, four-to-one in history—these classes were amazing. The total tuition for that year was $600. That was the school I went to.

We were living in a chalet that overlooked Lake Geneva and the French Alps across the way and I would look at this place and say, “How did we get here? It is so beautiful.” I couldn’t believe what happened. But, of course, I knew what happened: My father and my brother had died and my mother had gone crazy.

She wanted to do everything the Swiss way. We had a little half door, like Heidi: Heidi’s grandfather would open the door and say, “Heidi! Your yogurt is ready.” My mother actually bought yogurt so that we could have it every day. She did all of the skiing, the Swiss cheese, all of that. She bought a cuckoo clock.

What she didn’t count on was my having a boyfriend. I had never had a boyfriend and, here in Switzerland, I was exotic. I had hair down to here. I was a little bit chubby but I had men who thought I was exotic and they wanted to throw me into a closet and do bad things to me.

Well, there was a guy named Franz and he was German. He was so handsome, so romantic. He wrote me poems in German—you know, “My angel who dims the stars above me.” I mean, come on guys, can you write something like that? The rest of it was German, so I can’t tell you exactly what it said beyond that. It may have had to do with a kiss and not stopping or something.

My mother somehow didn’t appreciate this boyfriend because he was a German Army deserter and he didn’t have a job and he smoked all the time. He had yellow fingers. And he drank. And he did nothing but play foosball in a bar all day long. But he was quite good. I mean, you play foosball in a bar all day long and you’re like an Olympic champion. He was wonderful.

My mother also feared that I would kiss Franz and this would be the guy with whom I wouldn’t be able to stop. He was the only one I ever kissed. But you know what? I was the kind of girl who wanted to do everything that my mother expected me to. So when he kissed me, I stopped—thank God.

My mother found out that this man—he was 24 and I was 16, so he was an older man—had friends who were Canadian hippies and dealt drugs. They had hashish and a little bit of marijuana and some psychedelics, things like that. So he hung out with the wrong crowd. My mother knew this because she hired a detective, a detective who happened to be the mayor of the town—was a very small town—and he went around and he followed us.

Now, consider this: I’m the girl from Santa Clara. I’ve never dated. I went to church every single day. I prayed for my father and my brother. And there I am with the boy I have fallen in love with named Franz, who wrote that I dimmed the stars above me and he has drug-dealer friends and I start smoking, and some of those cigarettes contained something that I thought was legal. I thought it was legal because everybody did it along the lakefront and these friends would be smoke in front of my mother. My mother was so innocent that she would not recognize any of this until she wanted to get rid of my boyfriend.

The detective collected a file on us that was about this thick. It detailed everything: everywhere we went, everything that these hippies did, everything that Franz did. She also took my diary, which I had cleverly written in Spanish; the Swiss police had it translated into very good French. That was enough evidence to have Franz and his hippie friends and me arrested and thrown into jail. I didn’t actually get thrown into jail; they got thrown into jail and then they were deported. That is one way to get rid of your daughter’s boyfriend.

I actually had to appear before a magistrate and promise that I would never smoke, never drink, never do drugs, and I would always listen to my mother. I said, “Yes, yes, I will.”

That year caused me to reflect back on everything I believed in my life, on who I grew up with: my father, my mother. The way my mother never gave up hope in thinking that my brother and my father would still live. She never gave up trying to save me from some terrible thing that had befallen her.

I ended up leaving Switzerland behind, along with that record of drugs, and I was accepted at Linfield College. I got a scholarship; I was called the American Baptist Scholar, based on my good morals and all kinds of stuff. They didn’t know what happened in Switzerland. I had applied to Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, and I got turned down at both places. It’s one of those ironies: Stanford ended up inviting me to teach there and I said, “Well, you turned me down, I’m turning you down.”

By the way, my father believed Santa Clara was the same as Stanford in its quality. He would take our relatives around when they came into town or when friends came into town; this is what we did in the summer. We didn’t go to some fantastic place in Montana; we took tours of Santa Clara, we saw the palm trees. So I have a lot of memories of Santa Clara in the summer.

So I went to school at a small Baptist college. I met my husband there and we’ve been together since 1970.

My mother and I went through a period when we got along, mostly because I did not see her that much. I would do the polite thing, but I didn’t tell her about my life, and in that way we didn’t really know each other that well for a very long time.

There came a point one day when I received a phone call. I was in Hawaii. I had been reading stories by Louise Erdrich and I was having a wonderful time. I had recently started to write some fiction and played jazz piano as a way to pass my time. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write. Somebody had said that one of my stories lacked authenticity. I would send these out every now and then and they said, “It’s not believable. There’s no truth in what you are saying.” And I thought, Well, it’s supposed to be fiction, right?

I was in Hawaii when I received a phone call from a friend. It was on the answering machine, actually. The friend said, “You must call home. Your mother had a heart attack. She’s in intensive care.” That phone call had come five days before, so I didn’t know whether my mother was still alive. As I went to the payphone to call and to find out, I said, “Dear God or whoever is listening, if my mother lives, I will get to know her. I will take her to China. I will get to know her family. I will find everything out—when she was little, all about her daughters—if she lives.”

I got on the phone, got transferred, got transferred again. And suddenly I heard this voice that said, “Amy, where are you?” And I said, “Mom, you’re alive.” And she said, “Oh, you worried?”

If you ever want to please your mother, just let her know that you are worried.

I had to keep that promise and I took her to China. And for the first time, I met my three sisters. I didn’t know I had sisters for a very long time. This was in 1987 and things looked very different back then. These were sisters who had grown up during the Cultural Revolution, who had been sent down to work in the fields, one for 19 years. She didn’t leave.

As I was meeting them, I realized this was a life I could have had, but I had this mother who raised me in the United States. [Growing up,] I listened to my mother’s stories and I also heard her say things like, “Look both ways when you cross the street or you get smashed flat.” And that was true in China. If you don’t look, there’s no lawsuit. You get smashed flat there. I was with her for 24 hours a day, sleeping with her, listening to her advice, and I have to say, it was awful. I heard her criticize: “Why did you buy that? That’s too expensive. Don’t ask what this food is, it’s nutritious things.” It was the most wonderful thing I could have done for myself and my mother, because then I knew what to write.

I came back and I started to write a book that eventually would become known as The Joy Luck Club. It began with stories, and the first one is about a girl who says that her mother died and she has come to take her place at the mah-jongg table. And the girl is in anguish because she doesn’t know anything about her mother. She remembers certain things; that her mother was a good cook, that her mother criticized her for being a failure at school, and for being a drop-out in college—she remembers the terrible things.

And so, in this book, she goes back. And during the time I was writing the book, I went back to the memories and the times that my mother had told me about her life in China. And her life was quite different the second time. Her mother was not the first wife of a rich man. She was actually the fourth wife and she became the fourth wife because he had raped her and forced her to become his concubine. She killed herself and it was not accidental.

Then, for the first time, [my mother] told me about the bad man—I’ve never known his name. She told me that when he came back to her, having gone off with other women, he held her at gunpoint on the bed and he raped her. She said that she had to make a very big decision: leaving China and her daughters for the United States to be with the man she loved, and to also leave before the Communists took over.

My mother never really had an answer for why she did that, but it was a question that remained with me for a very long time. What would cause a mother to leave her daughters? How could she ever believe that would be something she could justify? It is a story that I come back to over and over again in my books: A mother has left her daughter; a father has died.

People ask me what things are autobiographical and they think that what you see in a story is going to be this fact that the mother was in this war and left the babies by the side of the road. But the truth is not in these stories. It’s in the emotional questions: “How could this have happened? How could my father have died? How could my mother leave those little girls?” And the big question was also, “How could I have become a writer?”

I wasn’t destined to be a writer. As far as I was concerned, I was a reader. There was nothing in my childhood that said, “You have the talent.” In fact, there was an IQ test that was given to me by a person who was probably following me around to do a longitudinal study of kids who lived in inner cities and how they do over the years. Well, it turns out that I did great in math. I had really high percentiles. And I did terrible in verbal skills, and they would say, “She has what it takes to become a doctor but nothing having to do with using English, nothing verbal.” So I was already told very early in life by my parents, “This is what the psychologist said. ‘You will become a doctor. You will become a concert pianist on the side.’”

So I never was destined to be a writer. I took the SATs for getting into college and I remember—this was back in the days when people didn’t do mentoring or tutoring [for the test]—getting in the 400s in English and 600s in math. But certainly in that score, 400s, there never was an indication that I would ever make my living through the artful arrangement of words. Those of you who have similar signs in your life—you want to write but you have all these terrible signs—take courage from me.

As I started to write, however, there were pivotal moments that came back to me. And in a novel, oftentimes it does not begin chronologically. It begins with crisis and it moves into what you believe. And the beliefs often take you into other places of the stories. Then the beliefs lead into other crises, as they did for my mother. And then there are more beliefs about what you need to do to save your daughter.

How did I end up from that mother to where I am standing today? It is the confusion of the questions, of asking myself over and over again: “What happened? Why did it happen? And how did it happen?” The voice that I have reflects that, the things that I noticed in the world that would tell me an answer, that would tell me whether things in the world were random, which is what I ended up believing after my father and brother died. Or was it God’s will that good things happen but also that bad things happen and it was a test? Or was it karma? Was it good luck? Is that what led me to becoming a writer? And so I would ask myself those questions. Is it God? Is it miracles? Is it luck? Was it listening to my mother?

The answer that I have come up with, as I continue to write, is yes, yes, yes, yes: All things are possible.

In conversation with Ron Hansen M.A. ’95

You have a novel coming out in November, The Valley of Amazement.

Yes, The Valley of Amazement. It is my first novel in so many years I am afraid to even say it out loud. So you know that I’m not lazy or that it was my illness—I did write an opera in between and I went to a remote part of China. I got very attached to a place and wrote an article for National Geographic, taking much more time than I really needed, thinking it would be research.

And I started to write this novel. I was writing about Shanghai and about women, and suddenly this novel took a turn. It had these twists. I’m talking about those moments that happen and just change everything. What I had seen was a photograph of my grandmother and another photograph of some women in a book on Shanghai. The photograph of the women was labeled “The ten beauties of Shanghai.” They were courtesans, the most popular courtesans of 1910, and they were wearing identical clothes to what my grandmother was wearing. This was specifically courtesan clothing: There was a headband that pulled their eyes very tight and they had tight clothing on—skintight. They wore a certain kind of jewelry. They had sleeves that stopped here with a white lining—very, very specific.

The most telling thing is that the photos were taken in a Western photo studio. Imagine you’ve just discovered your grandmother, who was the woman who was raped, who killed herself. This death of my grandmother had formed my mother’s life to the point where my mother was suicidal all of her life. My brother and I were relieved, actually, when we found out that she had died. She finally died peacefully and we turned to each other and said, “She didn’t kill herself.”

So I saw this photo and—this is why it took extra years—I had to change the story, because novels are about things that often disturb you, and you have to go back to those moments. The story goes back to the moments of what my mother believes. Then I think, Well, she believed this. What did her mother believe? And how did her beliefs reflect the circumstances she was in? If you are a courtesan, you must believe certain things about yourself and I needed to know about courtesan culture.

It’s not just a book about courtesans, however. It’s set in Shanghai during that time. It is more about those things that get passed along in our identity based on circumstances and how other people look at us and what we find repeatedly over time.

The title comes from a painting I saw in Berlin at a museum: “The Valley of Amazement.” I thought it was a wonderful title. The painting was of a mountain with a valley and dark clouds. And at the very back of this valley was a big golden glow, like a paradise. To me the painting had two meanings, and you had to decide what the meaning was: Were the clouds clearing up or were the clouds coming in? Was the person leaving this paradise or going into this burning river?

I read something about “The Valley of Amazement.” There were two references. One was the beautiful valley you would imagine that [the painting was named for]. And the other was that you would lose everything in your life, you would reach one of these valleys on your way to kingdom come or the hereafter or Nirvana, whatever it was. You would reach that place and you would lose everything. You wouldn’t know where you were. You wouldn’t know who you were. It prepared you for the next valley, which was the Valley of Death—a very grim meaning.

You have great titles. All your titles are wonderful.

I wanted to choose, yeah—we choose the meanings and what we see. They can be the same thing in front of us, but there are circumstances or whatever.

We have an audience question: “Although you didn’t end up buying that apartment in Prague, did any of your time in the Czech Republic come into your writing?”

I was at a writer’s conference in Prague—it was a really wonderful time with Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee—and yeah, you do fantasize. Prague is a fantasyland. It’s castles, princes and princesses—all this stuff that you’ve ever imagined. We saw an apartment and actually considered buying this place, which would have been a bargain. I think today we would have made a killing.

But in Prague, I was in the home of Franz Kafka and that was very special to me, because Kafka was somebody I had studied for an entire semester for an English honor’s class. So I got very into the imagery, Kafka, what all this meant, and that I was there. But the greatest thing that happened when I was in Prague was that Clark and Bharati told me we should go to Krakow for an evening: fly in there, have dinner with a poet. The poet was Czeslaw Milosz. It was amazing to be with the great poet.

He took us out to dinner to a hunter’s lodge. He walked in there, this Nobel Prize-winning poet, and everybody knew him. They set a tray in front of us, and it was exactly like a pig trough. And all this gristle and fatty meat was in front of us—and Milosz lived to be about 95 years old.

There was something in that.

Who knows? I think poets live a long time also.

Would you care to say how you got Lyme disease and how the journey impacted you?

I was in upstate New York at a wedding for my editor’s daughter. I was smart. I knew that if you saw a bull’s-eye you should be careful. I didn’t see a bull’s-eye. I saw a little dot and I thought it was a spider bite. It was this little black thing, like a little blood blister, and I didn’t take it out because I thought it would leave a little pit. That was my tick growing. And it grew and grew. And within a day I had a fever. I never get the flu, hadn’t had the flu in 15 years. And on that day, my editor wanted to take me to a party—she was a real party girl and she had cancer and was in the last few months of her life—and I couldn’t go.

I had to reconstruct later—four and a half years later, when I finally had been diagnosed—all that happened. I went to 10 different doctors and everybody thought it was something else. I had MS, I had Addison’s, I had something else. They took my adrenal gland out, thinking that was part of it. I was [eventually] diagnosed because one of the doctors had sent out for something called ELIZA; I looked it up and I saw that it was testing for Lyme disease. And I saw every single one of my symptoms there, including crashing hypoglycemia down in the 20s and 30s, which ended up getting me hospitalized. I saw that and I said to the doctor who had ordered the test, “This is the answer.” He said, “No, no. It’s impossible. We don’t have Lyme disease in California.” We do.

I said, “I was in upstate New York.”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s so rare, you couldn’t possibly have it.” And I said, “I know that test probably came out negative, but I heard that these early tests are often inaccurate and I’ve had it for a long time.”

He said, “Oh. Well, I didn’t really test you for Lyme. I tested you for syphilis.” I was so angry because, he thought i was more likely that I would have syphilis than Lyme disease. I thought, I’m too exhausted to go to orgies.

So I found a Lyme-literate doctor, as we call them, and I started slowly getting better. But it took a number of years. I have some permanent damage. I have balance problems and I have a sleep disorder—the worst thing about it. It left me with 16 lesions in my brain and I have epilepsy.

I found out that a lot of people think “epilepsy” is kind of a word you shouldn’t say, but a lot of people have epilepsy. I think it’s a brain quirk. I have seizures that are under control except for one, which is an automatic reflex seizure that only happens when I’m driving. Go figure. They actually measured these. I have temporal lobe seizures when I drive. So that’s the major thing—that I never like to drive—and I have a very good chauffeur, my husband.

She also has a Segway, she will reveal.

I have a Segway, yes, like your campus security; they go running around on that. I can go up and down the hills where I live and go into town, go to a hair appointment, go to the store or whatever on a Segway. So it’s great.

Here’s an audience question: “When you are about to tackle a big writing project like a novel, how do you motivate yourself to keep writing?”


No, the difficult part is when you start a novel and you start getting distracted about pieces and you’re trying to work those pieces out and you lose the thread of it—you lose this push that the novel should have. Just as the story should have a push for the reader, you don’t want to be lagging in the story.

Part of [staying motivated] is going back to my journals—unfortunately I don’t write in them every day anymore, but I write what I’m noticing. I go back and I read the notes that I have for the novel and the things that inspired it, and that gets me back into it. I play the same music over and over and over again. And that’s because that particular piece of music was what I was listening to when I was in that scene. So by putting that on—they tend to be soundtracks—I get back into the scene.

But the newest thing, the best thing I was just telling a class today, is something called Freedom. Another writer gave it to me. It’s a piece of software. You press it and it turns on and says “normal mode.” When I hit that, I cannot be on the computer, the Internet, for 100 minutes. I actually tweet the results so people can see “100 minutes, I did 100 minutes.” So I do another 100 minutes. … All of us are so distracted by so many things in the world, and a lot of things are important. But I always have to tell myself, now that my deadline is past and past and past, “I need to finish.”

Besides Freedom, what is your advice for an inspiring young writer?

You know, there’s always the obvious: to be in a creative writing class, to be in a place like Ron Hansen’s class, with great writers who can share by evidence of their work and what they can say—that is huge. I got that late in life, when I went to Squaw Valley Community of Writers and then had private workshops with people I met there, with Molly Giles. She would go through our work and tear us apart. And you have to be there with this mindset that you are not going to make this thing perfect the first time. You are going to revise and revise and revise and every time you do it, you’re going to get better and you’re going to see more things and you’re going to learn the craft of writing.

The other part of it, other than the craft, is to do what unfortunately I said I don’t do every day, and that is to keep a journal. The journal is not to write a tweet, like, “Today I did 100 minutes.” And it’s not to write, “My dog looks so cute and broke his leg,” which my dog did. It is to write something that you noticed. The places where I do my best journal writing are out of my norm: I’m in China, I’m in some other place. And I write down something striking. The important thing when you write this down is to star anything of yours that’s original, something you observed, something that you thought of. Write down things you’ve heard and write down things you’ve read, but don’t star those. Then you know what things are yours and what things are not. That is very, very important.

I’ll give you an example. When I was in Alaska, this man told me that at a certain temperature the ice at this one part of the bay freezes over—becomes a skin of ice. And then a slight wind comes, if you are very lucky, and it moves like a wave across the ice. Then the ice breaks up into very slim pieces and it sounds like a million bells that are being played at the same time. Well, that’s an image that I will never forget: I haven’t been able to use that yet, but it’s something that I will. It also has to do with the feeling that I have about it—it’s not just that there’s the sound, there’s the part of having the right conditions: the look of it, the skin of the ice. So [your journal should have] something like that. You write down what people say and how you felt about it.

I was talking to a young boy who was about 13 and I said, “You should start writing this now, writing these observations now, because when you look at it again in a year, in two years, in five years, in 10 years, you will see what remains the same—the way that you thought when you were that age—and also what’s different.” What I think will be different is, say, if you were a cynic or if you were an optimist, maybe you are something else now. I read things that I wrote and I don’t recognize them. So I think it’s a good thing to know that your mind is always changing, because your life changes too that there are stories to be tod. Many things are happening and you see them differently.

A good time for me to write is just before I go to sleep or when I wake up. Your brain is in a different place, yet It’s a continuous stream. And I will write and write and the next morning I will see that I have written 10 pages and it doesn’t look familiar to me, but obviously I wrote them.

Go to a creative writing class, get a mentor, be willing to revise. I revise at least 100 times per page—I’m not kidding. Know what you like to read, don’t ever imitate. Know what influences you. Write journals. And just believe in your work to such a degree that when you get rejections, you still know it’s important. And if the rejections are enough to turn you around, then maybe it wasn’t as important to you. And that’s fine, too.

In line with that, another audience question is, “Do you have a favorite book and why is it your favorite?”

These are questions that I find really difficult to answer. What is your favorite color? What is your favorite …? I have a favorite dog and a favorite husband. I don’t have a favorite book.

There’s also: Who is the most influential in your life? The reason why [these questions are difficult to answer] is that at any given point in my life, the answer has to do with where I am and what I am thinking and the context of everything. For example, at certain times my favorie book is Lolita, because I’m being inspired by the language. It’s just an incredible layer of language and [I’m inspired by] the beauty of all of that. What you might say about the story, if you were to think of it just purely as a story of this man, is that it’s terrible, perverted. But the idea that somebody could make something so beautiful with this language is incredible.

Another favorite from a certain time when I was starting to write was Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. It is a series of stories told by a community and [written] in different voices. I ended up writing a book like that, with different people in this club, the Joy Luck Club. Her writing is so beautiful; she continues to be an amazing writer. I was lucky enough to become friends with Louise. She wrote one of the early comments on my book. It’s such a privilege to meet writers whom you adore.

I’m going off on a tangent here, but when people meet me and say, “Oh, I just can’t believe I’m meeting you,” I look back at those days when I said the same thing to the writers I really love and got to meet, and I think how lucky I am. But you don’t have to be—I’m just a person, like you.

Here’s a another: “Do you think that humor is one of the redeeming features of literature? Who do you read that makes you laugh or feel wonder?”

I do think of humor as being absolutely essential, especially when we are looking at very difficult, confusing, sad times. My books have, I think, a lot of humor, though people think of them as being very moving and very sad. A friend of mine, who is a psychiatrist, said that he had one patient who came to him and said, "I just read this book, The Joy Luck Club, and it’s the saddest book I’ve ever read." And he said he had another patient who said to him, "I just read this book, The Joy Luck Club, and it is the funniest book I’ve ever read."

I love the fact that people find the humor in there, because the difficult parts are difficult. It’s not to laugh, it’s to look at our own nature and to see what’s true. And when we recognize it, we often have a little giggle.

On the other hand, there is another kind of humor, like that from a humorist such as Dave Barry, who was in our band. I have such huge respect for people who are humorous, who can take a situation, things that are going on in the world and things that are happening on a daily level, and combine them. And these people are so quick. They are able to process something that is very complex into a nugget that is truth, a form of the truth.

So Dave and I were in this band together for twenty years. Dave is even funnier in person than he is on the page. He is incredible. I think that somebody who can do that, who can just automatically come out with this humor that puts it together, I think that it is a sign of creativity to be able to make that jump. So yes, I do love humor and I’m really, really happy when people recognize humor in my work, because I do try to put it in.

We just read your story “Rules for Virgins,” and I thought that was hilarious.

I always feel like I have to explain what this story is. “Rules for Virgins” is a Kindle single on Amazon and on other things. Walter Kirn, who is a wonderful writer, asked if I would write something and I said, “No, I don’t have time.” But I had a character, and I had to describe what went on in a courtesan house, and it just went out of control. It was called “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir” and it’s based on a lot of research. I always have fears that people are going to read what I’ve written and say it’s autobiographical. It is not. My joke is that if you liked Fifty Shades of Grey, you will like “Fifty Shades of Tan.”

It’s contained in what now will be a chapter in the book, a little bit changed, but I like the arc of the story—somebody advising a young girl what she has to do when she’s going to have her defloration in about a year. It’s all business, it’s all very matter of fact: Here’s what you have to do. And when they do this, you take the jewels and you get this, and you come back and you say that. But with a lot of heart, too, with a lot of sincerity and sadness about what’s going to go on. And the one thing that they cannot let happen is to fall in love. The story is funny, and at the very end, you see this coming: You better not fall in love.

What were your biggest challenges in moving from work as a freelance writer to producing your first novel?

I was so happy to not work as a freelancer. I had wonderful clients, but what I was writing wasn’t meaningful to me. It was like finding my meaning. There was nothing terrible. What was terrible was good, which was the fear that people would change their minds. I had turned in three stories. They bought the novel on the basis of three stories and an outline, and I kept saying to myself, What did they see? Why are they buying this? I don’t understand. My editor was the great Faith Sale, who had her writers recruit Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and John Barth and Donald Barthelme. I kept thinking, What did she see? I would turn in a chapter and she would read it and she wouldn’t say anything. She just said, “Keep going,” which is the best thing she could have said. It didn’t unnerve me because I just kept going and going and going.

It was great writing in that naive state. I imagined my editor not liking it or I imagined a certain number of people not liking it or saying that’s not how Chinese people are, as opposed to finding out later that [the mother character is] like every mother. So the difficulty was confidence, fear, but ultimately that was good. When you write your first book, you don’t have your same self-consciousness. But I will say, I did think that this book would sell, if we were lucky, the same number of copies that most first books sell—what is that, 5,000 copies? And when it was selling, I said to my husband, I read about this and I know; I was a business writer and I was very savvy and I said, “It will disappear off the shelves in about six weeks. Gone, never to be seen again.”

When it started to sell better and they had to go back and get it reprinted, I said, “It will be gone in seven weeks.” And when it became a best-seller, I didn’t trust it. I kept saying, “This is going to go away. I don’t trust it. I am not going to put any hopes on it.” I kept telling Lou, “This is going to go away. This is going to go away.” And it took about nine months before I could finally believe that I would be able to write fiction the rest of my life.

I still have this feeling it’s going to be taken away; it’s going to be taken away because you don’t know how it was that you got it. I just said, “How did this happen? Is it God’s will? It’s a miracle, it’s luck, it’s karma. How did this happen?” So I feel very lucky.

How did your mother and father meet?

These are the stories that keep changing. I told you that my grandmother, she was the first wife and she was the fourth wife. Apparently, my mother and father met on a boat. According to an uncle, they were instantly lovers. She was married; her husband was off with somebody else. They met again accidentally five years later, walking down the streets of Tianjin.  And they knew that they were destined, that this was stated to be.

It was during the war, and my father, my uncle says now, was a spy. I’ve got to find out: He’s a spy, he has another family. I have other brothers and sisters—these are family stories that never stop. He was working for the USIS. My mother was still married, and her husband, when he found out that she was seeing somebody, had her put in jail, which you could do in those days. So that’s how they met. It was true love.

One of the reasons she came to the United States was that he had a scholarship to MIT. But he felt so terrible about what had happened, that he was having an affair with a married woman and she was put in jail and that she was going to come here and leave her kids behind. He was so full of guilt that he prayed to God, and God told him he should become a minister. That’s why he became a minister. Then my mother said, “We are so poor. You only make 50 dollars a month.” She constantly berated him to get a job as an engineer until he did. But ministry was his true love.

Do you know how she took the name Daisy?

My mother has had so many names; it’s hard to know why. I saw another one recently. My father loved the song, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I’m half crazy over the love of you.” And her Chinese name at one point was Du Cheng, so Daisy is what it became.

I just saw another name of my mother’s. It was Du Tren, and it was on her diploma from the university when she received a bachelor’s for English literature. My mother never went to university. She came to the United States on a student visa. She was supposed to study at Lincoln University in San Francisco. She was going to study American literature. I became her American literature many, many years after. Their student visas expired. If that happened today, I would’ve been one of those kids to grow up here in danger of being shipped out because her parents were here on illegal visas. So that’s another thing that’s very lucky. When they became citizens they cried and cried.

Does or did jazz play a role in your development as a writer?

I have just got a new piano and have started playing the piano again. Music is very, very important to me. I think the reason why I ended up having the instincts of a writer is that very early on I continued to play piano. And I saw stories when I was playing—improvisational stories [that came out while I was] playing music.

I don’t know if I will ever have the skills to do improvisational jazz itself. When I let myself go, however, and I’m singing with people, I can occasionally start to go off on my own. But you have to let go of thinking about who you are. You feel the music. And so it’s very much like writing a book.

Just today I was thinking, What I would like to do is to write down some melodies that I always hear in my head. I was talking to a guy who’s a polymath: He does many different things, but he composes. He was telling me how he composes, and I said, “You know, I get these four measures of music, and for the melody itself and the return, and I’m going to sit down and I’m actually going to compose and then do the other part of it.” And I think it will be a lot like writing a novel, although I would not get into it to the same extent.

A very dear friend of mine is a composer, and we have written this opera together. We have described this creative process that each of us has, and it’s very, very similar. We work on these things. There’s a part that suddenly lets go because you know enough and it takes off and it has its own life. And when that happens, you are elated. It is the highest, most exhilarating feeling you can possibly have. And you don’t want it to stop. And when it does, you are so afraid it will not happen ever again. And so when it does, every time it does, you are just grateful.

Back to article

Fall 2013

Table of contents


One in a million

A personal note of thanks to SCU alumni. You came through in record numbers to secure a $1 million gift for the University.

Yes, but is it the right thing to do?

From business to government to college campuses, it’s not always a question that gets asked. But here’s how the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics set out to change that.

Good light

For a quarter century Charles Barry has told Santa Clara’s stories in photographs. Here are a few.

Mission Matters

Enter here

Palm Drive becomes a grand pedestrian promenade.

Graduation day highlights

More than 1,000 grads were on hand to hear the address by Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 at SCU’s 162nd commencement exercises.

She runs the game

Julie Johnston ’14 makes Glamour magazine’s list of top 10 college women.