With her latest work, The Valley of Amazement, just out, writer Amy Tan talks about how her first, groundbreaking novel, The Joy Luck Club, has its roots right here in Santa Clara. Enjoy this edited excerpt of her talk from the 2012–13 SCU President’s Speaker Series.
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. Peter was the smart one. He played the piano well; he was treasurer of his senior class. I followed in his footsteps. I became secretary of my freshman class.
My father was 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, he could speak English perfectly. Characters like that—people like that in your life—don’t make good characters [in fiction], 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. Later, after her son was born, she killed herself. And my mother watched this happen. My 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 and 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 she had three daughters that she had left behind. I didn’t know that her mother had killed herself. She told me that she was 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 called “what happens?” 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.
My father believed that 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 … 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 me and I came back to torment her.
She was a mother who always protected us. If we were to cross the street, we had to look both ways like all kids. 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. 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 of my father and the congregation, my brother did not get better. And, 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.