Amy Tan finds ‘true self being’ in memoir

Amy Tan Photo: Rick Smolan
Amy Tan Photo: Rick Smolan

Amy Tan's memoir is a meticulous examination of her life  and what it means to be a writer, writes Peter Stupples.

Amy Tan
Fourth Estate/HarperCollins


Amy Tan is a popular writer.

Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a runaway success. Now  she has reached the milestone age of  65, she has written a book that explores the roots of her passion for writing and storytelling that takes its basic form from the "frozen moments in time" preserved in "seven large clear plastic bins" of family documents and memorabilia she has collected over a lifetime.

Delving into this archive encouraged her to remember with precision past events and their significance for the development of her own singular personality. However, that precision is constantly questioned. Facts are, after all, encased in contexts and Tan takes this opportunity to flesh them out.

Her meticulous example may act as a prompt to readers to examine their own lives from such a critical stance and to weigh the relativities of memory before making judgements about the people and events with which their lives became entangled. Inevitably, given their constant presence in her fiction, the centre of this painful and intimate examination swirls about relationships within families, in her case between mothers and daughters, with, by comparison, the men playing walk on and off parts.

This is not simply a retelling of the story of "Amy Tan", the American writer of Chinese origin, with a background in the complex high and low society of pre-Communist Shanghai, explored in the novels to such effect, but is a close study of what it means to work as a writer, and this point of vantage is contemplated by referring to her copious notes for motifs, characters, storylines.

It is clear that her imagination, within the confines of the field about which she has chosen to write, is fertile and vivid. She enriches these notes by including a selected correspondence between herself and her favoured editor, Daniel Halpern, to whom this memoir is dedicated, that allows the reader further glimpses of the writer’s mind at work, the mechanics of plotting and characterisation, the ruthlessness of erasure and exercising a God-like control of the lives of her characters.

The book as a whole, however, is focused on the extraordinary relationship of the writer to her mother. Though the prologue is entitled "The Breaker of Combs", combing the hair being an analogy to our constant grooming of the past, the breaking of combs being necessary to put the past behind you and live in the present, it is soon apparent that this book is a constant rearranging of the tresses of memory to try, as Tan has written before, to find the "true self being".  Yet the pieces of the comb remain to remind you of the impossible task of arranging the past in any way that is finally "true".

The memoir, in all its variety, gathers momentum as it advances towards the core of her mother/daughter relationship through three generations. The heroine/demon is her own mother, born in Shanghai of a concubine and a rich and violent man. Her mother marries, has children, whom she abandons when she flees to the United States to join a man with whom she had fallen in love in China, and who becomes the father of Amy and her two brothers. When Amy is  15 her elder brother and her father die, within six months of each other, of brain tumours. This tragic background leaves Amy’s mother both bereft, indeed at times almost crazy, but with a grim determination to live, to bring up her two American children. Amy was as determined as her mother and their love/hate relationship provides the rollercoaster that is this memoir.

Amy Tan demonstrates a passion to get to the essence of that "true self being", exercising her sharply honed intelligence and self-knowledge, and provides further evidence that, however difficult the relationship between mother and daughter, it is a bond like no other. You can break the comb but its double will rake your hair forever.

- Peter Stupples teaches at the Dunedin School of Art.


Win a copy

• The ODT has five  copies of Where the past begins, by Amy Tan, to give away courtesy of Fourth Estate/HarperCollins. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘Past Begins’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, November 21.


• Winners of last week’s giveaway, First Person, by Richard Flanagan, courtesy of Penguin: Francis Thompson, of Oamaru, Noelene Johnstone, Robin Gauld and Mel Graham, of Dunedin, and Carole McIntyre Crolla, of Queenstown. 

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