Amy Tan Opens Her Essay With Footnotes

Ms. Tan, who has published seven novels, also reflects on her writing life, and describes how she cried the day her debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” was published — not out of happiness, but out of dread and fear of criticism.

Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, said “Where the Past Begins” gave her new insight into Ms. Tan’s evolution as a writer, and compared it to “Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir. “It’s a book about the development of a sensibility as much as it is about the family trauma that led her to need a place of beauty and disassociation,” said Ms. Karr, a friend of Ms. Tan’s. “She’s an interesting person, because she’s both tortured and happy.”

Most books come into being through a mysterious alchemy between writer and editor. ut Mr. Halpern, a published poet and the publisher at Ecco, has helped to shape the careers of novelists like Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Robert Stone, T.C. Boyle and Jorie Graham. But he’s never been so visible in one of his writer’s books.

In Ms. Tan’s memoir, Mr. Halpern becomes a central, recurring character. She dedicates “our book” to him. His notes appear as interjections in the introduction. Later in the book, a chapter titled “Letters to the Editor” consists of dozens of email exchanges between the two. He sends her a poem he wrote. She tells him about attending a screening of a Woody Allen movie. In most of their exchanges, Mr. Halpern plays the role of muse and cheerleader as Ms. Tan oscillates between earnest reflection on her work and crushing self-doubt. “I keep asking myself how the hell I wrote such a long and bloated book,” she writes about her last novel in one message to him. In another, after seeking Mr. Halpern’s opinion on a scene, she writes: “Never mind. I deleted it. It was bad.”

Mr. Halpern and Ms. Tan have a warm, teasing relationship, which is on display in their email messages and even more evident in person. They got together two months ago in Manhattan, where Ms. Tan and her husband of 43 years, Louis DeMattei, a retired tax attorney, have a loft in SoHo. Over a bottle of wine at a restaurant on Park Avenue South, they discussed how the memoir came together.

They disagreed about whether the original book was supposed to be a book of essays or a collection of their emails to one another, but they concurred on other points.

“I’m a very slow writer,” Ms. Tan said.

“She’s not lying,” Mr. Halpern said. “It’s not slow so much as, there are a lot of psychological road blocks. You like to turn in a perfect piece of prose, and that almost never happens. This book was also a little bit of an anathema in that it started out as one thing, and slowly morphed into something else, and we were very careful not to say what that was, because we had our ground rules.”

“You never asked for a memoir,” Ms. Tan said.

“I knew you would never do it,” Mr. Halpern replied. “If you had thought that it was going to be a memoir, you never would have written it.”

“The test is going to be the book,” he later continued “Do you think that you will ultimately regret writing this book?”

“You know, it’s not regret,” Ms. Tan said. “My reluctance is always casting something out there that will be in the public and will be subject to public interpretation. I want nothing of that. It’s like taking the mask off, taking your clothes off, and having people say, oh my God. It’s nonfiction, and people can make fun of the way you think or say, oh that was trivial.”

In a way, it’s surprising that it took Ms. Tan this long to write about herself. Her fiction, which often features Chinese mothers and daughters, is full of family lore and semi-autobiographical material. Her 1989 debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” which has sold nearly 6 million copies in the United States, is an intergenerational epic about Chinese mothers and daughters. Her second novel, “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” features a Chinese-American girl in California who learns about dark secrets from her mother’s past, and is modeled partly on her own family.

There’s no shortage of dramatic material from Ms. Tan’s past, and she could have easily mined her childhood to write a traditional account of her life. Born in California in 1952 to Chinese immigrants, she grew up in fear of her volatile mother. Ms. Tan’s late mother, Daisy, was depressed and unstable, and repeatedly threatened suicide. She once tried to throw herself out of the car when the family was driving on the highway. When Ms. Tan was 16, her mother brandished a meat cleaver and threatened to kill her.

When she was 14, Ms. Tan’s family was struck by a double tragedy: her older brother Peter developed a brain tumor and died at age 16. Then her father, an electrical engineer and Baptist minister, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died not long after Peter. Her mother believed the family was cursed.

Ms. Tan also catalogs some of the trials and misfortunes she’s faced as an adult: her feeling of “relief and sadness” when she had a miscarriage at 28, and her struggle with chronic Lyme disease, which she contracted in 1999. The disease spread to her brain, causing seizures that sparked bizarre but benign hallucinations, like a Renoir painting or a spinning odometer. When she started taking medication to control the seizures, it made her giddy, and she worried it would make her write maudlin fiction. (The sideeffects eventually abated).

In the process of researching the memoir, Ms. Tan discovered more family secrets. She found a photograph of her maternal grandmother, a concubine who died of a possibly intentional opium overdose, dressed as a courtesan. She found letters to her parents from immigration officials, warning that their student visas had expired and they were at risk of deportation.

Now that the book is about to be published, Ms. Tan is feeling apprehensive. She worries about family members who might think she’s sullied her grandmother’s memory, and is terrified of the critical response. She’s accustomed to having her fiction critiqued, but this feels much scarier, and more personal. “There’s so much in there that’s raw,” she said.

Ms. Tan plans to have her papers destroyed when she dies, including her letters and the many partial novels she abandoned, so “Where the Past Begins” may be the most complete and intimate record of her life that her fans and readers will get.

And it very likely wouldn’t exist, she admits, had it not been for the gentle and insistent prodding from her editor. “In many respects,” she said, “This is his book.”

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While few books of the kind termed “literary” come quickly or easily into the world, Amy Tan’s autobiography had an especially complicated genesis. Tan calls it an “unintended memoir”, one born of her editor Daniel Halpern’s suggestion that, out of the thousands of emails she’d sent him while writing her novel The Valley of Amazement, a book could be shaped. She disagreed. He convinced her, but she then decided the emails on their own weren’t insightful enough to fill a book.

After a year of uncertainty, Tan and Halpern devised a plan that could lead to a book while still preserving some of the spontaneity of email: she pledged to send him at least 15 pages each week of unplanned autobiographical prose. The use of a handful of words was prohibited: “memoir”, “finished manuscript”, “new book” and “deadline”. Tan and Halpern named these emailed instalments not chapters, nor essays, but the less threatening “cantos”.

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The cantos gave rise to “a potluck of topics and tones”, to which Tan eventually added journal excerpts, prologues from abandoned novels and letters to and from her Chinese-born late mother. She also pored over photos, visas, school papers, death certificates, address books, diaries and her father’s sermons. What results is a variegated collection of gradually self-revealing entries: “I am intermittently aghast that everything I have written will actually be an open book,” she notes. So, why did she continue? Tan’s fellow American Noy Holland calls the urge to write “the reckless inner need from which art issues”; within and despite the seemingly desultory structure of the memoir, leitmotifs of Tan’s reckless inner need soon become evident.

Where the Past Begins is subtitled “a writer’s memoir”, and it’s worth mentioning what Tan doesn’t include. There is very little mention of published books; instead, she elaborates on the act of writing, the mechanics and results of her own imagination. She explains the central importance of metaphors, the stories her mind spins while she listens to music. “Spontaneous epiphanies always leave me convinced once again that there is no greater meaning to my life than what happens when I write,” she says. Tan’s epiphanies and revelations often revive suppressed memories: “as if I were seeing the ghost of my mother, bringing me a sweater she had knit for me when I was five”.

The author’s mother features in several such revelations, as does the terrible pain she both survived and caused. In a writers’ workshop, Tan’s teacher asks the class to write down a moment when they believed they would die. She finds herself sobbing and, to her surprise, tells of a time her mother chased her with a cleaver, threatening to kill her, her younger brother and herself. “We all go to heaven together,” she said, until 16-year-old Tan shouted that she wanted to live. Later, disbelieving that she could have forgotten the incident, Tan calls her mother to ask if it happened. Her mother confirms it “without any remorse in her voice”.

Tan's mother grew up as the daughter of a rich man’s concubine, who killed herself – or was the death an accident?

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden,” Tan explains. “What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened.” Here, too, much of her questioning is focused on her mother’s life, parts of which might sound familiar to readers of Tan’s fiction. In the stories the author has heard, her mother grew up as the daughter of a rich man’s concubine, who killed herself when he broke a promise about their son – or wait, was the suicide just supposed to be a scare, and the death an accident? Tan’s grandmother became a concubine in the first place because the rich man raped her at knifepoint – or did he? Were they lovers first? Tan circles obsessively around these open-ended stories.

Then, when Tan transmutes some of her mother’s stories into fiction, her mother not only gives her blessing but discovers such verisimilitude in the details that she wonders if her own dead mother’s ghost has been visiting Tan, guiding her imagination. “We wrote letters in English when we were far apart,” Tan says. “I wrote a book to show her how close we truly were.”

The writer also brings what she identifies as her sense of “wonderment” to the subject of her father, who died when she was 15. He became an idealised figure, one who recurs in her fiction as the good father who dies young. But after the US presidential election of 2016, she realises she’s not sure how her father, an evangelical Christian preacher, would have voted. “Would a gulf of inharmonious beliefs have separated us?” she asks. This need to divine her father’s hypothetical political beliefs animates her investigation into who he really might have been.

In an old, wonderfully moving letter to Tan her mother writes: “I felt you love me so much you wanted me be happy to find every way to please me. I understand you deeply, but you work so hard I worry for you. Is it worth? You don’t have to work so hard. Sit all day in front of the computer, squeeze every bit of your brain, it is too hard on you.” Is it worth? To her many admirers, and to Tan, yes.

Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan (4th Estate, £18.99). To order a copy for £16.14, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

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