The amazing Amy Tan

First aired on George Stromboulopoulos Tonight (5/12/13)


When The Joy Luck Club was first published almost 25 years ago it immediately struck a chord. The story of four iron-willed Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters sold more than two million copies and was made into a popular movie. It also signalled the arrival of an important new voice: Amy Tan.

But as gifted as she is as a storyteller, Tan's own family story is almost unimaginable. When she was just 16, and growing up in Switzerland, Tan had a cleaver held to her throat by her mother after a huge fight. Amy's mom and grandmother had both endured hellish times back in Shanghai (they were both sexually abused). In the end, Tan's grandmother took her own life.

Tan loved her grandmother. "She was my inspiration, the one I always wrote for," she said. In fact, it was a photo of her grandmother that helped inspire Amy's new novel, The Valley of Amazement, an epic that spans more than 40 years, two continents and the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty. Tan learned that the clothes her grandmother was wearing in her favourite photo were "particular to courtesans." This went against everything Tan knew about her grandmother. "I stopped," she said. After the shock wore off, she began to dig deeper. "Here I had this mystery in my family ... another possible story to who she was."

What Tan discovered surprised her -- and made her see her family history in a new light. "I discovered she wasn't quiet, she wasn't traditional, she wasn't some old-fashioned person who'd stay at home and do nothing," she said. "She had an attitude."

This new-found family information caused Tan to look at her own life differently. "It makes me probably more aware of the flaws that I have. The obsessiveness about certain things or somebody being sneaky, my lack of forgiveness for certain betrayals, it makes me probably aware how stubborn I am in some ways, how opinionated I am and those are both good qualities and bad."

Highlights from CBC Books: