A life stranger than fiction
First Amy Tan's grandmother committed suicide, then her mother tried to murder her. The author tells Helena de Bertodano why her memoirs are more lurid than her novels
At the age of 16, Amy Tan thought she was going to be murdered - by her own mother. In her new book, The Opposite of Fate, Tan describes what happened after a ferocious argument with her over Tan's new boyfriend. "[My mother] slammed the door shut, latched it, then locked it with a key. I saw the flash of a meat cleaver just before she pushed me to the wall and brought the blade's edge to within an inch of my throat. Her eyes were like a wild animal's, shiny, fixated on the kill. . . She pressed the blade closer and I could feel her breath gusting."
Joy Luck Lady: Amy Tan
Amy Tan's family background is colourful, to say the least, and Tan has drawn heavily on her mother's and grandmother's past in writing her fiction, particularly in The Joy Luck Club - which stayed in the bestseller lists for nearly a year and was made into a successful Hollywood film - and The Kitchen God's Wife. But this is the first time she has written autobiographically.
"It is not a conventional autobiography," says Tan when we meet at her loft apartment in SoHo, New York, "but more a collection of meditations on my life." Reading it, one discovers that she is living proof of the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. Tan says she had contemplated turning certain aspects of her life into a novel but decided it wouldn't work. "It was just so ridiculous in many ways that it seemed improbable as fiction. It had to be written as autobiography."
Tan, 51, speaks in a soft voice with a West-Coast American accent. She grew up in California and now divides her time between San Francisco and New York. She has an engaging giggle and is far more friendly than she sounds in her book, in which she rails against people who call her an author, "a word as chilling as rigor mortis" (Tan prefers to be known as a writer), and has a chapter entitled Persona Errata, listing all the mistakes people make about her life.
She is wearing a long black Issey Miyake robe, a blue-and-green panelled floor-length skirt and flat black pumps with a blue silk purse around her neck. Her black hair hangs straight past her shoulders. She perches on a small chair covered in jade green and mustard yellow velvet, but does not remain still for an instant. Her graceful hands, the nails painted a rose-gold colour, are constantly gesticulating or stroking the tiny Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lilliput, that jump up on to her knees.
Photographs of her dogs crowd the mantelpiece and there is one of a smiling white-bearded man I assume to be her husband, Lou DeMattei, a tax accountant, whom she married in 1974 at the age of 22.
Tan blends perfectly into her apartment, which is the antithesis of the usual minimalism expected of SoHo lofts. It could scarcely look more exotic. Temple pillar rugs hang from the walls, Miao textiles are draped everywhere, a bed is enclosed in a tent made from French antique textiles with a Moroccan bedspread thrown over it. Silk flowers fill vases and a tree spreads its branches over a grand piano. A huge television screen, which takes up most of one wall, has crimson brocade curtains hanging over it, creating the illusion of a stage.
Tan works in a small office, its walls painted rose, with Chinese prayer sheets overhanging the entrance. Underneath the 19th-century Chinese desk is a leopard-print dog basket. Learned tomes, such as Ritual Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript, are interspersed with more mundane books, such as First Aid for Dogs and Cats. She does some of her writing here, although most is done in San Francisco, where she has her main home.
I ask her whether it was difficult to write about such personal issues. "When I write I try not to think of the reader. I think of my reader as a very intimate part of me and my mother and my editor and not really a stranger or critic. I haven't written anything that shameful. I mean, I haven't written sex scenes of my life." She chuckles at the thought.
Still, it must have been hard writing about the time her mother threatened to kill her. "Yes," she says, her eyes misting over.
In that vividly depicted scene, Amy was pinned against the wall for 20 minutes, the blade pressed to her throat. Eventually she broke down and cried, pleading: "I want to live, I want to live." Her mother took the meat cleaver away from her throat and neither of them mentioned the incident again, until just before her mother died two years ago.
In her new book, Tan recounts that one day her mother, in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, telephoned her. "She spoke frantically. 'I know I did something to hurt you . . . I did terrible things. But now I can't remember what . . . And I just want to tell you . . . I hope you can forget, just as I've forgotten.' I tried to laugh so she would not notice the cracks in my voice. 'Really, don't worry.' "
"Hearing that was so healing," says Tan now. "Everything unspoken was just instantly healed." Now she has great sympathy for her mother's behaviour. She had moved to Switzerland with Amy and her younger brother following the deaths of Amy's father and older brother, who both died of brain tumours within months of each other. "Who wouldn't crack? A son and a husband had died seven months apart. You're in a strange country with no support system, you don't speak the language, your kids are out of control, it seems like you're cursed anyway. Instead of seeing your daughter ruin her life and go off and become a drug addict and pregnant with a crazy man, why don't you just say it's time to end it? I could understand."
Tan herself does not have children, through choice. "It was a number of things. Number one is that I was afraid I would become the kind of mother who was similar to my mother: over-protective, worrying constantly . . . And part of it was just selfishness. I wanted my own career. My mother had raised me to think it was very important for me to be self-sufficient, that if ever the marriage wasn't working I had absolute freedom to just leave. We talked about having children and I said [to my husband], 'If you're willing to be the primary care-taker, then I'd be willing to have a child.' But neither of us really wanted to take on that role."
In the past she has said her novels are her offspring. "What's in me that I have wanted to pass on is already in the books." Although novels, they are based on the lives of her Chinese forebears, particularly that of her grandmother, who was raped, forced into concubinage and, after giving birth to a son, committed suicide by swallowing raw opium buried in rice cakes. Her daughter - Amy's mother, Daisy - was nine at the time and watched her mother die. It left Daisy with suicidal urges that lasted all her life.
"The trauma was passed from one mother to her daughter and to the next generation," says Tan. "My grandmother killed herself, my mother was suicidal and passed on this sense of despair to me."
At the age of six, Amy herself tried to slash her wrists, but says she has never felt suicidal since. "Legacies can be fateful unless you're aware of how that stream has maintained itself. By understanding that sense of fate and writing about it, I feel that I have broken it. I feel I am conversing with my grandmother, who of course I never met. By looking at why she did this and her sense of both anger and despair in not having a voice, I'm saying to her: we have a voice now, we can give voice to this."
Did she feel a responsibility towards her? "I do, I do. I'm being a witness for her."
She also feels a responsibility towards her mother, to whom she was very close, despite the volatility of their relationship. Her mother asked Tan to write her story, a task she undertook - in a veiled fashion - in The Kitchen God's Wife. "It was very true to my mother's life and it was very special to me that she gave me her story and permission to write it, and then, in my writing of it, I was able to give it back to her."
Tan found out as a teenager that her mother had been married before, to an abusive husband with whom she had five children, two of whom died. Daisy had run away, blaming her husband for the deaths. Three daughters, aged between four and 11, survived but her husband refused to let her see them. So Daisy left China five days before the revolution and went to California, where she married John Tan, an electrical engineer (and later a Baptist minister) originally from Beijing. The couple had three children, including Amy, who found out about her older half-sisters during another ugly argument with her mother.
"When I heard about them, I felt threatened, because I thought my mother was saying, 'You could be replaced. In fact I've got three of them waiting right there in the wings and they speak Chinese and they love to obey me' . . . And I also thought if she left this family, she could leave us." Amy met her half-sisters for the first time in 1987 on a visit to China with her mother, who had not seen them for three decades. "They were, in her mind, old ladies by then." Tan became friends with her sisters, two of whom subsequently came to live in America.
Her mother died a couple of years ago and I ask Tan how her life has changed since then. "It's funny: it hasn't really changed all that much. I often feel she's here. There are times when I have these funny little moments. I'll say 'What am I forgetting?' I need to bring something but I can't remember what it is. It will just fall in front of me, like, 'Oh, my medicines, right, thanks Mum.' "
Throughout her life, Tan has been a magnet for extraordinary events and near-disasters. "I accumulated, as others might Hummel figurines, a variety of accidents, assaults and acts of God," she recounts in The Opposite of Fate.
Just to select a few: she has been in two car crashes, robbed at gunpoint, nearly raped, almost drowned, asked to identify the body of her best friend and flatmate who was tortured and murdered by intruders (by chance Tan was away from the flat that night), threatened with death by stalkers and almost swept away in a mudslide. "For a while, I did think I was terribly unlucky, but when I considered it, I thought 'How many people could have gone through all these bad things and not ever have anything that serious happen to them?' I must be incredibly lucky."
Yet when she fell ill a couple of years ago, suffering from hallucinations and fatigue, doctors told her she had post-traumatic stress disorder. "They thought it was probably a natural outcome of this very eventful life that I had had."
In fact - in yet another stroke of misfortune - she had Lyme Disease, an illness started by the bite of a deer tick, which causes neurological damage. For months she was unable to write, but is slowly recovering.
Tan has started to write again and is over half-way through her next novel, to be published next year. I ask if she feels she would ever have become a writer if she had led a normal life. "I think that an eventful life in traumatic ways as a child or teenager makes you examine life a little differently. Beyond asking, 'Why is the sky blue?', you're asking 'Why is this person my mother?' You're an alienated figure in your own life; like Jane Eyre, you're misunderstood, you're on a journey to find out who the real you is supposed to be."
Has she found the real Amy Tan? "I have for the moment. The real me is very grateful and content and happy. I feel imbued with a lot of luck. With all my books, I will continue to find out who the real me is."
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan (Flamingo) is published on November 17. To order for £13.99 plus £2.25 p&p, please call Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222.
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