October 27, 2014

The Unbreakable Spirit of Ms. Amy Tan

Around 20 years ago, I watched a movie about the very different lives of eight Chinese women.  Each character’s story was affecting, it pierced me a little bit deeper as the minutes ticked by, because deep down I could relate to them, that in a minute way, each of those women was me.  That movie was The Joy Luck Club based on the book of the same title written by Ms. Amy Tan.

That is still one of my favorite movies of all time and I am waiting for the day my daughter and I can watch it together because essentially that is what it is about: the relationships between mothers and their daughters, of being broken, of healing, of understanding and of moving forward.

Tan has written more books since, each just as beautiful and profound as the other, but none more so than her memoir, The Opposite of Fate, where finally I got to know the woman behind the written words.  Her own story, her history, and her mother’s and grandmother’s are so colorful and powerful, I marvel at her strength in becoming the person and the writer that she is. 

Shooting and interviewing for Unang Hirit and this blog
Meeting Amy in person was a thrill.  She was unassuming, quiet and nice to each and every one of us.  I watched the emotions on her face and her eyes as she talked about her beloved mother and the grandmother she never got to meet, one whose life seems to be a contradiction, an enigma who we will hopefully read more about in future novels by her granddaughter. 

Here is my conversation with Ms. Amy Tan:

Lyn:  I read on your twitter post that you went around Makati malls yesterday. How did you enjoy the malls and your first day here?

Amy:  Wow so many malls here. And I'm told you're supposed to go to this one and that one.  Little worlds that are all weather encased.  I went to Intramuros, to the War Memorial which was absolutely moving. 
I also saw the building built in record time, 160 days.  So I went to a number of places throughout the day...saw statues, saw many things about the national hero, got to learn a little bit about the Philippine history

L:  I hope you got to enjoy it

A:  I did.  It was extremely interesting, exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do

L:  You burst onto the writing scene more than two decades ago with The Joy Luck Club.  It affected so many people that even now, it is the book most identified with you.  So how do you feel about your first published creation 25 years later?

A:  I’m grateful to it for allowing me this life.  It was such a big surprise.  I don’t think anybody expected it, not even my own publisher.   So when all of that happened, we were all taken aback.  It actually frightened me because I had not dreamed it and I thought it was gonna change my life in bad ways. But after all these years of feeling somehow that it was a fluke, I’ve learned to simply be grateful that that book did what it did and allowed me a life as a writer.

L:  Is there anything in The Joy Luck Club that you wish you could just change?

A:  You know every book, if I were to go back and read it I'd say “oh this sentence is so clunky I'd like to change it to this”.  The thing is, that was the book I had to write when I was that age, the questions that I was thinking about, the imminent death of my mother though she wouldn’t die for a number of years, what had not been said.  So no, that is exactly the kind of story based on what was important to me.

L:  What is your favorite line from The Joy Luck Club or any of your other books?

A:  The one I think that sums up a lot has to do with “if you can’t change your fate, change your attitude”.  There’s a lot that’s given to us in life and we can either moan about it or simply jump to something else or take action.  
What we mean by fate is another part of that.  What do you think is fate?  Maybe it's not unchangeable.  Maybe if you change your attitude maybe that was the fate that you thought was unchangeable, fate is an attitude.

L:  Let’s go back to when you said that you were afraid the success of The Joy Luck Club might change your life in a negative way.  What did you mean by that?

A:  My life was fairly happy before that and I had never wished for this kind of success and it seemed as if it happened on its own and it continued to happen in a way that was puzzling.  And I told my husband “doesn’t it seem like someone is pushing for this to happen? Some invisible force?”  And I didn’t know what the grand plan was, it was so strange.  

When it happened I didn’t wanna trust it.  That I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t work for it, and therefore it was gonna go away.  I didn’t wanna fall into the trap of loving it.  I needed to push it away and be realistic.  And so for the first 7 months I refused to believe that this was going to stay.

L:  Though your books continued to be on top of the best seller lists….

A:  It could still go away.  It’s true.  I say to myself today so many things are temporary.  That kind of success if given to you by people who buy your books, you can’t force people to buy your books and things could change, either because you don’t write stories people want to read or they’ve gone on to something else or they don’t read anymore, so you have to find within yourself the reasons why you do anything in life beyond some of those external successes, and that’s what I told myself.  
As a kind of reality pressed upon me by my mother who said that things in life are temporary, you can’t count on them.

L:  That applies to everything in life I think

A:  So then you still can be grateful but know that this is not permanent.

L:  It’s weird that though I am 100% Chinese by blood, born and raised in the Philippines, I could still relate to all of your characters as if there are pieces of all of them in me too.  It made me feel that perhaps essentially we are all the same.  What traits or characteristics do you think is shared by all of us Chinese women?

A:  Culturally I think we have mothers who come from backgrounds where they have a different way of expressing their expectations and I am excluding those who have been completely Americanized for example and don’t follow anything in the way of tradition. 

I think many of us have mothers who have secret lives with things they haven’t been able to express simply because they are women, they have not been allowed to express it.  And because we are modern women so to speak, we are in a world where we can express things.  And maybe they don’t want us to express all that we want to.  

There comes a time I think when all our mothers can talk about the things from the past, secrets that they have had.  And I think it's especially true with mothers who are immigrants.  So in the Philippines I’m sure there are many who have come from other countries and have left things behind and other parts of their past they didn’t wanna bring with them.

L:  I agree with what you said about us not being able to fully express because when I was younger I remember being discouraged by my grandmother to express emotions, I wasn’t allowed to cry and was instead pushed to keep it all in.  Do you think that is universal in that we are raised to be stoic in a way?

A:  I think my mother emphasized being stoic and realistic but she was so full of emotions, she would just cry, she would have everything in public so she was a little different.  All our mothers are different in their own ways but I would say that perhaps society dealt a difficult hand to many of our grandmothers born in their period.  

We don’t have the same experiences that they have had.  My mother having gone through an arranged marriage, her mother forced to become a concubine, you know the decisions of whether or not they would ever divorce taken out of their hands so that society also made them different in how they raised us.

L:  I believe your books have changed the way people look, not just at Chinese Americans but Chinese women in general.  What do you think has been the biggest change in their understanding of us?

A:  I think the shy retiring little lotus woman no longer exists.  The one who’s willing to give you a back massage when you get home from work. No, that myth is gone I think.  I think people see that Asian women are very very strong, capable women, and given a chance they would be able to show those strengths.  Even in a society where that was not allowed, they were persistent.  

People in my family were incredibly persistent in all kinds of adversity and in finding a way, there was always a way to getting into a better situation or simply to endure, to survive.  And I think those women who have gone through that, they made the next generation stronger because they did not want them to become weakened by what society had to say about them or where they could go.  

My mother used to always say that I could not let the beliefs of others determine what I believed about myself, don’t follow other people’s opinions, don’t do what’s popular, you have to make up your own mind.  The only person I had to follow was my mother (laughs).

L:  I read that many parts of  The Joy Luck Club came from the real life experiences of your mother and grandmother.  What was the most painful part for you to write?

A:  I think it was writing that scene of my mother watching her mother die because when she told me about how she felt, I had to place myself in her, imagining this happening to her.  And that desperation of holding on to her and wanting to go off with her, and the way she described it… there were other scenes that had to do with imagining my mother again, you know when she lost her son in her arms and because her life was so bad, saying to him “good for you little one you escaped”.  

She had told me that, and when I wrote it in there I just broke down into sobs because now I have created an imaginary world but placed a woman in there who says exactly what my mother said, I am there, I am that person going through exactly what she did.  That was really really difficult.

L:  How did she like Joy Luck?  Because I read somewhere that she told you to write her real story and that was The Kitchen God’s Wife.

A:  (laughs) She did…she loved The Joy Luck Club and she got it at the level that I would have hoped and that is even though she knew it was fiction, she knew that I was writing about that chasm, that misunderstanding of all the things she tried to tell me all those years, and she said she could tell I was listening because there it was.  

And the way that she expressed it to me is that one day after reading The Joy Luck Club, she was telling me again about this woman she had always gotten into arguments with and she would usually go on for three hours, she would get mad at me if I didn’t listen.  This time she started and she said “oh, I don’t have to tell you, you think just like me” (laughs), that was the benefit of having written The Joy Luck Club, not having to listen to three hours of tirade.  She loved the book so much, she trusted me so much that she asked me to write her true story and I said that’s not how fiction works, I am not writing a biography.  

It took me about four different failed attempts at other novels before I realized, you know, I have always said to myself that the important thing is family, and the most important thing is write about the meaning in life and what better thing to do than take her life and to show that I was listening and to cast it in a story that is fiction.  She would then be able to give me this gift of her story, and tell it to me with absolute detail with me saying tell me more, and my giving it back to her to say I listened.  That became the second book. 

L:  What book of yours is most like your relationship with your mother?

A:  All of them to some degree represent different parts of our relationship.  The Bonesetter’s Daughter is during the time my mother was dying of Alzheimer’s and it had a lot to do with memory and this woman who was changing over time and what was not known and there is so much I don’t know about my mother I wish I now knew.  

But I would say it was The Joy Luck Club that was the turning point because it was all these emotions I had not thought about in a long time.  I started writing stories, first it was about a German girl and nothing to do with a Chinese girl.  I changed them because I thought who cares, no one will be reading this anyway, I'm putting in a Chinese girl.  And as I was writing a story about a fictional character, a girl who played chess who lived in Chinatown, both things that have never been true about me, I suddenly found this story was hitting me in a place I never expected, that this was really about me and my mother.  

It shook me a little bit, through this fictional subterfuge, in hiding of myself in fictional clothing that I would discover myself and something very profoundly true about our relationship.  Didn’t mean it solved it, didn’t mean it was a kind of therapy that said now mom I understand you.  It was just almost as though I was a witness to my own childhood and saying now I know what you went through and this is why.  She wasn’t wrong, you weren’t wrong, it was just the situation and that’s what it felt like.

L:  I read in your book The Opposite of Fate that when you were 16, living in Switzerland and rebelling, your mother put a cleaver to your neck and threatened to kill you, herself and your brother.  And you remembered this only when you were already an author.  What went through your mind after this?

A:  I hadn’t thought about it for such a long time I think it was so traumatic…. To have a mother threaten to kill you, it’s essentially having a mother threaten to leave you, or threaten to make you leave, so it's a huge betrayal.  But the thing that I felt at that time, and this is how messed up our family was, is that I had betrayed myself by begging her to let me live.  
This happened after my brother and father both died of brain tumors, a year of complete insanity, of not knowing why this was happening to us.  All of us feeling a little dinged, a little scared.  More than a little scared.  

My mom was a little bit insane and she thought I was ruining my life and that instead of having all of us suffer until the point where I would kill myself, she might as well do it for me, kill me, my brother and herself and we would rejoin our family in heaven.  That was her thinking.  I said at first “do it, do it right now” because I was an angry, dysfunctional kid as well.  You don’t go through that and have no counseling, no understanding of that, so said “do it”.  Then I betrayed myself and started yelling “I wanna live, don’t kill me”.  That was the last I remember until about 20 something years later.  

When I recalled it I said “is that true? Could that have possibly happened?”  And I asked my mother, I don’t know if she would feel embarrassed or break down and say I didn’t mean it.  And she said “oh you were so bad, Yes! everything was falling apart…you can’t believe…” (laughs).  
She had no shame in her feelings.  To her it was completely understandable.  That was my mother.  You know there’s a part of my mother that’s not like other mothers…

L:  She was unusual

A:  She was very unusual.  She was an amazing mother, a wonderful mother.  One of the things that has to do with what I just told you about her being able to cry in public.  She was completely an honest and open person, she didn’t hide things, she was not good in hiding things except the major facts and secrets like she had left her daughters behind in China ….it came out in another way….she couldn’t hide that part.

L:  She saw her daughters again 30 years after leaving them

A:  Yeah.  Exactly 30 years later.  She left in ’49 and came back in ’79.  And by then they were middle aged ladies and she didn’t recognize them as the children she left behind.

L:  How is your relationship with your sisters now?

A:  It’s wonderful to have sisters.  I didn’t grow up with them but there are qualities of my sisters that remind me so much of my mother.  One of them makes me laugh all the time.  I fly her in from Wisconsin once a year and all she wants to do is cook.  But she’ll say things that are hilarious that will remind me of my mother.  

And she has habits, these Chinese things that I didn’t realize I missed about my mother, one of them is when somebody tells you something and they want you to believe them, they hit your arm like this (Amy proceeds to tap my arm quite strongly) “do you believe me now?” and she will talk to me in chinese like that. And she was so bad, she’s gossiping all the time, and afterwards I’d just laugh and say “you’re bruising me, I believe you”.

L:  Your fans sent some questions through me and here they are:  Your stories are filled with strong resilient characters who triumph over adversity.  Who has been the greatest female influence in your life and what particular lesson have you learned from her?

A:  Definitely my mother.  I can also say she was the person who might have put in the insecurities and the rebelliousness but it got transformed into strength, to persistence versus strictly rebelliousness.  She told me the most important lesson that is you have to know yourself.  You cant let others opinions determine who you think you are because those opinions will continue to change especially depending in what society you find yourself in and if you believe you're going to be bouncing around all over the place. 

She had this phrase, follow your own mind.  And you think, how can you follow your own mind?  But you have to find it and send it ahead and follow that direction that you place yourself on.

L:  What age were you when you found yourself?

A:  It was not until I was an adult because I went through a period of feeling burdened by expectations, feeling very rebellious and trying to find myself in a reactionary way and saying I don’t have to do this, I’m going to do the opposite of what people expect, and then finally setting into a period where I would just say I am who I am and that is all I can be and that is all I want to be, gradually.  So it was not one day that it happened, not one particular year.  

There was one year that I said to myself.... It had to do with my looks....I always felt that I was ugly and part of that is cultural because when you live in a country where everybody else is different you feel ugly, you blame not having dates to being ugly.  It didn’t help that my mother had been beautiful.  And when I asked her "mom would I be considered beautiful by Chinese people?" and she said "maybe average" (laughs)... But she said "you should be glad.  Beauty is dangerous, look at what happened to me".  And you know if I showed you the pictures of what I looked like then you'd say “oh you were cute”

L:  I saw some of it yeah, you wore your funky 60’s glasses even.  You were very groovy

A: Yeah (laughs), right with the glasses and curly hair...but it was good that I went through that phase because when we moved to another country, suddenly I became exotic and I said wait... I’m the same person and now I look good?  That is a real lesson that who you are is always the same but it the perception of other people that changes.  So the whole thing applied not just to my looks but to everything.  

Each time I get a bad review in the early days it used to be bother me, I couldn’t sleep at night, and I had to learn again that I couldn’t let myself be buffeted by opinions because they’re always gonna change, it will always depend on the opinion of others and that I’m always the same writer.  Not that I’m flawless.  Not that I don’t have faults and deficits as a human being even according to my own standards.  But that I have my guidelines and I know very clearly what they are.

L:  Next fan question, which book character do you identify with the most?

A:  Just one? I don’t have..... If I had only one then I’d keep writing the same books and the same characters..... But the character I probably LIKE the most but is not me at all is a character named Kwan in 
The Hundred Secret Senses.  I don’t know where she came from.  She is not exactly my mother or anybody else, she just popped up and that made me think that maybe she was my grandmother or a relative... But Kwan says the funniest things that I’d never think to say.  

shooting Ms. Tan with my producer Lee and cameraman Ador
Her version of what happens after you die depends on the kind of food you want to eat... You know if you like Chinese food then you go to the Chinese side of heaven.  And then when you’re reincarnated, you choose according to what you want to eat, that's why there are so many Chinese people in the world (laughs)

L:  We are all over the place

A:  Yeah, and it’s based on us reincarnating ourselves so we can eat Chinese food...(laughs)

L:  Last fan question, would you ever consider writing a book from a man's perspective?

A:  I thought about that.  I mean I could do it just to prove I could but that is not a reason for writing.  That is a reason for writing for one day out of fun just to prove that I could do it.  But that would be an ultimate waste of my time.  The writing is really about the meaning of my life and what I what I want to write.  A man's world, the context of their lives, are so different from what we experience that it is not of that importance to me.  It might be fun for awhile...

L:  Maybe just an essay then...

A:  Something but no...no...I have no desire to do that to prove a point.

L:  If there is one person whose story you would like to write about, Who would this be?

A:  Well I continue to write about my grandmother, and I continue to write this story that I imagine to be her life and I continue to find things about her.   Like I was told she was a concubine who had been raped and now I have a reason to believe that maybe it wasn’t a rape.  

There are inconsistencies of time and who this person was and what had happened to other people and the fact that she was a favorite in the household, even after one day.  She was the favorite given the best room and the others had to obey her.  This went completely against everything that I had been told and so I want to find out more about who she was.

L:  I know that it took many years before you came out with your last book and you wrote it after you saw a picture of your grandmother wearing this courtesan outfit.  Have you discovered more about her since you finished the book?

A:  I was told she was quiet, then I found out from somebody who lived in that house, who learned from her mother that no, she was very loud, and that if you didn't listen to her you were sorry later.  She was given the favorite room.  Now it’s very hard to imagine that a woman who was raped when she was 35 or 36, given the best room suddenly now..... There are so many things that are now puzzles to me and I don’t know what the truth is but some contradictions are so wonderful for stories.  

Contradictions are the greatest clue to where truth might lie.  And there are many contradictions in her life that I would follow any direction to find out who she might have been.  I might go back to China to see if I can find records...keep digging...

L:  For fans to get to know you better, let’s do quick questions

A:  I’m terrible at this...that’s why I write novels...

L:  I'll be very kind....(laughs)... First thing you do upon waking up

A:  I make the bed

L:  Last thing you do before sleeping

A:  I don’t make the bed (laughs)... Unmake the bed....I turn on my UP band...these bands measure how many steps you took, how many hours you slept...I just press this little button and then it measures

L:  Favorite Chinese food

A:  Mabo tofu

L:  Favorite vacation place

A:  It would be Raja Ampat in Indonesia.  But probably the Philippines would be a close second once I go there!  I have an eye on a resort that I wanna go to

L:  We have beautiful resorts here…..Dream destination

A:  yeah...here....I want to go to an island here...I had plans, I had reservations but I had to change them

L:  Well I hope you find time in the future.  Favorite song

A:  I always think of a song as having to be one with words but a song can be just a piece of music.  Rachmaninoff's Concerto Number 3

L:  Favorite movie of all time

A:  Edward Scissorhands

L:  Best part of the day

A:  I love mornings...my dogs are there, they’re really happy to see me, my husband comes in and brings me a mug of coffee and sits next to the bed and it’s a peaceful time of the day

L:  What would you like people to take away from your books?  If there is a lesson that you'd want them to apply into their lives what would it be?

A:  One is that I hope that they enjoyed the book for the amount of time they spent reading it.  There is no specific lesson.  The reason that I am a writer is that I don’t like generalizations, I don’t like things foisted on me as lessons so I wouldn’t do that.  

But what I hope is that they read it and find that something resonated with them, that they find questions that they want to ask themselves, or have questions they have been asking themselves and somehow this helps clarify things for them.  They can go on to explore and observe in their own lives what the answer might be

L:  At the end of everything, what would you want people to think when they hear the name, Amy Tan?

A:  For now I just want them to think, oh she was a nice person...that she was kind and she was honest.  These are the traits that my mother taught me.  I think that honesty is a big part of it.  Honesty and kindness go together.

Amy Tan’s books are available at The National Bookstore:
The Joy Luck Club
The Kitchen God’s Wife
The Hundred Secret Senses
The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Saving Fish from Drowning
The Opposite of Fate

A special Thanks to Mr. Miguel Ramos, Mr. JB Roperos and Mr. Chad Dee of The National Book Store.

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