Tan, Amy 1952–

views updated

Tan, Amy 1952–

(Amy Ruth Tan)

PERSONAL: Born February 19, 1952, in Oakland, CA; daughter of John Yuehhan (a minister and electrical engineer) and Daisy (a vocational nurse and member of a Joy Luck Club; maiden name, Li Bing Zi) Tan; married Louis M. DeMattei (a tax attorney), April 6, 1974. Education: San Jose State University, B.A., 1973, M.A., 1974; postgraduate study at University of California, Berkeley, 1974–76. Hobbies and other interests: Billiards, skiing, drawing, piano playing.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Sandra Dijkstra, 1155 Camino del Mar, PMB 515, Del Mar, CA 92014-2605.

CAREER: Writer. Alameda County Association for Mentally Retarded, Oakland, CA, language consultant to programs for disabled children, 1976–81; MORE Project, San Francisco, CA, project director, 1980–81; worked as reporter, managing editor, and associate publisher for Emergency Room Reports (now Emergency Medicine Reports), 1981–83; freelance technical writer, 1983–87; Los Angeles Times Los Angeles, CA, literary editor of West, 2006–.

AWARDS, HONORS: Commonwealth Club gold award for fiction, Bay Area Book Reviewers award for best fiction, American Library Association's best book for young adults award, nomination for National Book Critics Circle award for best novel, and nomination for Los Angeles Times book award, all 1989, all for The Joy Luck Club; The Kitchen God's Wife was a 1991 Booklist editor's choice; Best American Essays award, 1991; honorary L.H.D., Dominican College, 1991; Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, sponsored by Poets & Writers magazine, 2003; 2005 Editor's Choice selection, Booklist, for Saving Fish from Drowning.


The Joy Luck Club (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.

The Kitchen God's Wife (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1991.

The Moon Lady (juvenile), illustrated by Gretchen Schield, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.

(With Ronald Bass) The Joy Luck Club (screenplay), Hollywood Pictures, 1993.

The Chinese Siamese Cat (juvenile), illustrated by Gretchen Schield, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.

The Hundred Secret Senses (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.

(Guest editor) The Best American Short Stories, 1999, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.

The Bonesetter's Daughter (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.

The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (nonfiction), Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.

Saving Fish from Drowning (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.

Also author of short stories, including "The Rules of the Game." Work represented in State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels, 2nd edition, University of California Press, 1989; and Best American Essays, 1991, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Ticknor & Fields, 1991. Contributor to Big City Cool: Short Stories about Urban Youth, edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, Viking (New York, NY), 2002. Also contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, McCall's, Threepenny Review, Grand Street, and Seventeen.

ADAPTATIONS: The Joy Luck Club was released on audiocassette by Dove, as was The Kitchen God's Wife, 1991. The Joy Luck Club was adapted for the stage by Susan Kim and produced in China, 1993; and adapted into a feature film, written by Tan and Ronald Bass, directed by Wayne Wang, and released in 1993.

SIDELIGHTS: Amy Tan's novels concerning the bonds between Chinese-American mothers and daughters have earned her a worldwide audience. Although immersed in the rich lore of Chinese myth and history, Tan's works transcend the particular and become testaments to the universal themes of love and forgiveness. Tan introduces characters who are ambivalent, as she once was, about their Chinese background, but who move to a deeper understanding of themselves as they confront their ancestors' struggles in China and America. According to Susan Balée in a Philadelphia Inquirer review, all of Tan's novels "explore the same subject—mother/ daughter relationships, with a side focus on the problems of sisterhood—but they don't grow stale with repetition. In this, Tan is perhaps like Jane Austen…. After all, [Austen's] details vary from novel to novel; she found new ways to approach and explicate her subject. Tan does the same thing with another archetypal subject, and … like Austen, she will enjoy a secure place in the literary canon 200 years after the ink dries on the last page of her last book."

Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her father was a Baptist minister. Her mother had fled a disastrous marriage in China and only slowly revealed the truth about the chil-dren she left behind. When Amy was a teenager, both her older brother and her father died of brain tumors within months of each other. Understandably concerned about the safety of the home they lived in, Amy's mother took the remaining two children and moved to Montreaux, Switzerland. There, the already tenuous relationship between mother and daughter worsened. In the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, Nita Lelyveld observed: "By the time Tan headed to college back in the States, she and her mother were barely speaking. But separated from her mother, hopping from college to college, unsure what to do, she found an unexpected anchor: her own heritage…. Still she and her mother fought constantly."

Tan's literary career was not planned. Her mother wanted her to be a neurosurgeon and a concert pianist, and in college she studied literature and linguistics. She first began writing fiction as a form of therapy. Considered a workaholic by her friends, Tan had been working ninety hours a week as a freelance technical writer. She became dissatisfied with her work life, however, and hoped to eradicate her workaholic tendencies through psychological counseling. But when her therapist fell asleep several times during her counseling sessions, Tan quit and decided to curb her working hours by delving into jazz piano lessons and writing fiction instead. Tan's first literary efforts were short stories, one of which secured her a position in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a fiction writers' workshop. Tan's hobby soon developed into a new career when her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published.

Set in the late 1980s, The Joy Luck Club details the generational and cultural differences between a young woman, June, and her late Chinese mother's three Chinese friends. June's mother and the three older women had formed the Joy Luck Club, a social group, in San Francisco in 1949. Nearly forty years later, June's mother has died. The surviving members, the "aunties," recruit June to replace her mother in their mah-jongg games, then send her to China to meet her stepsisters and to inform them of her mother's death. When June expresses reservations about her ability to execute this assignment, the older women respond with disappointment. June then realizes that the women rightly suspect that she, and their own daughters, know little of the older women's lives or of the strength and hope they hope to give the next generation. Throughout the novel, the various mothers and daughters attempt to articulate their own concerns about the past and the present and about themselves and their relations.

The Joy Luck Club has been praised as a thought-provoking, engaging novel. In Quill & Quire, Denise Chong declared, "These moving and powerful stories share the irony, pain, and sorrow of the imperfect ways in which mothers and daughters love each other. Tan's vision is courageous and insightful." In her review in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Nancy Wigston maintained that Tan's literary debut "is that rare find, a first novel that you keep thinking about, keep telling your friends about long after you've finished reading it." Time reviewer John Skow found the work "bright, sharp-flavored," adding that it "rings clearly, like a fine porcelain bowl." Some critics were particularly impressed with Tan's ear for authentic dialogue. Carolyn See, for instance, wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Tan ranks among the "magicians of language." Dorris placed the book within the realm of true literature, which "is writing that makes a difference, that alters the way we understand the world and ourselves, that transcends topicality, and by those criteria, The Joy Luck Club is the real thing." The novel spent nine months on the New York Times best-seller list.

Tan followed The Joy Luck Club with The Kitchen God's Wife, in which a young woman in California realizes a greater understanding of her mother's Chinese background. A generation gap exists between the two heroines: Mother Winnie has only awkwardly adapted to the relatively free-wheeling ways of American, particularly Californian, life. Daughter Pearl, on the other hand, is more comfortable in a world of sports and fast food than she is when listening, at least initially, to her mother's recollections of her own arduous life in China. As Winnie continues to recount the secrets of her past, including her own mother's mysterious disappearance, her marriage to a psychotic and brutal man, the deaths of her first three children, and her journey to America in 1949, Pearl is able to view her mother in a new light and gathers the courage to reveal a secret of her own.

Critics hailed The Kitchen God's Wife, admiring its poignancy and bittersweet humor. Sabine Durrant, writing in the London Times, called the book "gripping" and "enchanting." Charles Foran, in his review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, proclaimed Tan's work "a fine novel" of "exuberant storytelling and rich drama." In a Washington Post Book World review, Wendy Law-Yone asserted that Tan exceeded the expectations raised by her first book, declaring that The Kitchen God's Wife "is bigger, bolder and, I have to say, better." Referring to The Kitchen God's Wife in a Time review, Pico Iyer affirmed, "Tan has transcended herself again."

In her third novel Tan shifts her focus from the mother-daughter bond to the relationship between sisters. The main characters in The Hundred Secret Senses are half-sisters Olivia and Kwan. Olivia is the daughter of an American mother and a Chinese father who died before Olivia's fourth birthday. In adulthood, she is a pragmatic, somewhat priggish yuppie. Kwan, her Chinese half-sister, arrives in her life when she is six. Twelve years older than Olivia, clumsy, and barely able to speak English, Kwan is an immediate source of resentment and embarrassment to Olivia. Kwan's belief that she can speak with spirits is another source of humiliation, one that leads her stepfather to commit his stepdaughter for electroshock therapy. Through the years, Olivia treats Kwan rudely and dismissively, yet her older sister remains devoted to her and is determined to awaken Olivia to the reality of the spirit world. To this end, the two travel to China, where Kwan believes they lived another life together in an earlier century.

For some reviewers Tan's use of the supernatural poses a problem. Claire Messud, for example, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Tan's evocation of the spirit world is unconvincing. The critic noted: "To accept the novel as anything more than a mildly entertaining and slightly ridiculous ghost story, the reader must also make [a] demanding leap of faith, turning a blind eye to rash improbabilities and a host of loose ends. For this reader, at least, that leap was not possible." Messud added, however, that Kwan is "a memorable creation" who "gently forces Olivia to face the worst in herself and, in so doing, to find her strengths. We could all do with such a sister."

New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani also expressed a mixed opinion of Tan's third novel. Kakutani praised it as "a contemporary tale of familial love and resentment, nimbly evoked in Ms. Tan's guileless prose," but mused that the main story in The Hundred Secret Senses is "unfortunately overlaid by another, more sensational tale of reincarnation that undermines the reader's trust." The critic went on: "Of course, there's nothing inherently implausible about ghosts. Maxine Hong Kingston handled similar material with consummate ardor and grace in The Woman Warrior, but Ms. Tan doesn't seem to know how to make Kwan's beliefs in the spirit world palpable or engaging." She affirmed, however, that "Tan is able to create enormously sympathetic people who inhabit some middle ground between real life and the more primary-colored world of fable. In doing so, she draws the reader into these characters' lives, and into the minutiae of their daily concerns."

Other commentators have been unreserved in their enthusiasm for The Hundred Secret Senses. Chicago Tribune Books contributor Penelope Mesic stated that the book contains "three qualities almost never found together: popularity, authenticity and excellence." Mesic concluded that the work is an "effortless mix of invention and reliance on reality that makes Tan's fiction so engrossing—a kind of consistency of action that suggests one could ask anything about a character and Tan could answer. She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever." Gail Caldwell declared in the Boston Globe that The Hundred Secret Senses is simply "the wisest and most captivating novel Tan has written."

Real life has continued to inspire Tan with new novels, and The Bonesetter's Daughter is no exception. Tragically, Tan's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1990s and died from the condition in 1999. In The Bonesetter's Daughter both the ailing mother and her Americanized daughter work together to recover not only the mother's life history, but also the tragic story of Precious Auntie, the mother's nursemaid. Having discovered a manuscript her mother wrote in Mandarin Chinese, the protagonist, Ruth, becomes acquainted with a series of dramatic events in rural China that paved the way for her mother's immigration to America. Ruth also begins to understand that Precious Auntie has long been a ghostly presence in both women's lives. As her mother's memory unravels, Ruth—ironically a ghostwriter by profession—becomes the bearer of the family history, and more self-aware for the knowledge.

"Tan's splendid new novel abounds not only with tellers and listeners but with people who truly understand stories and people who preserve them," observed Nancy Willard in her New York Times Book Review appraisal of The Bonesetter's Daughter. Christian Science Monitor contributor Yvonne Zipp noted, "Finding emotional healing in the face of disease has launched a thousand Movies of the Week, but in the hands of a writer as generous as Tan, it's a subject that still resonates as an antidote to grief." Reviewer Nicole Mones wrote in the Washington Post Book World that Tan's loyal readers "will find their pleasure in this new book magnified by a sense of mature succession from Tan's first novel." "In the end," Mones concluded, "it's the novel's depth of feeling that resonates and lingers. Tan writes with real soul. Her three generations of women are animated by the sort of understanding and empathy that can't be faked. In an age when few novels truly compel the emotions—and when too few even try—The Boneset-ter's Daughter moves beyond its flaws to deliver a cleansing ray of light to the heart."

In her next book, The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, Tan presents her first effort at nonfiction as she explores her past and her current life through a series of essays. In the book, Tan discusses the complicated relationship she had with her mother, Daisy. Writing in Time International, Bryan Walsh commented, "The formidable Daisy, who appears frequently in this collection of essays, had a distinct voice of her own, typified by this Talibanic pronouncement on the mortal perils of dating: 'Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill yourself.'" Tan also discusses her ongoing battle with Lyme disease, which caused her to battle depression and pain and have strange hallucinations. Other essays focus on literary fame and its impact and even about playing in a rock-and-roll band with Stephen King. Jessica Shaw of Entertainment Weekly found the essays to be "self-indulgent" and concluded that the reader may "wish fate had led her to write another novel." A Publishers Weekly contributor, however, noted, "As she reflects on how things have happened in fifty-odd years, Tan's writing winds from poetic to prosaic." Joyce Sparrow, writing in Library Journal, called the essays "sometimes humorous and occasionally wrenching" and an "excellent selection of pieces."

While Saving Fish from Drowning is a novel, it differs in tone, theme, and subject matter from Tan's previous works of fiction. Rather than focus on Chinese-Americans and their relationships, the book focuses instead on Americans visiting Burma, and takes on a decidedly more political tone. When a tour bus full of Americans is kidnapped by a tribe so friendly that the Americans are unaware of the fact of their own kidnapping, a comedy of local cultural farces and international political clashes ensues. While critics praised several aspects of the novel, they also felt that the farcical tone was not as successful as Tan's usual approach. "Amy Tan is wonderful at old fictions of ancient lands," commented Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Book Review, "let us hope she will return to that territory in the future." Solomon also noted, however, that the novel is "well paced" and that Tan's "lovely and evocative images add charm … in passages that might be dull in lesser hands." Jennifer Reese, writing in Entertainment Weekly, also stated of Tan: "she's a top-notch observer of the upper-class American abroad."

Tan once remarked in a Bestsellers interview that at an earlier age she tried to distance herself from her Chinese background. Her fiction writing, she said, helped her to discover "how very Chinese I was. And how much had stayed with me that I had tried to deny." She remains particularly grateful for her mother's influence. As she told the Seattle Times, "My books have amounted to taking her stories—a gift to me—and giving them back to her. To me, it was the ultimate thing I ever could have done for myself and my mother."



Bestsellers 1989, Issue 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900–1998, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 59, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 173: American Novelists since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Ling, Amy, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, Pergamon (New York, NY), 1990.

Newsmakers 1998, Issue 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Palumbo-Liu, David, editor, The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), pp. 174-210.

Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literatures: From Necessity to Extravagance, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1993.


America, May 4, 1996, p. 27.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 26, 1995, p. K11.

Boston Globe, November 10, 1992, p. 69; May 21, 1993, p. 23; September 19, 1993, p. 77; October 22, 1995, p. B37.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1992, p. 196.

Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1989; March 17, 1991; September 26, 1993, section 13, p. 20; November 9, 1995, section 2C, p. 16.

Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1993, p. 11; February 15, 2001, Yvonne Zipp, "A Life Recalled from China: A Daughter Struggles for Assimilation, while Mother Clings to Their Culture," p. 20.

Critique, spring, 1993, p. 193.

Detroit News, March 26, 1989, p. 2D.

Economist, December 12, 1992, p. 101.

Entertainment Weekly, November 7, 2003, Jessica Shaw, review of The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings p. 76;; October 21, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of Saving Fish from Drowning, p. 78.

Fortune, August 26, 1991, p. 116; December 28, 1992, p. 105.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 29, 1989; June 29, 1991, p. C8.

Kirkus, September 1, 1992, p. 1135.

Library Journal, November 15, 2003, Joyce Sparrow, review of The Opposite of Fate, p. 68.

Life, April, 1994, p. 108.

London Review of Books, July 11, 1991, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1989; May 28, 1992, p. E7; September 5, 1993, "California" section, p. 8; September 8, 1993, p. F1; October 30, 1995, p. E4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12, 1989, p. 1; July 5, 1992, p. 10; December 6, 1992, p. 10.

Ms., November, 1991; November-December, 1995, p. 88.

New Statesman, February 16, 1996, p. 38.

New Statesman and Society, July 12, 1991, pp. 37-38.

Newsweek, April 17, 1989, pp. 68-69; June 24, 1991, p. 63; November 6, 1995, p. 91.

New York, March 20, 1989, p. 82; June 17, 1991, p. 83.

New York Times, July 5, 1989; September 8, 1993, p. C15; November 17, 1995, p. C29.

New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, pp. 3, 28; June 16, 1991, p. 9; November 8, 1992, p. 31; October 29, 1995, p. 11; February 18, 2001, Nancy Willard, "Talking to Ghosts," p. 9; October 16, 2005, Andrew Solomon, review of Saving Fish from Drowning, p. 22.

People, April 10, 1989, pp. 149-150; November 3, 2003, p. 89.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 18, 2001, Susan Balée, "True to Form."

Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, February 18, 2001, Nita Lelyveld, "Mother As Muse: Amy Tan Had to Unravel the Mystery of Li Bingzi, Who Had Become the Voice of Her Novels."

Publishers Weekly, July 7, 1989, pp. 24-26; April 5, 1991, pp. 4-7; July 20, 1992, pp. 249-250; August 9, 1993, pp. 32-34; July 11, 1994, p. 78; September 11, 1995, p. 73; September 15, 2003, review of The Opposite of Fate, p. 51.

School Library Journal, September, 1992, p. 255.

Seattle Times, July 7, 1991, Donn Fry, "The Joy and Luck of Amy Tan."

Time, March 27, 1989, p. 98; June 3, 1991, p. 67; February 19, 2001, Andrea Sachs, "The Joys and Sorrows of Amy Tan," p. 72.

Time International, December 15, 2003; December 5, 2005, Donald Morrison, review of Saving Fish from Drowning, p. 6.

Times (London, England), July 11, 1991, p. 16.

Times Educational Supplement, August 4, 1989, p. 19; August 2, 1991, p. 18; February 5, 1993, p. 10; January 16, 1995, p. 16.

Times Literary Supplement, December 29, 1989, p. 1447; July 5, 1991, p. 20.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 12, 1989, pp. 1, 11; November 5, 1995, pp. 1, 11.

USA Today, October 5, 1993, p. D12.

Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1992, p. A12; August 19, 1993, p. A8; September 9, 1993, p. A18; December 6, 1994, p. B1.

Washington Post, October 8, 1989; May 21, 1993, p. WW16; May 27, 1993, p. D9; September 21, 1993, pp. D1, D10; September 24, 1993, p. WW47; October 23, 1995, p. D1.

Washington Post Book World, March 5, 1989, p. 7; June 16, 1991, pp. 1-2; February 11, 2001, Nicole Mones, "China Syndrome," p. 4.


Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, http://www.voices.cla.umn.edu/ (March 6, 2004), "Amy Tan."