Life Is Larger Than We Think

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia Interviews Amy Tan

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Amy Tan

Author Amy Tan. Photo by Robert Foothorap

In 1989 a young business writer named Amy Tan published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, to international acclaim. Although the author thought this largely autobiographical work might be received as "weird stories about a weird family," the richly textured book quickly became a bestseller. In the succeeding years it has never lacked for readers. She has since written five other highly acclaimed novels including her most recent work, Saving Fish From Drowning (2005).

As one of the initial selections in the Big Read, The Joy Luck Club -- a novel composed of interlocking short stories that portray the assimilation of Chinese families into America and the tragedies they left behind in the troubled landscape of World War II and Communist China -- is being read and discussed across the country. A classic of Asian-American literature, The Joy Luck Club reminds us of our nation's rich ethnic diversity. As an arresting contemporary novel, it also reminds us that we often define ourselves as individuals and communities through story.

On August 7, 2006, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Tan at her home in Marin County, California, about her childhood, writing career, and the role of stories in Chinese and American culture.

-- Dana Gioia

DANA GIOIA: You were born in Oakland in a family where both parents had come from China. Were you raised bilingually?

AMY TAN: Until the age of five, my parents spoke to me in Chinese or a combination of Chinese and English, but they didn't force me to speak Mandarin. In retrospect, this was sad, because they believed that my chance of doing well in America hinged on my fluency in English. Later, as an adult, I wanted to learn Chinese. Now I make an effort when I am with my sisters, who don't speak English well. It's such a wonderful part of me that is coming back, to try and speak that language.

GIOIA: What books do you remember reading early in your childhood?

TAN: I read every fairy tale I could lay my hands on at the public library. It was a wonderful world to escape to. I say "escape" deliberately, because I look back and I feel that my childhood was filled with a lot of tensions in the house, and I was able to go to another place. These stories were also filled with their own kinds of dangers and tensions, but they weren't mine. And they were usually solved in the end. This was something satisfying. You could go through these things and then suddenly, you would have some kind of ending. Even if it was magical, you had a resolution. I think that every lonely kid loves to escape through stories. And what kids never thought that they were lonely at some point in their life?

Joy Luck Club cover

Book cover used by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

GIOIA: Would you explain the special symbolism of your title, The Joy Luck Club?

TAN: I don't think joy and luck are specific to Chinese culture. Everybody wants joy and luck, and we all have our different notions about where that luck comes from. Look at the lottery. You have millions of people who believe in luck. Luck is in every part of China. Many Chinese stores and restaurants have the word "luck" in their names. The idea is that, just by using the word "luck" in names of things, you can attract more of it. I think that's true in my life, as well. You attract luck because you go after it. I also think our beliefs in luck are related to hope. Some people who are without almost any hope in a situation still cling to luck.

GIOIA: Your mother -- to put it mildly -- did not approve of your ambition to be a writer. Would you talk about this?

TAN: My mother and father were immigrants and they were practical people. They wanted us to do well in the new country. They didn't want us to be starving artists. Going into the arts was considered a luxury -- that was something you did if you were born to wealth. When my mother found out that I had switched from pre-med to English literature, she imagined that I would lead this life of poverty, that this was a dream that couldn't possibly lead to anything. I didn't know what it would lead to. It just occurred to me I could finally make a choice when I was in college. I didn't have to follow what my parents had set out for me from the age of six -- to become a doctor.

GIOIA: The Joy Luck Club is a book of enormous literary historical importance in American literature, because it brought the complex history of immigration between China and the United States into the mainstream of American literature. Writing this book, did you have any sense that you were opening up a whole new territory?

TAN: No, I had no idea this was going to be anything but weird stories about a weird family that was unique to us. To think that they would apply to other people who would find similarities to their own families or conflicts was beyond my imagination, and I have a very good imagination.

I wanted to write this book for very personal reasons. One of them, of course, was to learn the craft of writing. I always loved to write stories, and I loved to read more than anything, before I was writing. The other reason was to understand myself, to figure out who I was. A lot of writers use writing as a way of finding their own personal meaning. They want to represent what they feel about the world. I wrote out of total chaos and personal history, which did not seem like something that would ever be used by other people as a way of understanding their lives.

GIOIA: Is there anything else that you'd like to say?

TAN: I have many reasons why I think reading is really important. It provided for me a refuge, especially during difficult times. It provided me with the notion that I could find an ending that was different from what was happening to me at the time. And when I look at reading now, I think it's also that with imagination; that is the closest thing that we have to compassion and empathy. When you read about the lives of other people, people of different circumstances or similar circumstances, you are part of their lives for that moment. You inhabit their lives and you feel what they're feeling and that is compassion. If we see that reading does allow us that, we see how absolutely essential reading is. That compassion is not anything we are going to learn through psychol- ogy, or sociology or cultural courses. And it's so vital, especially today when we have so much misunderstanding across cultures and even within our own communities.

A full-length version of this interview first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of The American Interest.