Author Amy Tan opens up about strife with mom, responds to critics

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Amy Tan

By Clair Phillips
UW News Lab

It may be hard for some to believe, but Amy Tan, famed author of “The Joy Luck Club,” belongs to a rock band and has made a guest appearance on the animated series “The Simpsons.”

On Jan. 12, the distinguished author began her lecture at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall by noting these particular personal attributes. Her lecture was titled, “Creative Minds Do Not Think Alike.”

Donna Hjertberg, an attendee, thought Tan was really funny and took away the message of “persistence” from the lecture. Having read Tan’s work in the past, Hiertberg said, “I’m inspired to go back and read more.”

“The Joy Luck Club” was made into a successful film in 1993. Tan’s other well-known books include “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” She has also written books for children, including “Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat.”

In her talk, Tan elaborated on her upbringing in the United States by Chinese immigrant parents. In particular, she focused on the peculiar personality of her mother.

At one point in her youth, Tan said, her volatile mother decided to move to Switzerland, responding impulsively to an ad she saw about the country. Tan’s mother was the inspiration for many characters in her novels.

Members of the audience were audibly astounded to hear about her mother’s colorful expressions and rash judgment. Tan’s mother was the type to manipulate and make plans in order to get her way, Tan said.

One example of this involved Tan’s older boyfriend in Switzerland, someone Tan ironically called her “drug-dealing” ex-boyfriend.

He wasn’t really a drug-dealer. Tan’s mother just made Tan believe he was. Her mother also scared her with stories about how she’d get pregnant, and at one point, even a knife to Tan’s throat, telling her to stop dating the boyfriend.

When the relationship ended, Tan felt resentment toward her mother. Though, at the lecture, she revealed that she eventually did see that the relationship didn’t benefit her.

Tan is also known for having her share of critics. At the end of the lecture, a male audience member asked her what is commonly asked of her.

Why did she choose to portray Asian men overpowering women? Why did she perpetuate Asian stereotypes in her work?

Tan didn’t hesitate before replying. She said, “I simply wrote about my own experiences.” She said that her work is also fiction, so readers shouldn’t approach her work as if it’s a faithful representation of Asian Americans.

Tan also believes she thinks differently than most people.  “Maybe some of us are born with loose wires,” she said.

Although the theme of her lecture was creativity, she said talking about creativity is hard for her.

Dr. Sue Lockett John, who teaches at the UW, belongs to a book club whose members attended the lecture together. She stated that Tan’s talk expressed “her life experiences — some of which were really hard.”

In addition to problems with her mother, Tan also experienced the deaths of her father and brother when she was a teenager.

Lockett John saw the force of Tan’s creativity as she “had taken her experiences to feed her creativity, but also [used] her writing to try and figure out her own life … her own questions.”

Tan thinks defining creativity paralyzes the ability to think creatively in the first place. She assured the audience by saying, “All of us have this ability to be creative.”

The lecture was sold out, but stand-by seating was available. The audience was made up mostly of baby boomers. Tan is nearly 60 years old. A question and answer period followed her lecture.

Lockett John said she thought the best part of the lecture was the question and answer session. She said Tan “answered amazingly and was so honest.”

Vanessa Radatus, a University of Washington undergraduate, said afterward that “Amy Tan is not only an incredible author, but also a gifted storyteller in person. She has perfected the craft of capturing her audience with her creative anecdotes and quick wit.”

The University of Washington Graduate School sponsored the lecture as part of its public lecture series. (end)

The series of lectures are free and open to the public. Four lectures remain for 2012. For more information and to register, visit www.grad.washington.edu/lectures.

Clair Phillips is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

She can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

One Response to “Author Amy Tan opens up about strife with mom, responds to critics”

  1. curly says:

    “Why did she choose to portray Asian men overpowering women? Why did she perpetuate Asian stereotypes in her work?
    Tan didn’t hesitate before replying. She said, “I simply wrote about my own experiences.” She said that her work is also fiction, so readers shouldn’t approach her work as if it’s a faithful representation of Asian Americans.”

    The above is inaccurate, she rambled on with various responses indicating 1) she had one relative who was a jerk to his wife 2) another male relative who was great 3) its fiction not real life 4) if you dont like it read another book 5) people complained about the way chinese mothers were portrayed too

    The question was in the context of why she chose to portray 4 negative asian male characters and 2 sympathetic white male characters. She did not say she had life experiences that supported these extreme portrayals.

    She evaded the question which is somewhat ironic given that a few questions earlier she made some comment that she wanted to be authentic
    instead of just writing what people wanted to hear. The reality is Joy Luck Club was catering to white racism which is the opposite of being authentic.

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