Amy Tan - Mother Tongue
As a child Amy Tan believed her life was duller than most. She read to escape. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor and a concert pianist. She secretly dreamed of becoming an artist. She began writing fiction when she was 33. Her first short story was published when she was 34, and three years later, she published her first book, a collection of short stories called The Joy Luck Club, which the critics reviewed as a novel.
Amy was born in the United States a few years after her parents immigrated from China. Her father, John, was an electrical engineer and also a Baptist minister. Her mother, Daisy, left behind a secret past, including three daughters in China and the ghost of her mother, who had killed herself when Daisy was nine. The Tan family belonged to a small social group called The Joy Luck Club, whose families enacted the immigrant version of the American Dream: playing the stock market. Nearly every year, the Tan family moved, from one mixed neighborhood in Oakland after another and eventually to a series of nearly all-white suburbs in the Bay Area.
When Amy was fifteen, her father and older brother died of brain tumors six months apart. Her mother took Amy and her younger brother, John, to Europe, to see the world before a curse killed them all. They settled in Switzerland. Angry and confused, Amy found comfort in a counter-culture boyfriend--unemployed and psychiatrically suicidal, who hung with hippies. At age sixteen, Amy was arrested for drugs.
She went from arrest to winning an American Baptist Scholarship to attend Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. There, in 1970, she met Lou DeMattei on a blind date. They have been together ever since. Amy then went to San Jose City College, then to San Jose State University, where she earned her B.A., as a President’s Scholar, with a double major in English and Linguistics. She attended both the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Jose State University for her Master’s Degree in Linguistics in 1974. She went on to study linguistics in a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. At the end of her education, she owed $250.
Following the murder of a roommate in 1976, she left the doctoral program and was inspired by his intended career to work in the field of disabilities. She became a Language Development Specialist for programs serving children with developmental disabilities, and later, she became the Director of a demonstration project on mainstreaming multicultural children with disabilities into the public school system.
Starting in 1981, she worked as a freelance business writer for telecommunications companies such as AT&T, IBM, and Northern Telecom, as well as Wells Fargo Bank, Big Eight management consulting firms, and the America’s Cup Challenge--all fields and endeavors, she can now confess, hold no real interest for her.
In 1985, in an attempt to find meaning in life, she started to write fiction in her spare time. She attended a fiction workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. There she met writer Molly Giles, who gave her advice on a flawed short story with too many inconsistent voices and too many beginnings of stories. “Pick one and start over.” Giles' suggestions guided Amy to write the multiple stories that would become The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. Today Molly Giles continues to offer her advice as a freelance editor. Amy serves on the board of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Amy's other novels are The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning, all New York Times bestsellers, as well as the recipient of many awards. She is also the author of a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, two children's books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat, as well as numerous articles for magazines, such as The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and National Geographic. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Amy served as co-producer and co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, directed by Wayne Wang. The screenplay was nominated for best adaptation by the British Film Academy and the Writers Guild. She was the Creative Consultant for Sagwa, the Emmy-nominated television series for children, which has aired worldwide, including in the UK, Latin America, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Her story in The New Yorker, "Immortal Heart,"was performed on stages throughout the United States and in France. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks, and they are assigned as "required reading" in many high schools and universities. The National Endowment for the Arts chose The Joy Luck Club for its"Big Read" program. She has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford, Jagellonium, Beijing, and Georgetown both in Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.
Amy's fifteen years of classical piano came in handy when she wrote the libretto for the opera The Bonesetter's Daughter, composed by Stewart Wallace, which had its world premiere with sold-out performances in September 2008 with the San Francisco Opera. Ms Tan's other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Greg Iles, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount Jr, Ridley Pearson, Sam Barry and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise nearly two million dollars for literacy programs.
Her mother. Daisy. did not live to see many of her daughter’s successes. But she was enormously proud and encouraged Amy to write even more stories based on her life in China. She died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1999, and two weeks later, Amy’s influential editor and friend, Faith Sale, passed from cancer. Amy has a younger brother, John Tan, and two half-sisters, Lijun Wang and Tina “Jindo” Eng, who grew up in China.
In 1999, Amy was infected with Lyme Disease, but was not diagnosed until 2003. Her disease had advanced by then and left her with epilepsy. Today, while not cured, her disease is medically managed, and her health, by her own new definition, is excellent. She now has a valid excuse why she cannot drive and must have her husband play chauffeur.
Since 1974, Amy has been married to Lou DeMattei, now a retired tax attorney. Over the years, they have been devoted parents to four Yorkies: Bubba, Lilli, Bombo, and now Bobo.
The Holy Ghost of my father and the Chinese ghosts of my mother.
Discarding all beliefs and starting over again.
The American Dream and a Chinese family's interpretation of that.
Free books from the library every week and reading books that appeared on the banned book lists.
Not listening to my mother’s endless complaints about her life and then finally listening and realizing she had good reasons to complain.
Writing secret letters to my friends about running away to Haight-Ashbury and writing thank you letters as my mother dictated them to me in her version of English.
The early deaths of my older brother and father and my mother's belief that I would die next.
An SAT score in the 400s for English and the 700s in Spanish.
Listening to my mother and her friends gossip in Chinese. Understanding Chinese but not being able to speak it.
An ever-expanding circle of friends from many walks in life.
Luck and an amazing amount of it.
Questions to Consider for Writing:
1. Choose three examples of the theme of silence in the book and compare and contrast them.
2. Tan uses the writing strategy of narration to reveal how others reacted to her mother's language skills. Reread that scene and explain how it effectively develops Tan's point.
3. It seems as if Tan was ashamed of her mother's English when she was growing up. What does this notion actually reveal about her childhood, family and her mother?