Best-selling author Amy Tan spoke to an appreciative, capacity crowd at the Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday evening, October 10. Her appearance was sponsored by the Cabin (you may know it as the Log Cabin Literary Center) as part of their Readings and Conversations series.
Stepping gracefully up the stairs to the podium, Tan's presence had almost instant magnetic appeal. Dressed in a black gown with a purple sash draped around her neck, she was dignified yet warm as she launched the evening with wry commentary on being immortalized in CliffsNotes, an honor she had assumed was most often posthumously bestowed.
Reading from the yellow and black students' guidebook to The Joy Luck Club, Tan was amused by references to her intentions in writing the book, which was the longest-running title on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list for 1985.
Inaccuracies and speculation annoy the soft-spoken 54-year old San Franciscan. On her official Web site, www.amytan.net, there is a section entitled "Myths and Legends," where she debunks many of the misrepresentations that have proliferated about her background and her career. She does this with good-natured humor but it is clear that she is serious about getting the facts straight.
Tan's newest novel is Saving Fish From Drowning, a tale of 12 tourists in Burma who mysteriously disappear. There is an unearthly tour guide--recently deceased (murdered) Bibi Chen, art maven, socialite and friend of the ill-fated group. It takes something greater than Death to separate Bibi from her sense of responsibility to her pals and her determination that they fully enjoy their visit to the exotic destination.
The novel has a different flavor from Tan's previous works, but her gift of superior storytelling thrives. Finished shortly after the death of her mother, an enduring source of inspiration to Tan, the book uses her mother's "voice" to enrich the character of Chen. There is romance, history, politics and complex human interaction throughout the plot. Descriptions of Burma (what is now called Myanmar) and its people are educational, touching and, at times, disturbing, since Myanmar is considered one of the worst human rights violators in the world.
Tan is a prolific and popular writer whose career began when she grew impatient with a therapist who repeatedly snoozed during her appointments. She decided to replace the expensive therapy sessions with creative writing. She attended a writers' workshop and developed a short story that was published in Seventeen magazine. The story, "End Game," evolved into The Joy Luck Club, which Tan wrote in only four months. During her talk Tuesday evening, Tan explained that she feared the publishing firm would change its mind, so she hastened her efforts to complete the book, which has since become one of the best-loved books of the decade. The book was made into a movie in 1993, produced by Oliver Stone.
Tan's skill at crafting characters is uncanny. It seems as if she channels the many unique and realistic personalities which populate her books. On stage, Tan mimics her mother (Daisy Tan) so adeptly, it is easy to imagine them standing close to each other, sharing the spotlight.
There were several moving moments during the evening. The powerful message of a daughter's love for a difficult but remarkable mother resonated through the monologue. As Tan repeatedly invoked her mother's quirky, superstitious view of the world, listeners were made aware of how deeply Tan's mother's influence flows through her psyche.
Sorrow and loss have punctuated Tan's life--within a short time, her father, a Baptist minister, succumbed to a brain tumor not long after his son died of the same illness. Afterward, Amy Tan's mother gathered her daughter and remaining son and transported the family to Holland. Having no acquaintances or solid plans of any sort, the little family wandered in Europe until Tan's mother found employment. They moved into a Swiss chalet that Tan remembered fondly. During those years, Tan fell in love with an "older man" she remembers as looking something like Art Garfunkel. Her brother's opinion was that her boyfriend more likely resembled Larry of the Three Stooges. In this, too, Tan corrects the record. The "older man" was in his early 20s.
As Tan's performance drew to a close, she spoke about causes she supports. The Rock Bottom Remainders, an author-celeb band with whom she performs, includes co-conspirators Ridley Pearson, Dave Barry and Stephen King; they donate proceeds from their appearances to charity. Tan is involved with projects ranging from children's' literacy, adoption, free-speech, and research into Lyme disease, an ailment from which she suffers.
Tan's candid and poignant revelations about her past, her art and her concern for humanity drew the audience to her. She has crafted a sad and disrupted past touched by illness, death and mental impairment into beautiful, lyrical parables about life and change. By evening's end, she had charmed and delighted the crowd, who reluctantly allowed her to let her leave the stage after waves of applause. (Note: If, indeed, I have misrepresented any of the facts herein, I wholeheartedly invite Ms. Tan to set me straight!)
Amy Tan's other works include: The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter and two books for children, Sagwa-the Chinese Siamese Cat and The Moon Lady. She has also authored a non-fiction book titled The Opposite of Fate.