In Where the Past Begins, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement Amy Tan reveals herself in a way she never has before, delving into her childhood, adolescence, family history, beginnings as a writer and professional life to explore the answers to questions of purpose and meaning that we all ask ourselves as we get older.
Moving from her childh
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I have been reading Amy Tan’s novel since I was first introduced to The Joy Luck Club when I was in high school. At the time I lacked the life experience to thoroughly enjoy her work about complex mother and daughter relationships, so over the last year I have been rereading these intricate novels. After immersing myself in two of Tan’s novels this year, it came as no surprise to me that I would want to read her new memoir Where the Past Begins as soon as it came out. While not Tan’s usual ficti
Having read The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen G-d’s Wife, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, I have seen how Tan has used her family history of sorrow to weave a novel. She has written tales involving her mother leaving twin daughters on a road in the Chinese countryside as well as both her mother and grandmother experiencing children dying young. Some of these tales must contain elements of the truth. Like the characters Tan has created, Tan’s own mother lived a life carefully veiled in secrecy. Living with an abusive first husband, she immediately fell in love with a Chinese American citizen working for the American embassy. Married at the time, the couple decided to commence on a correspondence that would last almost ten years until the time was propitious for Tan’s mother Daisy to immigrate to California and join her fiancé John. Leaving behind three daughters who she would not see again for nearly thirty years, Daisy discarded her horrendous life as an abused wife and remarried, starting a new family in California. That she did not speak of these events for years, and Tan had to piece together her mother’s life based on stories from family friends shows the strength that Daisy had in keeping such personal details from her children.
To me, Amy Tan appears to be a prolific writer of prose, but she admits that it takes her years to construct a novel albeit holding a degree in linguistics and English language. This could stem from the fact that her parents spoke a mishmash of Shanghainese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and broken English at home. Tan spoke in this conglomeration of languages until she began school, and her being multilingual effected her career as a student as well as a writer. When constructing a character for her novels, especially one from mainland China, Tan has to think in a variety of languages, even those she is not especially proficient in. Many of her family friends became fluent in either Mandarin or Cantonese, but, because, her mother was not fluent in either language, but rather a distinct dialect of Shanghainese, she could not transmit language to her daughter, who in effect only became adept at speaking English. While Tan’s immigrant parents were proud of their children as successful Americans, they did little to ensure that the next generation would continue to speak the language of their ancestors. This is reflected in both Tan’s characters and the ever changing relationship she enjoyed with her mother as the years went by.
As one who has studied multiple languages and linguistics, I found Tan’s writing process to be fascinating. She takes us back to when she was in kindergarten and a doctoral student engaged students who entered school reading in a study to see how successful they were. That Tan was in this study started her on the path to becoming a writer. I also found intriguing how Tan conversed with her mother in later years after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and regressed to the Shanghainese of her youth. Mother and daughter were relegated to forming a new language of hand gestures and broken words in order to converse in a meaningful manner. All of these life experiences have made their way into Tan’s novel and I enjoyed putting together the various life events with the stories found in her beautiful novels. As a result, I was able to finish this moving memoir in little more than a day as I immersed myself in Tan’s writing process.
Another preferred writer of mine notes that reading leads to rereading that leads to writing. Going back through my reading notes, I have discovered that I have read a number of author memoirs focusing on the writing process over the last two years. Being that I have studied languages, I have always found the writing process to be fascinating, and, because I have read many of Tan’s lovely novels, I thoroughly enjoyed entering her life and finding out about her family life and writing processes. While Tan and her family have experienced much sorrow, they have also experienced joy and love. This memoir was a labor of love and a joy to read. Until Tan is able to write her next novel, I am glad that I spent time with her on a more personal level.