Amy Tan (given the Chinese name of An-Mei, or “Blessing from America”) was the second of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan. Her father, educated as an electrical engineer in Beijing, became a Baptist minister. Daisy, child of a privileged family, was forced to leave behind three daughters from a previous marriage when she fled Communist troops.
Tan’s older brother died in 1967 and her father six months later, both of brain tumors. This began a troubled time for her. At fifteen, she moved to Europe with her mother and younger brother, was arrested for drugs in Switzerland at sixteen, and nearly eloped to Austria with a German army deserter.
Daisy Tan wanted her daughter to be a neurosurgeon and a concert pianist, but Tan felt she could not live up to her mother’s expectations. Although her test scores were highest in math and science, she left premedical studies to become an English major. In 1974, she earned a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose State University and married tax attorney Lou DeMattei. She began doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley but, after a close friend and roommate was murdered, she dropped out to become a consultant to programs for disabled children. Later she served as reporter, editor, and publisher for Emergency Room Reports.
Tan became a freelance business writer in 1983. She wrote sales manuals and proposals for such firms as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), International Business Machines (IBM), and Apple, and by 1985 was working up to ninety hours a week. Her business writing paid well, and she could choose her projects, but, she has said, “It was death to me spiritually. It was writing that had no meaning to me.”
She sought therapy, but Tan was discouraged when her psychiatrist fell asleep during her sessions. Instead, she decided to cut her work week to fifty hours, study jazz piano, and write fiction in her spare time. She had just read novelist Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984), interwoven stories of an...
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