Amy Tan Biography
Amy Tan was born in 1952 to Chinese immigrant parents and grew up in Northern California. Tan’s mother (the subject of her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife) suffered at the hands of a brutal husband whom she eventually divorced. Sadly, she was forced to leave her three daughters behind in China. Tan and her siblings were from her mother’s second marriage in the States. Tan’s first book, The Joy Luck Club, was a phenomenal critical and popular success. In most of her works, she deals unflinchingly with the dynamics of mother/daughter relationships, finding a way to respect the past but live in the present, and retaining a sense of identity for her characters as they attempt to balance their Chinese and American selves.
Facts and Trivia
- Defying her mother’s wishes, Tan left the premedical program she had been enrolled in and switched her major to English and linguistics. She graduated with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from San Jose State University in 1974.
- Although she enrolled in a doctoral program, Tan decided to take a job working with children with developmental disabilities in Alameda, California. She also developed a program for developmentally disabled children during this time.
- Before permanently turning to fiction writing, Amy Tan tried her hand at technical writing.
- When her mother fell ill and seemed near death, Tan promised that she would take her to China to find the daughters her mother was forced to abandon decades earlier. They were reunited, and Tan credits this meeting with helping her see her mother in a new light.
- Amy Tan is a musician in a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders (“remainders” are the books that do not sell and become clearance bin fodder). The other members of the band include humorist Dave Barry, authors Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
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 American Indian family, and was inspired to write her own. At the Squaw Valley Community of Writers fiction workshop, she met Molly Giles, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for fiction. Tan showed Giles what would become Waverly Jong’s story, “Rules of the Game,” in The Joy Luck Club (1989), and Giles became her mentor.
Tan finished three stories in three years. When The Joy Luck Club was sold to Putnam in 1987 on the basis of a proposal and three stories (“Rules of the Game,” “Waiting Between the Trees,” and “Scar”), Tan closed her business and wrote thirteen more stories in four months. She thought her acceptance was “a token minority thing. I thought they had to fill a quota since there weren’t many Chinese-Americans writing.”
Like the daughters in her books, Tan was ambivalent about her Chinese background. She contemplated plastic surgery to make herself look more Western, and she did not fully accept her dual culture until 1987, when she and her mother went to China to meet her half sisters. She has remarked that, “As soon as my feet touched China, I became Chinese.”
Writing The Joy Luck Club also helped Tan to discover how Chinese she really was. In many respects, it is her family’s story. Her mother had formed a Joy Luck Club in China and again in San Francisco. Daisy Tan “was the little girl watching her mother cut a piece of flesh from her arm to make soup, and she was the little girl watching her mother die when...
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she took opium because she had become a third concubine.”
Tan’s first book was a surprising best seller in both hardcover and paperback. It received the Commonwealth Club Gold Award for fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for fiction, and the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Joy Luck Club was made into a popular film in 1993, cowritten and coproduced by Tan, and was adapted for the stage in 1999.
For nearly a year, Tan tried to start The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991). Again, her subjects were a Chinese mother and a Chinese American daughter, but this time she focused upon the mother’s life in China. The novel, based on Daisy Tan’s tumultuous past, received Booklist’s editor’s choice honors and was nominated for the Bay Area Book Reviewers award. The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) followed; it told the story of Olivia Yee Bishop, a Chinese American photographer, and her irrepressible Chinese half sister Kwan, who believes that she experienced an earlier life in the nineteenth century. Tan’s third novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), draws in part on the histories of her mother and grandmother in China.
Tan’s first nonfiction work, The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (2003), is a collection of casual writings that supplement her fiction and her life. The title essay describes her struggle with Lyme disease, which began in 1999 and for several years had a serious impact on her ability to write.