Amy Tan Revisits The Roots Of Her Writing Career In 'Where The Past Begins'

Oct 16, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 6:17 pm

Amy Tan loves jazz and classical music. "I have a Steinway, which was my life's dream," she says, sitting at her grand piano in the middle of her New York living room. When Tan listens to a piece of music, she imagines stories to go with it, so she always listens when she writes.

Tan is best known for novels that focus on mother-daughter relationships and Chinese-American culture — novels like 1989's The Joy Luck Club. Her latest book, Where the Past Begins, is a writer's memoir. In it, Tan delves into her past to uncover the sources of her own creativity.

She says she wrote her new memoir to the tune of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor, a piece she used to hate. Today, the concerto reminds her of her past. "This is my mother; this is my life; these are the moods; and this is where I went. This is me as a young woman."

Tan may love music now, but she hated it growing up. Back then, she had to practice piano every day, and felt burdened by her parents' aspirations for her: a concert pianist, if not a doctor. "Even to this day, I realize that so many of these expectations — having to do with both becoming a doctor, becoming a pianist — led [me], in part, to be a writer," she says. "I wanted to be just myself — and I was, inside. And that private little place that I was was the writer."

While working on her memoir, Tan discovered that some of her parents' expectations were based on a false premise — a test that, according to her parents, indicated she had a very high IQ. "I had a feeling that I wasn't really that smart, that the test had made a mistake. And yet there was this expectation," she says. "So I grew feeling that I was a fraud."

Tan looked into that test and discovered it had nothing to do with her IQ; she had just been part of a study on early readers. It was one of a number of revelations she uncovered while sifting through a treasure trove of family papers. Among the meticulously preserved documents, letters and photographs, Tan found startling information about her parents. She holds up one example. "This was for their application for renewing a visa or something that would enable them to stay in the United States," she says. "So that was something else I discovered: They were illegal."

The collection raised questions about Tan's family history, both in this country and in China. It also made her think about the ways the past can be transformed into a work of fiction.

"As I looked at these things, whether they were documents or photos, these emotions came up," she says. "And I realized if I took those emotions, I could write a story about them. It's the combination [of] the emotions that came up and the confusion, the misunderstanding and the discovery of the lies, the variations. That's where you find stories."

As Tan meditated on the connection between memory and creativity, she realized that, just as memories can inspire a story, writing can also trigger memories. This prompted her to write down the details of a day when her mother threatened to commit suicide. Tan says experiences like that made her the writer she is today.

"When you're a child dealing with uncertainty and the moods of a mother who might kill herself, you observe what's going on. So I don't know whether I would have been [as] observant of people's intentions, their emotions, pretenses, their secret desires. I certainly think that the bad experiences ... in my life shaped me as a writer."

Now, Tan wonders how her deep dive into her past might affect her future writing. "Will my stories become darker? Will they be more emotionally intense? Or will I have a better understanding of myself that would enable me to write a different kind of story?"

Some may think Tan's work is about family or the immigrant experience. But really, she says, her stories are about emotional identity and how you become who you are.

Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Amy Tan is best known for her novels that focus on mother-daughter relationships and Chinese-American culture. Her most famous of course is "The Joy Luck Club." Her latest book, "Where The Past Begins," is what she calls a writer's memoir. In it, Tan looks into the past to uncover the sources of her own creativity. And as she tells NPR's Lynn Neary, by doing this, she got a deeper understanding of what made her a writer in the first place.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Amy Tan loves classical music and jazz. In the middle of Tan's New York living room filled with a lush and eclectic mix of furniture and fabric sits her grand piano - a Steinway, she proudly tells me.

AMY TAN: It was my life's dream to get a Steinway.

NEARY: She likes to play it when no one is around to listen.

If you want to play it, you're welcome to (laughter).

TAN: No, I'm not going to play for you.

NEARY: When Tan listens to a piece of music, she imagines stories to go with it. So she always listens while she writes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: For this book, she chose Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: It's a piece of music Tan says she used to hate.

TAN: Then I thought, you're crazy not to love this music. This is my mother. This is my life. This is (laughter) - these are the moods. This is where I went. This is me as a young woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: As much as she loves music now, Tan hated it growing up. She had to practice piano every day, and she felt burdened by her parents' expectations. They wanted her to be a concert pianist, if not a doctor.

TAN: And even to this day, I realize that some of these expectations - you know, becoming a doctor, becoming a pianist - led to - in part to be a writer. I wanted to be just myself, and I was inside. And that private, little place that I was was the writer.

NEARY: Working on this book, Tan discovered that some of those expectations were based on a false premise - a test that, according to her parents, indicated she had a very high IQ.

TAN: And I had a feeling that I wasn't really that smart, that the test had made a mistake. And yet there was this expectation. So I grew up feeling very - that I was a fraud.

NEARY: Looking into it, Tan found out the test had nothing to do with her IQ. She had just been part of a study on early readers. It was one of a number of revelations she uncovered while delving into a treasure trove of family papers.

TAN: Let me just get a few of these things out.

NEARY: Tan sifted through boxes of documents, letters and photographs, all of it meticulously preserved.

TAN: This is - let's see.

NEARY: Sometimes they contained startling information about her family, especially her parents.

TAN: And this was for their application for renewing a visa or something that would enable them to stay in the United States. So that was something else I discovered. They were illegal.

NEARY: The collection raised a lot of questions about Tan's family history both in this country and in China. It made her think about how the past can be transformed into a work of fiction.

TAN: As I looked at these things, whether they were documents or photos, these emotions came up. And I realized if I took those emotions, I could write a story about them. It's the combination about the emotions that came up and the confusion, the misunderstanding and the discovery of the lies, the variations. That's where you find stories.

NEARY: As Tan explored the connection between memory and creativity, she realized not only can memories inspire a story, but writing can trigger memories. This prompted her to write down the details of a day when her mother threatened to commit suicide. Such experiences, Tan says, made her the writer she is.

TAN: When you're a child dealing with uncertainty and the moods of a mother who might kill herself, you observe what's going on. So I don't know whether I would have been observant of people's intentions, their emotions, pretenses, their secret desires. I certainly think that the bad experiences - definitely the bad experiences in my life shaped me as a writer.

NEARY: Tan's deep dive into her past has made her wonder if her future writing will be affected by the experience.

TAN: Will my stories become darker? Will they be more emotionally intense? Or will I have a better understanding of myself that would enable me to write a different kind of story?

NEARY: Tan says some people may think her work is all about family or the immigrant experience. But really, she says, her stories are about emotional identity and how you become who you are. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.