History becomes her story

Updated: 2014-02-23 07:47

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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Almost a decade in the making, Amy Tan's new book was inspired by an old photo and her family's past, writes Mark Graham.

Novelist Amy Tan is known for taking her time with each book - insisting on extensive research, meticulous plotting and evocative finely tuned prose - so a new work by the respected Chinese-American is always a significant publishing event.

Her just-released book, The Valley of Amazement, has had a particularly long gestation period, partly because it involved extensive digging into the Tan family history. Her research turned up some surprising information, and partly because the author was sidetracked by various other projects, including writing the libretto for an opera production of an earlier book.

The Valley of Amazement revisits the kind of themes that Tan has explored so well in previous books, becoming arguably one of the most-read, and most influential, English-language novelists dealing with the topics of Chinese culture, mores and relationships. She is certainly among the most successful in terms of sales: The Joy Luck Club, her debut work, was a huge best-seller, giving Western audiences insights into the way Chinese family dynamics operate.

The book was originally inspired by stories her mother relayed about growing up in China. The American-born author was spellbound to hear of stories of life during turbulent times - and was inspired to make a personal visit to the places most closely associated with her extended family.

History becomes her story

Material acquired from those trips was combined with a fertile imagination and a fluid writing style. Inspiration for the latest work came during one of Tan's periodic delves into the family tree and making the shock discovery that her grandmother, who lived in Shanghai during the earlier part of the last century, may have been a concubine - one of the wives of a rich man - and could well have taken her own life.

Incomplete documentation from that era makes it hard to absolutely verify the facts, and some members of the extended family are not necessarily keen to focus on uncomfortable truths. But the information she discovered was enough to set Tan thinking, imagining and plotting.

Tan says: "The central character is the privileged daughter of a woman from San Francisco and because of circumstances ends up becoming a courtesan. I worried about the courtesan thing because it sounds like one of those exotica subjects but it was inspired by a photograph I saw of my grandmother."

Tan says she saw an exhibition on Shanghai and part of it showed these courtesans who had influenced bringing Western culture to Shanghai. "I thought it was interesting and bought a book on courtesans by an academic and came across a section of the Ten Beauties of Shanghai in 1910. I have a picture of my grandmother wearing those exact same clothes. It was a very daring fashion - jewelry and headpieces."

The Valley of Amazement, a 600-page blockbuster, with scenes set in both China and the United States over a period that spans from 1897 to 1941, has had generally positive reviews from literary critics.

The book took almost a decade to research, write and edit. During that time, Tan embarked on various other projects including writing an opera libretto for another of her books, The Bonesetter's Daughter. Another distraction from the writing process was embarking on the construction of a new, eco-friendly house in her native San Francisco. The new home has a stunning view of Angel Island, where new immigrants from China were once processed; it is an experience the American characters in The Valley of Amazement would have gone through.

Tan says: "It is about identity. It takes place in San Francisco and Shanghai, drift literature, or floating literature, people who go back and forth between America and China. I was thinking about the tides of influence in your life, what you are born with and what you take from your past and what culture has to do with it.

"I was inspired by meeting a number of women who I didn't know were half Chinese and then I looked at them and realized yes they are. They were placed in orphanages and never adopted. It was a real stigma but there were some who passed as white and one who married someone quite influential, quite powerful. But by and large it was a stigma."

Tan's life is the total opposite: success as an author has brought her the financial independence to do whatever she pleases. In person she is warm, friendly and chatty, and immaculately groomed.

Travel is a regular part of her annual schedule. The writer, 61, is also extremely fond of San Francisco and is a de facto tourism and cultural ambassador for the city.

With such a busy schedule, it is little wonder that Tan's books are far and few between. So don't expect a follow-up to the Valley of Amazement any time soon.

Contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn.

 History becomes her story

Novelist Amy Tan is arguably one of the most-read, and most influential, English-language novelists dealing with the topics of Chinese culture, mores and relationships. Mark Graham / for China Daily

(China Daily 02/23/2014 page4)