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'I Am Full Of Contradictions': Novelist Amy Tan On Fate And Family

A 3-year-old Amy Tan appears with her brother Peter in this 1955 family photo. Peter died in 1967 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Courtesy of Amy Tan
A 3-year-old Amy Tan appears with her brother Peter in this 1955 family photo. Peter died in 1967 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American in Northern California, novelist Amy Tan found herself pulled by two different notions of fate: Her mother was guided by beliefs in curses and luck, while her father, a Baptist minister, was guided by Christian faith.

As a result, Tan says, "I am full of contradictions. ... I am full of wavering questions."

Best known for novels like The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, Tan explores the contradictions of her upbringing in he new memoir, Where the Past Begins. In it, she connects her own experience with spirituality to that of her parents and of her maternal grandmother.

"I don't consider myself any religion," she says. "I'm not an atheist. I have an amalgam of beliefs that ... [have] to do with Christianity, a little bit with Buddhism. I observe things that make me understand people."

Interview Highlights

On reconciling her parents' vastly different world views

Mother [was] hyper-sensitive, suicidal. Father [was] honest, cheerful, a leader in the community, very Christian. ...

What I didn't realize was that I was also getting these two different senses of the culture. The one [of my mother], which included a lot of bad things determined by fate or bad luck or ghosts or karma, and the one of my father that was dictated by God through prayer. ...

So I grew up with these two different versions of fate. And I would say that at a certain age I would prefer, of course, the Christian one that wasn't full of bad things. In my mother's world, fate also had to do with curses and you feel kind of helpless when there's a curse going on in your life.

On losing both her father and a brother to brain tumors in the span of a year, and her mother's belief that the family was cursed

When you have a brother who's dying and a father who's dying, and you see them and their head[s] [have] been shaved and they have stitches like railroad tracks across them, you're scared. And so somebody says, "There's a curse," and, "This is going to happen to you," and you end up half believing it. And then you push it away. You cannot imagine yourself looking like that.

So I also tried very hard to reject that. But I would say that I believed it more than I didn't, because I was fearful. And whenever we had a headache or anything went wrong, my [surviving] brother and I would look at each other and we would wonder if this curse was beginning again.

On thinking about death every day

As a consequence of these experiences with death at a very early age, death is something I think about every single day. ... Not with a grimness, not with a sense of the curse that my mother had instilled in us, but with this notion that you have to think about your life every day, and is what you're doing meaningful? Did you discover [anything] new today? What do you believe at this moment? ...

I think it's a wonderful perspective of life. People think that I'm paranoid — I think they're avoiding the inevitability that this is going to happen.

On her mother's frequent threats of suicide

Oftentimes in her threat she would say she wanted to join her mother [who had killed herself]. She said, when she described the funeral of her mother, that she was trying to "fly off" with her mother. She would have this feeling, it was like an uncontrollable feeling that she needed to leave. And sometimes she said she was going back to China, but most of the time she said she was going to kill herself.

So it was always with anger, and this would seethe for days and she would not speak to anybody. I would say there were times when she would say it once a week or more, and then there would be relatively peaceful times when she didn't say it for a month or two. But when she did, we always had to take it seriously because she had tried [to kill herself]. You only need to have your mother try once before you are quaking every single time she says that.

On what she learned from her mother about being a woman

I don't remember the exact age, but my mother said to me, "You are not as good as a man." She said, "You are better, and you have to work harder to prove to them that you are."

She told me a lot of messages like that. And the other one was the repeated one that had to also do with choosing what to do with your own body, and that was, "No one can choose your life. No one can look down on you. They might look down on you, but you cannot believe it. That is not who you are. You have to have your own way of escaping from somebody who's bad. ... Don't count on looks, because that's going to be over by the time you're 30."

Sam Briger and Therese Madden produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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