This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Relationship with mother helped Tan hone writing skills

Published: March 27, 2003

Reporter Assistant Editor

Fate or faith, Chinese ghosts or Christian God and a "thanksgiving of nightmares"—these are just a few of the provocative themes that shape the emotional geography of acclaimed novelist Amy Tan's life. Tan spoke about her life last night and how her childhood memories and the tumultuous relationship with her mother helped her "hone her skills as a writer" as part of UB's Distinguished Speakers Series in the Center for the Arts Mainstage theatre.

Before diving into the past with very moving—and at turns extremely funny—recollections of growing up as the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, she noted that she had that day made the requisite pilgrimage to Niagara Falls and found it breathtaking.

"We had a perfect sunny day—we could see all the way to Toronto. There is no way to imagine something as spectacular as Niagara Falls," she said.

Tan, who as a child believed she had been born into "the wrong family—a Chinese family"—described how she grew up trying to please a mother who could not be pleased, a mother who struggled to live in a world she viewed as an imminent threat to herself and her family's existence. A mother, Tan explained, who espoused pithy aphorisms for every occasion—whether trivial, painful or horrendous—and whose "wisdom" created an atmosphere rife with threats of impending doom, talk of death, alternate threats of suicide and admonishments to Tan to work hard and be a good girl.

"Her emotional terrorism alternated between threats to kill herself or return to China," Tan said of her mother, who had witnessed her own mother, a grandmother Tan never knew but whose life forms the foundation of her novel "The Kitchen God's Wife," commit suicide. Leaving behind an abusive husband, her mother immigrated to the U.S. after being freed from prison shortly after the Communists seized control of Shanghai in 1949. She had been imprisoned for committing adultery with Tan's father. He had come to the U.S. two years before her release from prison.

Tan said her mother's moods and constant talk of death meant living in a constant state of "high suspense."

"I was often worried I might say the wrong thing and my mother would kill herself," she said. "What forces were aligned against us," her mother always wanted to know, insisting that a curse had been sent upon their family after losing both her husband and son to brain tumors.

"I was 15 years old, sullen and rebellious," Tan said, while her mother went on a "heartbreaking quest" into the supernatural—consulting mediums and the Ouji board—to find out what "fates" were wreaking havoc on her family.

"I was a very angry teenager," she said about this painful period of her life. "I had sworn off emotion." She was forced to be the medium, operating the Ouji board while her mother relentlessly queried the ghost of her late husband (and other family ghosts), seeking the ever-elusive reassurance that things would be alright and that her husband still loved her.

Tan's father, a devout Christian minister and electrical engineer, put all of his trust and hope for the future in "absolute faith," noted Tan. "I adored my father and he adored me, but he also adored my mother.

"My father worked seven days a week and only two times took a vacation—both to Disneyland." Her father, who built electrical transformers, could not transform by love or faith his wife's outlook on life or ever make her feel truly secure. Every time Tan's mother became unhappy, the family moved—the longest the Tan family lived in any one home was about two years. "He always gave in to my mother's wishes," said Tan, who graduated from high school in Montreux, Switzerland, after having attended 11 different schools.

"There were two kinds of ghosts in our house. The kind we could talk about in front of others—the Holy Ghost who sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food—and my mother's ghosts. They were Chinese; they were banned—we were forbidden to talk about them," she said.

But, she said, it was these ghosts, both real and imagined, that began to shape works like the internationally beloved "Joy Luck Club," "The Bonesetter's Daughter," and "The Hundred Secret Senses."

"When I begin to write, I ask myself a very simple question: How do things happen?" Her life, she explained, has created the "cocoon of a world where I can imagine anything can happen." But, she added, "I need a narrative to surround the chaos and put it into order."