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Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Tan’s driven by the past

Author tells

March 25, 2001

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— A glistening grand piano anchors a corner of Amy Tan's SoHo loft. The wooden furniture, tossed with a rainbow of jewel-colored cushions and pillows, is arranged before a velvety burgundy curtain concealing a giant-screen TV.

Here, Tan feels safe. Sort of. She feels even better once she's checked the doors and locks and alarm, over and over. It's a lot safer here than out there in the public glare, on a two-month national book tour for "The Bonesetter's Daughter" that brings her face to face, day after day, with her demons. Pain and fear travel with her.

For years after her roommate's murder, Amy Tan would lose her voice
on the anniversary of the death. Her mute memories helped Tan
create a character's defining feature in "The Bonesetter's
Daughter." Tan is shown in New York with her Yorkies, Lilli and
Bubba.

For years after her roommate's murder, Amy Tan would lose her voice on the anniversary of the death. Her mute memories helped Tan create a character's defining feature in "The Bonesetter's Daughter." Tan is shown in New York with her Yorkies, Lilli and Bubba.

"I get on an airplane and I wonder who's there and who's going to be seated next to me."

Tan's is the soft, lyrical cadence of a writer who seems, on the surface, to exude serenity. She nestles on a sofa with her yipping, fidgety Yorkies, Lilli and Bubba. But her words are unsettling.

"I go in a hotel: I wonder if there's someone under the bed or behind the shower curtain. If I'm in an elevator alone and the elevator opens, I'm wondering if somebody's going to come in and I'm looking for where the button is that I can push to call somebody. It's a constant sense of danger. I have nightmares. During anxiety periods I have nightmares every night that I'm being choked."

Enveloped in danger

Tan's life and her writing have been shaped by emotional danger, physical danger and the sustained traumas they bring. When Tan was a child, her mother filled her head not just with the usual parental litany of dangers awaiting disobedient kids, but with graphic images of how her head could be squashed and her brains splattered if she crossed the street without looking and got hit by a car.

Her mother threatened suicide routinely. She even tried jumping out of a moving car on the freeway. Danger seemed always present.

"I don't know how much I want to talk about this," she says softly.

"I think part of it is related to my father and brother dying when I was young." Both died of brain tumors when she was 15.

"Part of it is related to being molested twice and nearly raped once." She was 14. A family acquaintance did it. Tan never told.

"Part of it is my roommate and close friend being murdered and my having to identify the body.

"Part of it is being held up at gunpoint."

There's more. But some things must stay secret.

The pain lingers, as does the prospect of more dangerous visitations. Like the time the man who molested her years and years ago turned up at one of her book signings.

As much fact as fiction

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" is Tan's fourth novel. Its reviews have largely been raves. The three novels preceding it were best sellers. She's also written two children's books.

The latest book took Tan five years to write. But it did not awaken as a novel until November 1999, when her mother died. That day, Tan learned the real names of her mother and grandmother for the first time. She learned the power of secrets unmasked.

Born Li Bingzi, her mother had lived a life about which Tan knew little not even that there were other children, her own half siblings; not even that her mother had been married in China before fleeing to the United States, where Tan was born in 1952.

"When she was born and she was given this name of Bingzi, her father died when she was 2 and her mother was forced into being a concubine later. She was given a new name when she entered that household, a completely new name. And later, when she went to school, she was given yet another name.

"She had a different sense of what was important, and she could keep a secret really well," Tan said. "What else did she leave this world with that I will never know?"

Tan's adult life has always been about divining the silences, searching for the secrets, for the shards of detail that would help explain. Why did her mother want to die? Why did she believe the family was cursed? Tan would learn that her grandmother committed suicide, and that her mother witnessed the death.

Tan's quest to understand her mother, she says, was and is like an excavation. She is an archaeologist plucking fragments of bone from history's silent rubble, assembling a form, giving it voice.

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" is a work of fiction that is but a slight refraction of fact. Tan had completed the book by the time of her mother's death. Two weeks after her mother was buried, Tan's longtime editor and friend Faith Sale died as well.

Tan tore into the novel. She took it apart, rewrote it, infused it with more of the pain and mystery and muteness that so enveloped her mother's life and her own.

"Emotionally, it's very autobiographical," says Tan.

Silence speaks

At the book's heart is the relationship of troubled young Ruth and her aging, senile mother, LuLing. Ruth suffers annual bouts of voicelessness from laryngitis and finds it difficult, even when she can speak, to express herself. Her mother's declining health draws Ruth deeper into a world of fear and curses and ghosts and suicidal wishes, all laced with sadly comic moments, such as when LuLing tries to scramble eggs still in their shells.

But LuLing is lucid enough to have committed to paper her tortured and secret history back in China. There was Precious Auntie, her nursemaid, who lost the ability to speak when her vocal cords were damaged in a fire. She and LuLing could communicate nonetheless until the rupture that leads to Precious Auntie's suicide and the family's decision to cast out LuLing. That story is told against the backdrop of a Chinese excavation campaign to recover the bones of Peking Man.

In Tan's original version, there was no grand excavation, nor did Ruth suffer from muteness. Tan stripped Ruth of her voice after her mother's death. It would become the character's defining feature.

Ruth worries and anticipates trouble. She pumps her brakes before she sets off in the car, just to check. She has nightmares.

Ruth is Tan, really. For several years after the 1976 murder of her roommate at Berkeley, Tan lost her voice on the day of the homicide her own birthday.

Tan says the voicelessness she discovered in her mother upon her death an entire life unexpressed became a driving theme of the book because it had been real in her own life, the life of her mother, even her grandmother.

"The muteness, I realized, was interesting my muteness, the horror of not being able to speak about something that really bothers you." Such as the fact that she never told her mother about the molestation.

"Then her mother, who's quite garrulous in ways but unable to say exactly why she has this sense of danger in her life, why she has this feeling that they're cursed. ... Precious Auntie not being able to say who she is and also not being able, literally, to speak because her vocal cords are damaged.

"It was a book I think I had to write because I was losing my mother. These were things that were very much part of our relationship. Not so much that I wanted to share it with the world. My reasons for writing have to do with the moment I'm writing something and then I'm finding something out and by putting it in a fictional context I can come closer to the truth."

Ethnic kitsch

Tan says she writes what she knows. Of families and secrets and difficult love. That she is Chinese American means her characters and their milieu will be, too.

Some critics have suggested she reduces her ethnicity to a kind of Chinese kitsch. Others deride her for not putting forth a more progressive image of the Chinese American.

Those are people, says Tan, "who claim there's a particular way to be an authentic Chinese American, that you're not supposed to hark back, for example, to anything in the past because that is perpetuating stereotypes; that you cannot portray men in a negative way because that's giving in to those white-man demons who want to crush us; that you have to write negatively about white mainstream people or if you appeal to the white mainstream you have sold out.

"That's why it's kind of frustrating when people think that what I'm writing is a sociological piece on Chinese culture. I mean, I'm writing about the weirdest family in the world, in my opinion, which is mine. I'm not trying to say this is anybody else's family."

And if someone thinks it's ethnic kitsch, then "my mother is kitsch, my grandmother is kitsch. These are things that are relevant to me and I'm not going to follow anybody else's impulse. ... It's the same thrust in literature that happened in the Cultural Revolution in China, that literature had to be in service of an ideology."

"I'm writing for myself," Tan says. "And I always imagine my grandmother listening some version of my mother, some version of my grandmother."

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