Where The Past Begins (Ecco Press) is the memoir that Amy Tan never planned on writing. Beginning as a nonfiction book about her writing process, the author of the renowned The Joy Luck Club (1993) dug into early journals and ended up sending her editor everything from essays to personal reflections about her troubled childhood with an unstable mother. The result is a memoir that is so intimate and raw that Tan confesses to being terrified by its publication.
Check out the full interview here where Tan shares how the unplanned memoir came about and why she avoids the spotlight – as well as what she did during her appearance on an episode of The Simpsons!
In this article, Tan shares her thoughts on other subjects close to her heart.
On her mother
In Tan’s office in California, to the left of where she writes bestselling books, sit a dozen framed photographs. Her father looks up from one, his smile impish. In another, taken in the 1940s, her mother leans back against the hood of a car. Then there’s her grandmother, posing in a silk jacket against a painted backdrop.
The snapshots remind Tan of the stories her family members told – and these days, the ones they didn’t.
“My parents kept secrets,” says Tan, smiling at the understatement.
“To my mother and the memory of her mother,” Tan dedicated The Joy Luck Club, which in 1989 launched her literary career. “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”
Nearly three decades after that novel become an international bestseller, inspiring a film and a play, Tan is still writing, still making sense of her relationship with her mother, Daisy, her first reader.
She inherited her mother’s pragmatism, her frustration with condescension, her honesty.
“She’d talk about constipation, you know,” Tan says, chuckling. “She talked a lot about her agony, her sadness. ... She just took delight in revealing all kinds of things.
“I’ve had people in the past who have read my books and said, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’ And I think, I was? Am I revealing things most people would not?”
Tan keeps a strict gym regime. But she once posted on Instagram, beneath a photo of her flexing her wide biceps, that “The only ugly excess fat I’d like to get rid of sits in the Oval Office”.
At this interview, Tan says she is tired of news coming out of Donald Trump’s administration. Just days before, the president had announced that he would end the programme that protects young, undocumented immigrants from deportation known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or Daca; these young people are often described as Dreamers.
Tan takes the issue personally. Her parents overstayed their student visas, as evidenced by a folder of increasingly urgent paperwork in her office.
“I sort of knew that something had to be done and they weren’t quite legal,” she said. “But I did not understand what peril they were in until I took out the files.”
Tan and her husband of 43 years, Lou DeMattei, are also hosting, in their old house, an employee and friend of 10 years, a so-called “dreamer” with a young family.
“It’s my thing, my way of doing something personal about Daca,” Tan says.
At first glance, the house Tan and DeMattei share is a Zen Arts and Crafts-style retreat perched on the steep hillside and built in 2012. Its windows face east, overlooking a bay and a few bird feeders. Hummingbirds stopped by, flitting, fighting.
But its design anticipates disaster. In case of an earthquake, steel beams. In case of injury, wide doorways make room for a wheelchair. In case of more metaphysical concerns, a curved entry gate modelled after Chinese architecture wards off evil spirits.
Tan runs her fingers along the thin railings guarding floor-to-ceiling bookshelves outside the master bedroom. “I came up with this idea,” she says. “If we had an earthquake, you don’t want books to fall and trap you.”
Tan grins as she talks about preparing for an earthquake. (“It’s fun to think about – fun in a Girl Scout way.”)
“I think about death every day,” she says.
“It’s nothing I think about with a great deal of fear, although sometimes I imagine it and say to myself, that’s unbelievable, that one day I won’t be here in this room.”
In one journal entry, at age 24, Tan wrote: “My own death seems so remote – like a faraway foreign place – separated from the here by distance of time.”
Then, at age 50: “I have a sense of my life as a percentage of what has been used and what is likely left.”
“Every day, I think about the fact that I will one day die,” she journaled at age 60. “Every day I think about the possibility I will lose my brain.”
If she were to get dementia, worries might give way to happiness, as they did for her mother, who died in 1999.
“I say this absolutely sincerely, that my mother had a wonderful time with her dementia,” Tan says.
But years back, Lyme disease left Tan unable to tie two thoughts together. That’s what truly scares Tan, a writer of words, a thinker of ideas: “Not being able to write, not able to think, not able to observe things anymore.” – JENNA ROSS/ Star Tribune/Tribune News Service