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Amy Tan

Amy Tan is not your typical American writer success story.  Born in Oakland, California, on Feb. 19, 1952, her family lived in several communities in northern California before finally settling in Santa Clara.  All that moving around was rough on the young girl, who later said, "I moved every year, so I was constantly in my own imagination."

Born to Chinese immigrants, Tan led an atypical life.  Her father, John, was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who came to America to escape the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War.  The frenetic early life of her mother, Daisy, inspired Tan's novel, The Kitchen God's Wife.  In China, Daisy had divorced an abusive husband but lost custody of her three daughters.  She was forced to leave them behind when she escaped on the last boat to leave Shanghai before the Communist takeover in 1949.  Her marriage to John Tan produced three children, including Amy and her two brothers.

When Amy's father and oldest brother died of brain tumors within a year of each other, Daisy moved her surviving children to Switzerland, where Amy finished high school, although mother and daughter were constantly squabbling.

The two stopped speaking for six months when Tan left the Baptist college her mother had selected for her to attend.  Tan abandoned the pre-med course her mother had wanted her to pursue in exchange for English and linguistics classes.  She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in these fields at San Jose State University.  In 1974, she and her boyfriend, Louis DeMattei, were married and moved to San Francisco.

DeMattei, an attorney, practiced tax law while Tan studied for a doctorate in linguistics, first at the University of California at Santa Cruz and later at Berkeley.  She left the doctoral program in 1976 to pursue a job as a language development consultant to the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens.  Later, she directed a training project for developmentally disabled children.

With a partner, she started a business writing firm, providing speeches for salesmen and executives for large corporations.  After a dispute with her partner, who believed she should give up writing to concentrate on the management side of the business, she became a full-time freelance writer.  Among her business works, written under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms, was a 26-chapter booklet called Telecommunications and You, produced for IBM.

Tan's career as a business writer boomed.  After several years, she had saved enough money to buy a house for her mother.  She and her husband lived well on their joint incomes, but the harder Tan worked at her business, the more dissatisfied she became.  The work had become a compulsive habit and she sought relief in creative efforts.  She studied jazz piano, hoping to channel the musical training forced on her by her parents in childhood into a more personal expression.  She also began writing fiction.

Her first story, Endgame, won her admission to the Squaw Valley writer's workshop taught by novelist Oakley Hall.  The story appeared in FM, a literary magazine, and was reprinted in Seventeen.  A literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, was impressed enough with Tan's second story, Waiting Between the Trees, to take her on as a client. Dijkstra encouraged Tan to complete an entire volume of stories.

As Tan was beginning her new career, her mother grew seriously ill.  Tan promised herself that if she recovered, she would take her mother to China to see the daughter who had been left behind almost forty years before.  Daisy regained her health, and mother and daughter departed for China in 1987. 

The trip was eye-opening for Tan.  It gave her a new perspective on her often-difficult relationship with her mother and inspired her to complete the book of stories she had promised her agent.

On the basis of the completed chapters and a synopsis of the others, Dijkstra found a publisher for the book, now called The Joy Luck Club.  With a $50,000 advance from G.P. Putnam's Sons, Tan quit business writing and finished her book in a little more than four months.

Upon its publication in 1989, Tan's book won enthusiastic reviews and spent eight months on the New York Times best-seller list.  Paperback rights sold for $1.23 million.  The book has been translated into 17 languages, including Chinese.  Her subsequent novel, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), confirmed her reputation and garnered good sales.  Since then Amy Tan has published two books for children, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cat, as well as the adult novel, The Hundred Secret Senses (1998).

The following year, Daisy died in her San Francisco home.  By the time of her death, she was not only Tan's mother but also her muse, her conscience, and a constant and confounding mystery.  Daisy was 83 years old, her memory, her health, but not her indefatigable humor tainted by Alzheimer's disease.  She had been a woman of infinite superstitions and nearly epic fears.

She had also been a woman of stories.

Daisy provided her daughter with enough conflict, dialogue, and characters for a lifetime of writing.  Even now, her mother's voice, which Tan emulates to perfection--the accent, the comical diction--remains strong in the daughter's mind.  The mother, Tan learned while researching her obituary, led many lives and harbored numerous secrets.  Among them: Daisy Tan was not her real name.  Her real name was Li Bingzi. Her death, then, brought Tan not only pain but also wonder. 

"My mother's many names were vestiges of her many selves, lives I have been excavating most of my adult life," Tan wrote in a New York Times essay concerning her dilemma.  "What I know about myself is related to what I know about her, her secrets...and with each discovery I had to reconfigure the growing whole."

Out of that experience came Tan's novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001).  Enjoying a break in the whirlwind publicity tour surrounding the book's release, Tan spoke from her Presidio Heights home in San Francisco, where she sat in her office at the top of a steep flight of stairs.  "My Stairmaster," she joked of her daily back-and-forth trek.  "It's about the only exercise I get."

Today, Tan lives and works in San Francisco and New York with her husband, their cat, Sagwa, and their dog, Mr. Zo.

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