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 adjusting...living
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.
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.
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
Tan's career as a business writer boomed. After
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.
first story, Endgame, won her admission to the Squaw Valley writer's
workshop taught by novelist Oakley Hall. The story appeared in FM,
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.
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."
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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