Tan in 2007
February 19, 1952
Oakland, California, U.S.
San Jose State University (BA, MA)|
UC Santa Cruz & UC Berkeley (dropped out)
|Notable works||The Joy Luck Club (1989)|
Amy Tan (born February 19, 1952) is an American writer whose works explore mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese American experience. Her novel The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a film in 1993 by director Wayne Wang.
Tan has written several other novels, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, Saving Fish from Drowning, and The Valley of Amazement. Tan's latest book is a memoir entitled Where The Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir (2017). In addition to these, Tan has written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series that aired on PBS.
Tan was born in Oakland, California. She is the second of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan. Her father was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who traveled to the United States in order to escape the chaos of the Chinese Civil War. Tan attended Marian A. Peterson High School in Sunnyvale for one year. When she was fifteen years old, her father and older brother Peter both died of brain tumors within six months of each other.
Daisy subsequently moved Amy and her younger brother, John Jr., to Switzerland, where Amy finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa, Montreux. During this period, Amy learned about her mother's previous marriage to another man in China, of their four children (a son who died as a toddler and three daughters), and how her mother left these children behind in Shanghai. This incident was the basis for Tan's first novel The Joy Luck Club. In 1987, Amy traveled with Daisy to China. There, Amy met her three half-sisters.
Tan had a difficult relationship with her mother. At one point, Daisy held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her while the two were arguing over Amy's new boyfriend. Her mother wanted Tan to be independent, stressing that Tan needed to make sure she was self-sufficient. Tan later found out that her mother had three abortions while in China. Daisy often threatened to kill herself, saying that she wanted to join her mother (Tan's grandmother, who also committed suicide). She attempted suicide but never succeeded. Daisy died in 1999.
Tan and her mother did not speak for six months after Tan dropped out of the Baptist college her mother had selected for her, Linfield College in Oregon, to follow her boyfriend to San Jose City College in California. Tan met him on a blind date and married him in 1974. Tan later received bachelor's and master's degrees in English and linguistics from San Jose State University. She also participated in doctoral studies in linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, but abandoned her doctoral studies in 1976.
While in school, Tan worked odd jobs--serving as a switchboard operator, carhop, bartender, and pizza maker--before starting a writing career. As a freelance business writer, she worked on projects for AT&T, IBM, Bank of America, and Pacific Bell, writing under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms.
While Tan was studying at Berkeley, her roommate was murdered, and Tan had to identify the body. The incident left her temporarily mute. She claimed that every year for ten years, on the day she identified the body, she lost her voice.
In 1998, Tan contracted Lyme disease, which went misdiagnosed for a few years. As a result, she suffers complications like epileptic seizures. Tan co-founded LymeAid 4 Kids, which helps uninsured children pay for treatment. She wrote about her life with Lyme disease in The New York Times.
Tan also suffers from depression, for which she takes antidepressants. Part of the reason that Tan chose not to have children was a fear that she would pass on a genetic legacy of mental instability - her maternal grandmother committed suicide, her mother threatened suicide often, and she herself has struggled with suicidal ideation.
Tan resides in San Francisco, California, with her husband in a house they designed "to feel open and airy, like a tree house, but also to be a place where we could live comfortably into old age" with accessibility features. Tan has recently taken up drawing and has shared her art on social media.
Tan sang with the Rock Bottom Remainders before they retired from touring.
Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, consists of sixteen related stories about the experiences of four Chinese American mother-daughter pairs. Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, also focuses on the relationship between an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter. Tan's third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, was a departure from the first two novels, in focusing on the relationships between sisters. Tan's fourth novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, returns to the theme of an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.
Tan's work has been adapted into several different forms of media. The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a play in 1993; that same year, director Wayne Wang adapted the book into a film. The Bonesetter's Daughter was adapted into an opera in 2008. Tan's children's book Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat was adapted into a PBS animated television show.
Though she has won several awards for her work, Tan has also received substantial criticism for her "complicity in perpetuating racial stereotypes and misrepresentations as well as gross inaccuracies in recalling details of the Chinese cultural heritage". Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that Tan's novels "appear to possess the authority of authenticity but are often products of the American-born writer's own heavily mediated understanding of things Chinese". Another writer stated that the popularity of Tan's work can mostly be attributed to Western consumers "who find her work comforting in its reproduction of stereotypical images".
The often negative depiction of Chinese culture and Chinese men in Tan's work has raised eyebrows, with one scholar going so far as to say that the storylines of her novels "demonstrate a vested interest in casting Chinese men in the worst possible light". This, in addition to the lack of cultural and historical accuracy in Tan's work, has led several writers and scholars to accuse Tan of "pandering to the popular imagination" of Westerners regarding Chinese people.