Exploring Her Past
Amy Tan has a new memoir.
Photo by Robert Foothorap
Already an autobiographical author, Amy Tan opens wide the literary treasure box in a new book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. Delving into intricacies of linguistics, lexicon, musical lyricism, Loony Tunes cartoons, long-ago letters, love, and life, the best-selling novelist (The Joy Luck Club, The Valley of Amazements, and others) sheds light filtered through shadow. Where the Past Begins reveals Tan’s habits—of writing, sleeping curled up with beloved family dogs, dismissing interpretations of her work before reading them, repeatedly falling in love with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 and the key of D minor in general, and more.
Expectedly, for readers familiar with Tan’s mother-daughter, Chinese-American experience-centered novels, or the film adaptation of Joy Luck and the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter (premiered with San Francisco Opera in 2008), the prisms of her real-life stories are mostly painful. There are long-held lies told by her parents about their status, occupations, education, family history; turmoil caused by living with a mother with mental illness; the loss of her father and older brother to brain tumors; and self-deceptions she exfoliates like an interrogator turned ruthlessly on herself. All the while, Tan casts a signature spell with recollections like that of “ice bells” in Homer, Ala. Shard-like frozen seawater, stacked up like candles, tinkles mysteriously as it hits the shore. Deviations that in an advance copy of the book are called “Interstitial-Interludes” or “Quirks,” address fate, feelings, fears—her greatest is losing the ability to write and thereby casting stories begun but not completed into terminal half-hood.
The book’s structure is refreshingly sparse; the emotion veers from primarily raw, often scorching to warm, light, humorous. The weakest element, a series of emails exchanged with her editor, Dan Halpern, holds initial promise. Fascinating, dry humor and a discussion of hedonistic episodes to include—or not—trail into less substantial matters without adding insight. But overall, Tan’s purpose is enlightenment. She writes that for her, storytelling slakes a need for meaning. And that is why there is reason to celebrate an opportunity to look at the world through her eyes. Sometimes, through shared vision of writer and reader, life’s many meanings can be recognized and understood.
Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir by Amy Tan (Ecco, October 2017, 368 pp., $28.99)