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Amy Tan is an author for whom place is crucial; events take on entirely different shapes depending on where they happen. It is ironic, then, that her birthplace was classically dismissed by Gertrude Stein with the characterization "There is no there there." Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952, to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was an electrical engineer who was also a Baptist minister; her mother worked as a vocational nurse. When she was 8, her essay, "What the Library Means to Me," won first prize among elementary school students, for which Tan received a transistor radio and publication in the local newspaper. When Amy was 14, both her father and her older brother developed brain tumors and died. Her mother tried to escape the apparent curse of her new surroundings by taking Amy to Switzerland. There, she was given a rich girl's education in a private school, and had a dramatic adolescent rebellion that (almost) found her eloping to Australia with a drug-dealing German mental patient.
After graduating in 1969, Tan and her mother returned to the States, where Amy again struggled with what was expected of her. The hope was that Amy would become a neurosurgeon who could give piano concerts, but none of that reflected goals that she had set for herself. She went her own route, attending San Jose State and Berkeley, studying literature and specializing in linguistics. At 22, she married Louis DeMattei, a tax attorney whom she had met on a blind date.
That all this is uncannily reminiscent of THE JOY LUCK CLUB is not an accident. That novel functions as a means by which the author can exorcise her family demons. In the novel, it seems that the more unbelievable events appear to be, the more likely it is that they were modeled on what Tan knew of her family, right down to the abandoned and unknown half-sisters left behind in China and the discovery at the time of her mother's death that she did not know her mother's real name. It is a heritage that has yielded mixed blessings; The Joy Luck Club and the subsequent novels have been painfully pulled out of a life that was not easy. "I remember being such an unhappy child," she says. Almost thirty years after her marriage, she has no children of her own, and her reluctance is both understandable and sobering: "I can't guarantee that I won't do the same things my mother did."
After college, Tan began working in the language field, notably as a consultant to programs designed to reach disabled children. She next became a freelance business writer specializing in corporate communications for such companies as AT&T, IBM, and Pacific Bell. She realized that she "had a way of writing that made me sound knowledgeable on any subject if I worked hard enough."
In 1985, when a psychiatrist treating Tan for her self-described workaholism fell asleep for the third time during one of their sessions, Tan quit therapy and decided to write fiction instead. Her short story "Rules of the Game" (later included in THE JOY LUCK CLUB) made her a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a California writers' workshop. When "End Game," was printed in Seventeen, it attracted the attention of a literary agent who encouraged Tan to continue writing fiction. In 1989, THE JOY LUCK CLUB was published and, through word-of-mouth endorsements by independent booksellers, became a surprise bestseller, logging more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Though Tan wrote the book as a collection of linked short stories, reviewers enthusiastically and erroneously referred to the book as an intricately woven "novel." The label stuck. THE JOY LUCK CLUB was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award, received the Commonwealth Gold Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, and was adapted into a feature film in 1993. Tan was co-producer and co-screenwriter for the film. THE JOY LUCK CLUB's publication allowed Tan to become exclusively a writer, and she has taken advantage of the opportunity. She has figured out how to transcend the troubled events of her own childhood and turn them into universal truths that have something important to say to all her varied readers. She reflects on her growing up: "Conflicts. Tragedies. . . . Difficulties. . . . You know, those are the things that make you either psychotic or a fiction writer."
Tan's second book, THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE, was published in 1991, followed by THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES in 1995, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER in 2001 and SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING in 2005. Her first work of nonfiction, THE OPPOSITE OF FATE, was published in 2003. Tan's short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Grand Street, Harper's, The New Yorker, Threepenny Review, and Ski, among others. Her books are often included as part of the multicultural curriculum of high schools and colleges, an honor which caused her much ambivalence and led her to writing a speech, "Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects," which she has since delivered in universities across the country. Her work has been translated into 35 languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew. In addition, Tan has written two children's books, THE MOON LADY (1992) and THE CHINESE SIAMESE CAT (1994), which became a children's television series for PBS called "Sagwa."
Her current work includes writing a new novel, collaborating on an original television pilot with director Wayne Wang and co-writer Ron Bass, and creating the libretto for THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER, which will premiere in September 2008 with the San Francisco Opera. Ms Tan's other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their "dubious talent," their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.
In her spare time, Tan enjoys downhill skiing, hiking, and travel to high adventure destinations. She often attends the Westminster Dog Show and was the co-owner of the number one ranked Yorkshire Terrier of 2002, Ch. TipTop Come Fly With Me ("Frankie"). Tan participates in numerous fundraising efforts for charitable organizations. In addition to her own ongoing battle with Lyme disease, she helped found LymeAid 4 Kids with the Lyme Disease Association, which provides funds for medical evaluation of children who are suspected of having Lyme disease.
Tan lives in San Francisco and New York with her husband, Lou DeMattei, and their two canine companions, Bubba and Lilli.
Compiled with permission
from Amy Tan and Novelist (EBSCO Publishing).