‘American Masters’ looks at storyteller Amy Tan

Rick's Reviews

Amy Tan is the subject of the next episode of “American Masters” on PBS. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

(KGET) — Amy Tan has proof – through an interview done with her parents – that she has been a storyteller since she was 6 years old. What started as drawings used to support stories that she would tell her family eventually blossomed into a career as a best-selling novelist with the likes of “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Moon Lady.” Her work has been translated into 35 different languages.

Tan’s literary career has been so impressive, it attracted the attention of the producers of the PBS series “American Masters.” An examination of her life will be presented in “American Masters – Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” scheduled to be broadcast at 9 p.m. May 3 on ValleyPBS.  

Despite her passion for telling stories, Tan never thought she would be a writer.

“There was no model out there.  There were barely women out there who were acknowledged as writers, let alone an Asian American,” Tan says. “So no, I never dreamed that at all.  It seemed impossible.

“It wasn’t until I was a business writer and writing about things that didn’t matter to me – telecommunications, account management – that I thought to do something that was much more meaningful to me.  And the craft of writing reading stories appealed to me, and so I did begin writing short stories just for myself for personal enjoyment, and found that a surprising thing happened.  And that was that if I made revelations, I discovered things about myself that were quite meaningful.  Such elation when I found out.  And at that moment, I was a writer.”

The short stories Tan began to write – inspired by talks she had with her immigrant mother – became the source for her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, in 1989. The book spent 40 weeks on The New York Times best seller list. The “American Masters” documentary looks at her life before and after the release of her first novel through home movies, photographs, animation and original interviews.

Tan talks about traumas she’s faced in her life and how her writing has helped her heal. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Oakland, California in 1952, it would be decades before Tan would come to fully understand how her mother’s battle with suicidal tendencies was rooted in a legacy of suffering common to women who survived the ancient Chinese tradition of concubinage.

“So, looking back, I got to experience not only being with immigrants, but the kinds of secrets that immigrant families that are illegal will have,” Tan says. “I did not know about my mother’s daughters back in China.  I did not know she was married before.  So many different things.  That’s part, I think, of that kind of immigrant experience.

“And yes, they talked about hopes.  They tried to make us feel like they had invested good money in those hopes, like with piano lessons. That we should try harder to make that worthwhile.  Did I satisfy their hopes?  Boy, by the time ‘Joy Luck Club’ came out my mother, you know, more than what she expected.  So yes.  Part of it was also to buy her a house and take care of her, and that I was able to fulfill for her. “

Along with Tan, those interviewed for the film include: fellow writers Kevin Kwan, Isabel Allende, Dave Barry and Ronald Bass; actors from “The Joy Luck Club” including Lisa Lu, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita and Kieu Chinh; friends and family. 

The publishing of The Joy Luck Club made Tan an instant celebrity. But, the journey to get to that place was filled with a lot of obstacles and self-doubt. Tan had no idea if her novel  would ever be published. She often felt like she was writing in a vacuum that held her and the machine in front of her.

What kept Tan going was that she was not writing for fame and/or fortune but out of a passion for crafting words into the kinds of stories she had been telling since she was a child. Along the way she would have an epiphany – what she refers to as an “ah-ha moment” – that gave her such a good feeling that she would continue to write.

“That feeling of being alone, alone in a room, was something I had loved since I was a child, and I was able to write quickly without a sense of expectation,” Tan says. “Once I got published and it was a surprise hit, surprise to everybody, really surprising to me, I found I lost the quiet room.  I had many people in there watching over me.  And that made it very difficult.

“I have found over the years that it is even more difficult with every book.  At one point I thought it was just me, but I asked a number of great writers if they felt that was true.  And they all feel it’s true.  You do not want to repeat yourself.  You want to get better.”

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