The best-selling novelist considers the message of her work and her place in the AAPI community.
Amy Tan’s 1989 debut bestseller “The Joy Luck Club” catapulted her to commercial and critical success, with her story of four Chinese mothers and daughters living in San Francisco spending over 40 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. Told through archival imagery including home movies, personal photographs and original interviews, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is an intimate portrait of Tan’s inspiring story that celebrates the groundbreaking author’s life and career. In an exclusive interview, Tan speaks with Dr. Pam Eddinger, GBH trustee and president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA, on how her work relates to her identity.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In your book, you said that you felt compelled by a subconscious neediness. What does that mean?
Amy Tan: Neediness is always there. It's perpetual. You're always starving for some kind of answer, but it really started in childhood. I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't question things. I thought it was normal for everybody to question.
And perhaps it came from my father a bit. He was a minister and he questioned himself: "Am I being good enough?" I didn't question myself in quite that way. Although, I might say, "Who is this God? And what does he think of me? And why does he think that?" I would ask myself, "Why am I being treated this way? What did I do? If I intended to be good, but I'm perceived as bad, why is that?"
Or if somebody called me a racist name, and I'm 6 years old and they say I'm a chink, or worse. I think, "What makes me different? What is being Chinese?" I would look at my leg: "Is this a Chinese leg?" "If I eat too much Chinese food, will I become more Chinese?" Those are the early questions that have a lot to do with identity.
I can look at those same questions from childhood and ask questions about who I was as a [child] or why we end up believing certain things based on what's told to us. My thing in life was not to believe; to ask the questions and find the answers myself.
Do you ever feel pressured to be the spokesperson for the Asian American community because of the high position that you have in the writing world?
There are expectations. And I understand them – that if you are public, that you have the opportunity to speak for a larger number of people, especially in regards to social justice.
I'm very careful, however, because there are people who think, "What right does she have to represent us?" And, as we know, the AAPI community is not homogenous. We're many different peoples from many cultures, and we share some things in common. We are linked, but we have to keep that in mind.
I cannot speak for the whole AAPI community. I can talk about and bring awareness to the needs [of the community]. [I’ve been] working with some, or been part of, organizations like the Asian Pacific Fund or Family Service Agency and their people, who serve populations that need additional help. And I can talk to that, or I can do campaigning for candidates who are AAPI, which I think is incredibly important. I can speak somewhat to racism. But I can't do everything. I cannot assume I know everything, and I can't speak for everybody.
So many people love your books. When I read your books, I said, "Oh my God, that's my mom. That's my family." But I'm wondering if it's particular of Asian American culture or if it's the universal mother-daughter dynamic.
I have my reasons for writing. A lot of it is discovering how all of these events in my life, and even the events in my mother's life and my grandmother's life, has led to a transference of many elements. Whether it's a way to deal with a tragedy, or turmoil. Not to be pummeled by bad things that people voiced on you or that naturally occur, but to realize and to take those choices.
I think that within my intentions for writing did involve a mother. The only mother I've had, who happens to be Chinese American and an immigrant. And so people identified with that. People who had immigrant parents, Chinese or other. And people would identify [with] being a daughter, with a mother they didn't always get along with. Or a mother whose daughter was not grateful for what they tried to pass on. And all of those emotional situations, emotional conflicts, I believe, are what people identified with and why they found the book relevant and wanted to read it.