I have read Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” (JLC) and “The Kitchen God’s Wife“. A little late for JLC considering it was published 20 years ago! JLC had went on to become a compulsory read for literature students in USA. So students had wrote theses on JLC writing literary review and private history of Amy Tan. The Kitchen God’s Wife was a good read. All her novels are delightful easy read. But to read “The Opposite of Fate” will result you in wearing a new glasses and you will never look at Amy Tan the same way again.
Amy Tan wrote JLC in a prose of colloquial English spoken by Chinese. It is inevitable that the first reader impression was that Tan’s command of English is not as proficient than a native English speaker. I am embarrassed to say that I have misjudged her. First there is absolute no necessity to narrate a good story in the Queen’s English, although beautiful prose does appeal to the heart. But Tan is sharing the wisdom of life, not so much about beautiful literary prose.
This book is an autobiography. Sectionalised by topics, and it is presented in spurts of short article. Not continuous but with a common thread, mostly about her mother (we will come to take later). Some interesting eye-openers for me are as follows:
- Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952, two and a half years after her parents immigrated to the United States. Her father, an electrical engineer in Peking, received a scholarship to MIT, but chose instead to go to Divinity School to become a Baptist Minister. Her mother, who came from a wealthy Shanghai family, worked nights as a licensed vocational nurse.
- Amy Tan is studies Linguistic, works as a Language development consultant and a freelance business writer, until she met Faith Sale, her editor, and worked on her first book. Her writings for her memoir are impeccable, absolutely spot-on than most English writers I know; which is very different from the prose she used for her earlier books.
- She had stayed married to her one and only husband, Lou DeMattei, since 1970. 38 years of togetherness, 34 years of marriage.
- She had a turbulent childhood and adolescene, perpatetic with death of her father and brother of brain tumour. Her mother’s haunting convoluted past and frequent melodramatic threats of suicide.
- The first 2 books she had written, which is the only 2 I have read so far, are true stories disguised as fiction of her own experience and her mother’s past.
- Her early reading influence by her father (same for me!), and a love for dictionary, which I find similar to my predilection. That probably explained in this book, she uses many big words.
Some of the flaws of this book and about Amy is that :
- because it is a collection of essays and articles, she tends to repeat herself frequently especially about her mother, which brings me to the following point.
- I do understand when one love their mothers. But Amy’s obsession with her mother is exasperating and unsettling. I think it is her attempt to reconcile her differences between her mother that she felt compelled to mull over the topic in-depth. I am sure with her mother’s eccentricity in believing in the supernatural and the superstition, including involving Amy to partake in occult practices such as Oajda board has a detrimental effect on the psychology of a young child. Had her father been alive, things would have turned out differently.
- There is one chapter she lamented that she felt boxed-in by people classifying her as ChineseAmerican writer who represent the voice for Chinese minority in the USA. Whatever she had to say, she forgot the consequence of writing all her books about Chinese culture and China, she is the one who boxed herself in a narrow influencing circle. Take for example Ang Lee, although he won an oscar for “The Crouching tiger, hidden dragon”, he had went on to direct notable action movies and classic stories i.e. Broken Arrow, Face-off, Sense & Sensibility. That, is what I called a “American” director.
- Her litany of lament and complaints about literature students studying too much and drawing out conclusions and trends which she didn’t think of in her first novel, may be valid, but if she kept going at it, the readers may eventually come into conclusion that her success is a fluke. Honesty and humility is good. But overdoing it may be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, especially by the Western culture who need to uphold a facade of competency, eventhough you may be uncertain about some matter that you wish to talk about.
Her adult experience are nonetheless morbid, consisting of death of several friends due to murder, accidents and sickness; and her near death experience of car accident, skiing, escaping from flood, robbed, rescued from drowning from sea of Cortez, stalked by fanatics and being diagnosed with Lyme disease in 1999.
The Opposite of Fate is a collection of Tan’s nonfiction pieces that includes essays, speeches, and many less-formal pieces. It is occasionally exasperating, intermittently fascinating, frequently illuminating, and a treasure-trove of personal information for readers who wish to compare and contrast the author’s life with those of her fictional characters.
I read her books because it resonates with my personal experiences, there are many a times her sentences stop me at my track. It was as if that was how I feel, and I had penned those words down myself.
“The truth is, I write for more self-serving reasons – that is, I write for myself. I write because I enjoy stories and make-believe. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably go crazy. Thus I write about questions that disturb me, images that mystify me, or memories that cause me anguish and pain. I write about secrets, lies, and contradictions, because within them are many kinds of truth. In other words, I write about life as I have misunderstood it.”
I thought about Eric’s spritual malaise, a common unease that plagues many from time to time, the longing to be special, the fear that one is not.
Her novels are written most of all for herself : she riffs on her own obsessions, and tries to bring order to her perception of the world. which is something I do all the time. I admire her as a writer, of what she achieved so far. I still love her books, and will read her other books only if it is just for the purpose of finding solace in knowing that I am not the only one who felt the same way.
I can only suppoe that if writers were responsible for people’s thoughts and for creating postive role models, we would then be in the business of writing propaganda, not art as fiction. Ficiton makes you think propaganda tells you how to think.