Thursday, October 19, 2017

Amy Tan in conversation with Deborah Tannen

Amy Tan was at Sixth and I last night as part of a Politics and Prose and George Mason partnership.  Deborah Tannen - author of books on language - and Amy Tan met in the Linguistics PhD program back in the day and have stayed friends. Tannen is now a professor at Georgetown and Tan is, well, acclaimed author Amy Tan.  Their long friendship was clear. Tan spoke about how when she was in the worst phase of her Lyme disease, she couldn't write.  So her prior memoir had been compiled from previously written pieces that just needed little touches.  Now that her Lyme is well-managed, her editor suggested another memoir, and he said they could just throw together some of their long email exchanges and give folks a glimpse into the writer/editor relationship. 
So contracts were signed and ultimately, while she did include some emails, she felt she really needed to do some writing.  That emails alone would not a good book make. So she made a deal with her editor that she would send him stuff every week and he was not allowed to comment on it unless something in there was egregious and he really felt she needed redirecting.  He would send her pictures of the pile. She had been planning to call it a Writer's Memoir, and he started calling it Where the Past Begins, and she asked where he got that, and he said, that was in your last pages.  
Tannen mentioned that the mother daughter relationship had been so present in so much of Tan's work, but that here she also looked at her relationship with her father.  Tan said she had a lot of memorabilia, and found her father's diary, and lots of documents that in retrospect added context or shifted her understanding of parts of her childhood.  She also discussed that the week of the election last year was a tough writing week as she pondered how would her father have voted.  (As someone who also had a conservative father, a former real estate person no less, I confess I have wondered this a lot too.) Tan's father had been a conservative evangelical, but she hoped that also the treatment of immigrants, watching her own struggles with healthcare might have also factored into his voting. 
Tan remembered while writing this book that she had been given a test in grade school that her parents told her meant she was destined to become a neurosurgeon.  She said upon reflection it occurred to her that this might not have been the kind of test the Oakland school system was offering young children, so she googled and discovered that someone had done a study of early readers in the Oakland school system and, as an early reader, she had been a test case.  She read the book, and while the names were changed, she was able to recognize her family and see that her parents were worried that they had broken a rule, letting her learn to read early (at the time there were concerns about early exposure to reading, hence the study) and, when she found the papers indicating that her parents had overstayed their student visas and risked deportation, she realized that her parents were very worried that this woman who wanted to talk about their daughter's reading habits was really up to something else.  Tan said she doesn't really want to know what would have happened if she hadn't spent much of her life thinking she was destined to be a neurosurgeon, since that made her who she is and that maybe she would have become an unhappy neurosurgeon if she hadn't been told that.  
They took questions from the audience, including one from a fan of her children's series.  Tan said writing for children is tough because you may want to make a point, but you can't do it being didactic or prescriptive, you have to create a tale that's fun and maybe also contains a lesson.  Another audience member said she was second generation herself and worried that she wasn't sufficiently Asian sometimes and wondered if Tan felt that way.  Tan said that yes, she had felt that way.  And that when she published the Joy Luck Club she waited for folks to show up and tell her that she got things wrong.  But that her mother had said that she thought her mother, Tan's grandmother's spirit must have dictated the story to her, so she knew it felt that good to her mother. 
It was a great evening.