The bestselling author of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and ‘The Valley of Amazement’, Amy Tan, recounts her turbulent relationship with her mother, Daisy Li, and revisits traumatic childhood memories—her mother’s mood swings and frequent breakdowns, the death of her older brother, Peter, followed by the death of her father—in her memoir ‘Where the Past Begins’.
I love Amy Tan. I feel she’s one of the finest writers we have today. Her prose is smooth and reading is thus effortless. Even though I might not have liked where a certain story was headed, I’ve always been in love with her writing. ‘The Kitchen God’s Wife’ and ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ are two of my all-time favorite books. (Here, I must confess I have quite a long list of favorites.)
I always found myself wondering about Tan and her upbringing and conditioning while reading her books. What experiences enable her to write so extensively and imaginatively about women? How does she set a scene? And, most importantly, why does she feel the need to write? I was hoping I would find these answers when I came across her memoir. I wasn’t disappointed.
The book starts with a series of exchanges between Tan and her editor, Daniel Halpern, and moves on to her family’s immigrant story, with mentions of her half-sisters in China and her grandmother, before she takes up imagination and how she finally took the writer’s path. Though hers wasn’t a conventional career choice for a child of immigrants (her parents, who migrated to the United States from China, wanted her to be a neurosurgeon), she is glad she was able to fulfil her parent’s dream—she bought her mother her own house.
Besides insights about the writing process, Tan gives you glimpses into the life of a professional writer. You would be surprised to know that even for a successful author like Tan “each successive book is increasingly difficult to write”. She also writes about the inspiration for her characters and stories of The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement. These bits give you a deeper understanding of how a writer’s mind works and leave you inspired.
At the beginning of the book, Tan confesses she did not want to write a memoir but Halpern thought it would be a good idea. So he urged her to write non-fiction pieces on her creative process. They made a deal—Tan was to send him a minimum of 15 pages a week. Tan started digging through old photos and documents and this unleashed something in her. She began writing about her childhood experiences and of those recurring moments of self-doubt while working on a novel. The memoir is a compilation of the pages Tan sent to Halpern, which is why there are occasional glitches. But the writing is raw and candid and you can’t help fall in love with Tan once again.