Amy Tan has had more reminders of mortality than most. As a teenager, her father and brother both died of brain tumours within a year. As a student an intruder broke into her apartment and tortured and murdered her roommate. And when she was growing up she learned how her grandmother committed suicide in China by eating raw opium when her own mother was just nine years old.
‘Their deaths had profound effects on my life,’ recalls Tan in her soft American twang, speaking on the phone from her home in the States. ‘One of the reasons I write is that I have a constant sense of mortality. Death is not a curse, it is simply a point where you stop breathing. Your memory of the past ceases. It is really [a death] of consciousness and memories and feeling.’ For Tan the act of writing is above all a ‘way of maintaining the continuity of one’s existence’.
It is also a way to make a mark on an all too transitional world. In this, Tan has been wildly successful. Born in America to Chinese parents (her mother was a nurse, her father a Baptist minister), Tan published her debut novel,The Joy Luck Club, in 1989. The book, based on her mother’s close-knit group of immigrant friends, sat on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 77 weeks. Other hits, including The Bonesetter’s Daughter and The Kitchen God’s Wife, followed, and Tan has been credited with kickstarting a wave of soul searching Chinese-American writing.
Now Tan has a new novel out – her first in eight years. The Valley of Amazement’s protagonist is the mixed-race Violet Minturn. She grows up in cosseted luxury in an elite Shanghai courtesan house run by her American mother. But when her mother accidently abandons her while returning home to the US, Violet must become a courtesan herself.
The Valley of Amazement treads on familiar territory for Amy Tan fans. Covering two continents and half a century, it is an epic exploration of her trademark themes: Chinese-American identity, fraught mother-daughter relations, and the never-ending search for love. But the novel is also a result of serendipity. Tan was writing an altogether different book when she came across an old photo. In the image a group of courtesans known as the Ten Beauties of Shanghai pose in elaborate costumes. Half were decked out in silk jackets, with pearl-decorated headpieces.
For Tan the discovery was shocking because the outfits were nearly identical to that which her own Shanghainese grandmother – a widow compelled into concubinage who killed herself – wore in a photograph the author owned. ‘It caused me to wonder whether my grandmother had been a courtesan,’ says Tan. ‘What I now had was a mystery. It changed everything. I abandoned the other book and started over.’
Tan never found out the truth. But the coincidence inspired her to dig deeper into the lives of women in turn-of- the-century Shanghai who were forced to sell themselves to survive. For many their time was short and brutal; girls were often kidnapped or sold into sexual slavery. The luckier ones became the subjects of tabloid society pages and ended up as concubines to rich patrons. Yet the book is ‘not about, “Oh isn’t this titillatingly interesting?”’ insists Tan. ‘It had more to do with how a life like this affected [a woman’s] sense of self, and the strength and fragilities she might have had. For me it was a novel looking at identity.’
Tan believes that her grandmother was ‘shaped by her history and traumas, and her opportunities, and the lack of them’. Her uncle has told her that he joined the Chinese Communist Party as a young man in the 1930s because he wanted to change the traditional society that had made his mother a victim. In writing her book she tried to ‘imagine the voice my grandmother had and what she would have wanted to say’.
Forming the emotional core of the novel is the strained relationship between daughter and mother; a relationship defined by absence. Tan’s own mother, Daisy, was abandoned when her grandmother committed suicide. Yet when Daisy escaped from an abusive relationship, fleeing China for America in 1949, she herself left behind children who she did not see again for another 30 years.
Tan only met her half-sisters when she was in her mid-thirties. With a mother who was controlling and often mercilessly critical, Tan’s childhood was far from easy. But life for her siblings was tougher. They grew up under the shadow of Mao with a father who mistreated them and was later jailed for the rape of young girls. Tan has often wondered whether a child could ever ‘completely forgive a mother who had abandoned them – for whatever reason’. It is a question repeatedly raised in her new book.
As such The Valley of Amazement is largely about disillusion. The title is taken from a series of idyllic paintings created by Violet’s Chinese father, which represent ‘those junctures when we look at the future, when we are actually approaching a scene and we look at the storm clouds and maybe see a bit of golden light in the distance. That is your imagined life in the future, which may simply be an illusion,’ says Tan.
It is a pessimistic view. But while The Valley of Amazement is filled with ache and longing, Tan has learned to be happy with her lot in her own life. She is thoughtful, generous and bubbly, and thankful that she has been married to the same man for 40 years. She credits her prosperity to ‘luck: a force, an entity, a consciousness, a form of love that goes beyond what we understand and that I have been bestowed with’.
But perhaps it is not luck, but a drive to create before life fizzles out, that really explains Tan’s success. Reflecting on her involvement with the Hollywood version of The Joy Luck Club, she says, ‘So many people I know devote their lives to making movies and never see them made – I would never want to feel that way about my life. That I wasted time.’
Photograph: David Sifry