The Valley of Amazement: Writer Amy Tan talks about how her new novel came to be—and she discusses with writer Ron Hansen how Santa Clara figured into the origins of her first, groundbreaking novel, The Joy Luck Club. From the 2012–13 SCU President’s Speaker Series.
Santa Clara and the beginnings of The Joy Luck Club
Read much more: Amy Tan’s full speech and her conversation with Ron Hansen.
I lived in Santa Clara from 1964 to 1968; those were pivotal years. I was talking to a class earlier today about issues related to the novel and what happens between a certain number of pages from beginning to the end. One of the things I said had to do with your voice and what you notice during your life, starting with childhood, and all of the things that seem magical and then later prove to be fact.
There was a magical time to during the period 1964 to 1968 when—well, I’ll just tell you what happened. The setting is a house, a duplex in Santa Clara where I lived with my mother and my father, my older brother, Peter, and my younger brother, John. My brother Peter was the smart one. He played the piano well and was treasurer of his senior class. I followed in his footsteps; I became secretary of my freshman class.
My father was, as mentioned, an engineer. He was also an ordained Baptist minister. But he didn’t have a ministry—he would volunteer. He came from a family in China of 12 children and he was the oldest. My grandfather spoke perfect English. It was the language he first learned to read and write because he went to a missionary school. Everyone on that side of the family, the Tan family, was very religious, including my father.
My father was perfect. He could sing and he could speak English perfectly. Characters like that—people like that in your life—don’t make good characters because you don’t want perfect people. My mother, on the other hand, was not perfect. My mother was born in Shanghai and was the daughter of a woman who lost her husband during the Spanish influenza pandemic. Her mother became a widow and, the story goes, she was forced to become the fourth wife to a rich man and later, after her son was born, she killed herself. And my mother watched this happen—mother was nine years old.
My mother was later married to a man—throughout my life I knew him as that bad man—and anything that I learned about dating or men or pregnancy related to that bad man, which basically meant that I would end up in jail wanting to kill myself.
My parents came to the United States in 1949. I did not know a lot of these things—they’re backstory, so to speak. I didn’t know that my mother, for example, had been married before and that she had three daughters she had left behind. I didn’t know that her mother had killed herself. She told me that my grandmother had been the first wife of a rich man who died accidentally.
I am now a child in 1964. I’ve grown up all my life in the Bay Area. I think I’m just like every other kid in my school. There are no other Chinese kids there. I am a little embarrassed because my mother cooks five-course Chinese meals and does not let us have frozen dinners. I was from a family that didn’t have a lot of money. We never went on vacation. If we went to a restaurant, it was often these $1.99 buffets—all you can eat. In the summers, I would read and watch caterpillars turn into cocoons and watch them hatch. I went to church every single day. I went to Bible study, choir practice, youth night—that was my life.
Everything changed one year when my brother became ill. Now, there’s a point in a story I call “what happened?” Stories don’t always begin chronologically. It has to do with pivotal moments in your life—not that you are writing about these pivotal moments, but your stories somehow keep coming back to those pivotal times that formed you as a person and as a writer. For me, that was the year 1967, in Santa Clara, when everything came together: my mother and my father and what they believed and what I had been learning, how I was this kid who was your typical teen growing up. And I had to ask myself what was happening and why this was happening and how this had happened: My brother had a brain tumor.
Now, my father’s religious beliefs came into all of this; he believed that there would be a miracle. It was a test of God and there would be a miracle if we believed enough. My mother also believed in a miracle, but secretly she also wondered if somehow we had done something, or she had done something, that had angered her mother or another relative. My mother, in fact, believed in ghosts. She didn’t talk about this, except in very oblique ways. For example, when I was a little girl, about 6 years old, she would protect us from all kinds of bad things in the world, though she believed that ghosts were sort of good.
When I was 4, somebody came over for the Joy Luck Club meeting and I wanted to stay up. She said, “No, you have to go to bed and wash your face and brush your teeth.” And I said, “I can’t go in there.” She asked, “Why?” And I said, “Well, there’s a ghost in there.” I had made this up. She took me to the bathroom, she turned on the light, and asked, “Where? Where is she?” My mother thought from then on that I could speak to ghosts. It was this thing that really frightened me when I was younger.
My mother also thought that I was somebody who came back from a past life to haunt her because she had done something terrible to [a former] me and I came back to torment her, to torture her.
She was a mother who always protected us. Like all kids, if we were to cross the street, we had to look both ways. But my mother would add a little emphasis so we would never forget. She would say, “You don’t look, you get smashed flat just like a pom-pom fish, both eyes on one side of your head.”
See, you never, ever forget things like that.
Her advice for not going crazy about boys was: “Don’t ever let a boy kiss you, because maybe you like and you can’t stop and then you’re going to have a baby. And you’re going to be so ashamed you’re going to put the baby in a garbage can. And then police going to come, take you away to jail for the rest of your life. You might as well kill yourself right now.” I didn’t know what that meant. I barely knew what the real stuff meant. And I was thinking to myself, What is so good that you can’t stop? That was the message.
So my mother, the protector of our family, was trying to find out the answer to what happened and why did this happen and how did this happen and how can I make this go away and not happen?
Well, despite all these things and all the prayers that my father had and the congregation had, my brother did not get better. In fact, my father came down with a brain tumor. It was so strange. In those days, people just didn’t get brain tumors. It’s really spiked up recently, but it was a very rare thing to have two very bad brain tumors in the same family.
My mother asked the doctor, “Why did this happen?” He said the worst thing possible: “We don’t know, Mrs. Tan. It’s just a lot of bad luck.” She went looking for the reason for that bad luck.