Amy Tan

Amy Tan

Biography of Amy Tan

Amy Tan, whose Chinese name, An-mei, means "blessing from America," was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the middle child and only daughter of John and Daisy Tan, who came to America from China in the late 1940s. Besides Amy, the Tans also had two sons — Peter, born in 1950, and John, born in 1954.

The family moved nearly every year, living in Oakland, Fresno, Berkeley, and San Francisco before settling in Santa Clara, California. Although John and Daisy rarely socialized with their neighbors, Amy and her brothers ignored their parents' objections and tried hard to fit into American society. "They wanted us to have American circumstances and Chinese character," Tan said in an interview with Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times (March 12, 1989).

Young Amy was deeply unhappy with her Asian appearance and heritage. She was the only Chinese girl in class from the third grade until she graduated from high school. She remembers trying to belong and feeling frustrated and isolated. "I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way," she remarked in a Los Angeles Times interview. In fact, she was so determined to look like an American girl that she even slept with a clothespin on her nose, hoping to slim its Asian shape. By the time Amy was a teenager, she had rejected everything Chinese. She even felt ashamed of eating "horrible" five-course Chinese meals and decided that she would grow up to look more American if she ate more "American" foods. "There is this myth," she said, "that America is a melting pot, but what happens in assimilation is that we end up deliberately choosing the American things — hot dogs and apple pie — and ignoring the Chinese offerings" (Newsweek, April 17, 1989).

Amy's parents had high expectations for her success. They decided that she would be a full-time neurosurgeon and part-time concert pianist. But they had not reckoned with her rebellious streak. Ever since she won an essay contest when she was eight years old, Amy dreamed of writing novels and short stories. Her dream seemed unlikely to become reality, however, after a series of tragedies shook her life. When Amy was fifteen years old, her older brother Peter and her father each died of brain tumors within the same year. Deciding that the remaining family needed to escape from the site of their tragedy, Daisy settled with Amy and her brother in Montreux, Switzerland.

The move intensified Amy's rebellion. "I did a bunch of crazy things," she told Elaine Woo. "I just kind of went to pieces." Perhaps the most dangerous was her relationship with an older German man who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime. Daisy had the man arrested for drug possession and got her daughter hauled before the authorities. Amy quickly severed all ties with the German.

A year later, Daisy, Amy, and John returned to San Francisco. In 1969, Amy enrolled in Linfield College, a small Baptist university in McMinnville, Oregon. Daisy selected the college because she believed it to be a safe haven for her daughter. A year later, however, Amy followed Louis DeMattei, her Italian-American boyfriend, to San Jose City College in California. Just as distressing to Daisy, Amy changed her major from pre-med to English and linguistics. Daisy was so upset that she and her daughter did not speak to each other for six months.

Amy then transferred to San Jose State University and earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. After completing her degrees, Amy married DeMattei, a tax attorney. Still not certain what path to pursue, she entered a doctoral program in linguistics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Berkeley, but left in 1976 to become a language-development consultant for the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens. It was not until the early 1980s that she became a business writer.

As with all fairy tales, The Joy Luck Club had an unlikely beginning. Tan's business writing venture was so successful that she was able to buy her mother a house. Yet, despite her happiness at being able to provide for her mother, she was not fulfilled in her work. "I measured my success by how many clients I had and how many billable hours I had," she told interviewer Jonathan Mandell. Secretly, Tan had always wanted to write fiction, but she had thrown herself so completely into her freelance career that she spent more than ninety hours a week at it. Early in 1985, Tan began to worry that she was devoting too much time to her business and started looking for a change. She decided to force herself to do another kind of writing. The turning point came a year later, when Tan's mother was hospitalized after a heart attack. "I decided that if my mother was okay, I'd get to know her. I'd take her to China, and I'd write a book." Her only previous forays into fiction were "vacation letters written to friends in which I tried to create little stories based on things that happened while I was away," she noted.

The same year, Tan wrote a short story, "Endgame," about a brilliant young chess champion who has a difficult relationship with her overprotective Chinese mother. Tan expanded the story into a collection, and it was sold to the prestigious publisher G.P. Putnam. Because of her huge advance — $50,000 — Tan dissolved her freelance business and completed the volume, which she named The Joy Luck Club. "I wrote it very quickly because I was afraid this chance would just slip out of my hands," she told Elaine Woo. She completed the manuscript in May 1988, and the book was published the following year. The book was greeted with almost universal acclaim. "Magical," said fellow novelist Louise Erdrich; "intensely poetic and moving," echoed Publishers Weekly. "She has written a jewel of a book," Orville Schell concluded in the New York Times (March 19, 1989).

In April 1989, The Joy Luck Club made the New York Times' bestseller list, where it remained for seven months. Tan was named a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award. She received the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for fiction and the Commonwealth Club Gold Award. Paperback rights for the novel sold for more than $1.23 million, and it has been translated into seventeen languages, including Chinese.

The phenomenal success of The Joy Luck Club and the unfamiliar rituals of being a celebrity made it difficult for Tan to concentrate on writing her second novel. At one time, writing it became such a challenge that she broke out in hives. She began seven different novels until she hit upon a solution: "When my mother read The Joy Luck Club," Tan said, "she was always complaining to me how she had to tell her friends that, no, she was not the mother or any of the mothers in the book. . . . So she came to me one day and she said, 'Next book, tell my true story.'"

The Kitchen God's Wife, published in 1991, tells the story of Daisy's life through the fictional Winnie, a refugee from China. The book was a huge success even before publication: in a tightly fought contest, the Literary Guild bought the book club rights for a reported $425,000. Five foreign publishers bought rights to the novel — all before publication. In 1992, Tan published a children's book, The Moon Lady. The plot is taken from the "Moon Lady" episode in The Joy Luck Club. "The haunting tale that unfolds is worthy of retelling," Publishers Weekly wrote. When not writing, Tan enjoys playing pool. She is a frequent visitor to Family Billiards in San Francisco, the city where she and husband Louis DeMattei live.

Essays by Amy Tan

  1. Mother Tongue
  2. Saying Thanks To My Ghosts