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Striking Cultural Sparks : Once Pained by Her Heritage, Amy Tan Has Tapped It for a Piercing First Novel

Times Staff Writer

The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. . . . Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese.

“Someday you will see,” my mother said. “It is in your blood, waiting to be let go.”

And when she said this, I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA . . . a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me . . . .

--From “The Joy Luck Club,” by Amy Tan

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Amy Tan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, remembers yearning to be “100% American” when she was growing up.

As a girl, she tried to re-contour her “too Chinese” nose by crimping it with a clothespin.

Years later, when she was doing free-lance writing, she shunned her own name for the decidedly non-Chinese-sounding pseudonym, “May Brown.”

“Like a lot of Chinese-American children,” she said recently, “I grew up with a lot of self-hate.”

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But all that is in the past. These days, says this Oakland-born, former business-writer-turned-novelist, she feels mostly exhilaration and pride.

Tan, 37, has penned “The Joy Luck Club,” a lavishly praised first novel about the contradictions of growing up Chinese and American that seems headed for commercial as well as critical success.

Expected in bookstores March 22, “The Joy Luck Club” refers to a social and investment circle formed by four Chinese immigrant women living in modern-day San Francisco. Written as a chain of 16 short stories, it alternates between the voices of the four mothers, who are linked by tradition and past adversities, and their four “thirtysomething"-generation daughters who struggle with demanding careers, shaky marriages and bicultural angst.

With flashes of puckish humor (one character jokes, for instance, that telling a Chinese mother to shut up would be tantamount to being “an accessory to your own murder”), it delves into cultural clashes, inter-generational conflicts and the complexities of the mother-daughter bond in language that reviewers have described as “intensely poetic,” “inordinately moving” and “electric.”

Magazine serial rights have been purchased by Ladies Home Journal and the Atlantic. The Book-of-the-Month Club has made it this month’s featured alternate selection . Foreign editions are forthcoming in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands. A paperback house has set a six-figure floor on the bidding for softcover rights. And there is talk of a movie deal.

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, which is publishing the book, paid Tan a $50,000 advance--about five times higher than the standard advance for first novels.

Moreover, Putnam’s clinched the deal after seeing only three of Tan’s short stories, which editor Faith Sale says was most unusual.

‘A Very Special Vision’

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“I had the sense that this was something I did not want to let go of,” Sale explained recently from New York. “Amy has a very special vision . . . that is so tremendously moving. I have this feeling every time I read one of (her) stories of being pierced somewhere in my innards.”

Reviewers have made the inevitable comparisons of Tan to Maxine Hong-Kingston, who was the first Chinese-American to write a best seller that was also considered a literary success--the 1976 novel “The Woman Warrior.”

But William Tay, a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at UC San Diego, who has read an advance copy of “The Joy Luck Club,” says the novel’s focus on two contemporary generations of Chinese in America sets it apart from works by Hong-Kingston and other Chinese-American writers.

“She has a common-sensical, down-to-earth, ordinary way of looking at Chinese and their cultural heritage that . . . transcends the more standard Chinatown ghetto stories,” Tay said.

Tan lives in a gentrified neighborhood of antique shops and Victorian residences in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights area with her husband of 15 years, tax attorney Lou DeMattei.

She spends most days at home, the bottom floor of an 80-year-old house that they renovated and co-own with another couple. Tan works on an IBM computer in a spacious basement office, escaping, she says, only to go bookstore browsing when she gets writer’s block.

On a recent afternoon, Tan was sitting on a plush sofa in a living room cluttered with books and mementos, her 13-year-old cat named Sagwa (pronounced Sah-gwah, an affectionate Mandarin term meaning “stupid,” she says) curled up beside her. Striking in a silky purple jacket, short black skirt and black stockings, Tan seemed composed and relaxed. She laughs easily--in wheezing bursts--and has a sly sense of humor. Sale describes her as “precise, punctual and gracious,” traits that she says set Tan apart from many of the first-time novelists she has dealt with.

Tan likes to quip that what led her to fiction writing was “bad psychiatry.” It was about 1983, and she was doing free-lance writing for corporations such as Bank of America and Pacific Bell. When friends told her she was a workaholic and should consult a shrink, she did--for about six months. But she ended the therapy, she said, after the doctor “fell asleep about three times.”

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Instead of getting depressed, she decided to cure herself of her work addiction by setting two outside goals: The first was to learn to play jazz piano, and the second was to write a short story.

The result of the latter enterprise was “Rules of the Game,” a story she wrote in 1985 about a female chess prodigy and her clashes with her mother. The story earned Tan a place in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a fiction writers’ workshop run by novelist and UC Irvine writing professor Oakley Hall. Her teacher there, writer Molly Giles, introduced her to literary agent Sandra Dijkstra.

“She sent me a story,” Dijkstra, whose office is in Del Mar, recalled recently, “and she sent me her vitae, which was very, very impressive. At that point, I thought, ‘The first story is wonderful; with a flick of her wrist, she could write a novel.’ ”

Tan wrote two more stories and mailed them off to Dijkstra. In late 1987, the agent called her with the news that she had started shopping for a publisher and that several prominent New York publishing houses were eagerly bidding for the rights to what was then a far-from-finished book.

“I was completely stunned,” Tan recalled. “I became depressed afterward. It was such a wonderful thing, yet it seemed my life was no longer under my control.”

She hastily shut down her free-lance business in order to devote full-time to finishing the novel, writing most of “The Joy Luck Club” in about four months.

“I wrote it very quickly because I was afraid this chance would just slip out of my hands,” she said.

Tan said she decided on a mother-daughter theme when her mother suffered a heart attack, forcing her to consider the possibility of her mother’s dying before she got to know her better.

“I realized there were so many things I didn’t know about her,” she mused. “I decided maybe this will be a good outlet for writing . . . to try to capture the feeling of what she’s been trying to say to me all these years.”

Family Tragedies

Her mother, who came from a wealthy Shanghai family and worked nights as a nurse, was a central force in Tan’s life, particularly after a double tragedy struck the family, Tan said.

Both her father, an electrical engineer from Peking who became a Baptist minister, and her older brother developed brain tumors when she was 15. She spent much of that year in Bay Area hospitals, she said, horrified to be a witness to their dying and awed by her mother’s unstinting belief that they could be saved. At one point, her mother brought in Pentecostal faith healers to save them, but her father and brother died six months apart.

Soon after their deaths, her mother took extraordinary action: She abandoned their “diseased house” in Santa Clara on the advice of relatives and left the country. With Tan, then 16, and a younger son, John, she booked passage on a boat to the Netherlands, eventually settling the family in Montreux, Switzerland, where they knew not a soul.

It was a trying time.

“I did a bunch of crazy things” there, Tan said, an impish grin on her face. That included nearly running away to marry a German man whom she later discovered was a fugitive from a mental hospital.

‘Went to Pieces’

“My mother . . . thought I should be even better as a daughter because of what had happened to her family. Instead, I just kind of went to pieces.”

After about a year, they moved back to the United States. With scholarships and odd jobs, Tan worked her way through seven years of college, ending up with a masters in linguistics from California State University at San Jose.

Her first job was as a language consultant for the Alameda County Assn. for Retarded Citizens. After five years, she switched careers, becoming a writer of educational newsletters for doctors and later a free-lance business writer.

The strand of the novel that opens and closes the book tells of a daughter’s attempts to fulfill her dead mother’s wish that she go to China to find her half-sisters. To some degree, it was inspired by the real-life pains Tan’s mother took to be reunited with three daughters from a first marriage whom she left in China.

For reasons that Tan says her mother would prefer to keep private, she could not take the three daughters with her when she immigrated to the United States in 1949. Nearly 40 years later, in 1987, Tan accompanied her mother to Shanghai and Beijing for the long-overdue reunion.

For Tan, who had never been to China, the trip helped melt away all the conflicts she had ever felt about being Chinese.

“It was instant bonding,” she said. “There was something about this country that I belonged to. I found something about myself that I never knew was there.”

Looking back at her life, she said, she appreciates a lesson her parents, particularly her mother, taught her.

“This is a line in the book, but this was what their thinking was: They wanted us to have American circumstances and Chinese character,” Tan said quietly. “We should always think like a Chinese person but we should always speak perfect English so we can take advantage of circumstances” and assimilate into the mainstream of America.

‘Finding Balance’

“I don’t think I started to think about any of this until I started to write the book. . . . I think what I was trying to find was how can you have the best of both worlds; how can you keep your Chinese face and keep your American face and not hide anything and not be dishonest. I think for me personally the book is a lot about finding balance.”

Now, in between juggling interviews and book parties, Tan is trying to decide which of three ideas to pursue for her next novel. One is set in the 1930s, one at the turn of the century, and one in the present. And all draw on her Chinese heritage, but she says that is where their resemblance to “The Joy Luck Club” will end.

“I refuse,” she said with a flash of stubborn determination, “to write ‘Son of Joy Luck’! I want to do something completely different.”

See Book Review, Page 1


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