Amy Tan has just finished tutoring a 9-year-old boy. They were reading a graphic novel, which Tan likes because whatever the subject, it encourages reading. Their lesson evolves into a discussion about the word “degenerative” and what it means. Once the boy leaves, Tan thinks she may get him “March,” the graphic novel created by the late Congressman John Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell that illustrates lessons learned through the struggle for civil rights.
In one interaction, many sides of the award-winning author come to light. Educator. Advisor. Philosopher. Activist. Even MasterClass instructor. Anyone who knows Tan could tell you these things but even after numerous bestselling books (“The Valley of Amazement,” “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses”), a seminal film (“The Joy Luck Club” from her first celebrated novel) and even an opera (based on another book, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”), Tan has led a relatively private life.
That changed when documentarian James Redford whittled down the author’s reluctance and gained her trust so that he could direct a documentary, “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.” Through personal recollection and added insight from her husband Lou DeMattei, her brother John, best friend Sandy Bremner and others, a picture emerges that adds more nuance to the author’s life than even she had envisioned.
But the process of making the documentary was bittersweet. Redford, the son of actor/director and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford, was in the late stages of cancer during filming and died in October at the age of 58.
“He was somebody that I trusted so much that I felt he was never going to judge me, he was never going to pity me,” Tan said in February after the film’s virtual premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “He was just going to listen.”
More recently, as Tan was preparing for the film’s May 3 release on PBS for “American Masters,” she reflected (via video chat) on the passing of Redford, her struggles and triumphs with writing, anti-Asian racism and living a life that she never dared to dream about.
Many readers of your books know about your life, but seeing your story on film adds a visceral element. Did the visual surprise you?
I was surprised when I saw it. It very much did for me what it did for you. I know my story and my life. But to have it reflected back in a story put together by somebody else was very moving. Here’s somebody who’s putting the pieces together and saying, “This is how you became who you are.” I know it in a certain version within myself, but to see it presented in that way was different. I always have to remember that this is Jamie Redford’s work, and I very much trusted him and believed he would do a fantastic job. But then seeing it, it’s beyond the fantastic job that he did as an artist and more this very deeply personal part of it, him coming to know me well enough that he could put that together.
Your brother John and your best friend Sandy had observations from different perspectives on your life. Were there any revelations?
When [Sandy] made the remark about her grandmother having been a second wife? It was something I didn’t know. She’d never said that. There were these surprises and we haven’t had this conversation yet, even though I see her all the time, about her actual grandmother and what she feels about that now. But, you know, now we something else to talk about.
You’ve described writing stages in your life as creating “angry letters to yourself” and even as a “subconscious needing to know.” What stage of writing are you at now?
I started another book a while ago and then a number of things intervened that became very disturbing to me about our current world. It had a lot to do with politics, racism and then, on top of that, the whole disjunction of life because of the pandemic. And suddenly I found that my story as a sort of a novel of manners was no longer relevant. I think as writers, this neediness to know has to do with asking questions and you have to be asking the right questions. As a child, the questions are pretty basic ones. ‘Do they love me?’ ‘Well, what does that mean?’ ‘They said this to me.’ Those are the questions that go through your mind at a child level.
But today, as an adult, you do have to keep questioning — and I do. Some of [the questions] had to do with the notion of hate and what that’s based on. Intent. Malevolence. Also the disparity between certain factions in our country. Will they ever get back together again? What do we need to understand? Do we want to understand? Is there any little area for coming to a state, even an island, of agreement? Those are the kinds of questions that have filled me over these last four years. These questions really influence and determine the book.
Since you touched on it ... How have you dealt with the anti-Asian, racist sentiments that have been surfacing?
I have spoken out against it, of course. Spoken out about our need to find a way to address this with more than hashtags. And one of the things that’s happening that I think is wonderful is the solidarity people are showing by having businesses join in and actually contributing money for programs that will combat this. I’m also thinking we need a clearinghouse for registering hate messages. It’s not a crime to give a hate message. We need to register those messages. We need a place to put them because these are precursors to violence.
‘How to Report a Hate Crime’ comes in languages including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, with specific versions for L.A. and Orange counties.
I have this feeling that part of it is electing more people who are Asian American, and it’s going to involve the community. Let’s get together, let’s work, because it has to do with helping those who have been traumatized. I’ve had this happen. Death threats. You’re afraid to leave your house for a while. You need to have some understanding and for people to say, “I understand why you’re feeling nervous” and to have support.
I just wrote something up on Facebook because I saw that somebody is running for Congress in Texas. She’s Korean. And she said, ‘I don’t want any Chinese in this country.’ And she starts naming all these racist statements. She said, ‘I can say this because I’m Korean.’ My answer is no, that gives you no right. Because you’re Korean? The right that you’re giving yourself is to be a craven politician and to sell yourself for the sake of getting votes. Yes, I very much speak out about this issue.
There is a line in the movie where you say fiction gave you a place of safety. Does it still?
In childhood, definitely fiction and being immersed in reading was a place of safety because I [was] outside of my own reality. I entered one where the troubles are not mine, but I would be involved with them. Once I left that place, those troubles weren’t mine anymore and I went back to my own reality.
I think it helped because it didn’t make me feel as lonely. There were characters who were going through crises just as I was. Writing is a place I wouldn’t call safety always because you have to take a risk as a writer. You have to go into dangerous areas of your mind, your heart, the way you see the world and try to come up with enough in the story that suddenly a truth about it emerges. The truth is not always easy. Truths about human nature are sometimes disorienting and upsetting. It can just throw us off balance. I go into writing knowing that one of the exciting parts about writing a book is that eventually, you get to these truths, but it’s risky to go there.
You also say you often think that you’re dreaming this life. For some reason, that line hit hard. Do you still feel that way?
I do. As a matter of fact, I was remarking to my husband last night that we’ve been together for 51 years. Recounting our first date, I was saying, “Wow, and here we are.” First of all, we’re still together. But look at all that’s happened to us. Would we have ever imagined this is the life that we would have had? No. It’s just too incredible.
You can’t make it happen. It’s still your readers and some fluke in the universe, so I’m always conscious [and] always grateful that whatever happened in the world of randomness did end up providing this life that I have now.
“The Joy Luck Club” is what a lot of people worldwide know. But you’ve written a number of bestselling books. Is there another one that is as personal to you as “The Joy Luck Club?”
They’re all so deeply personal; they’re personal at the moment that I was writing the book. I couldn’t say, “Now I love this book more than the other” because it’s like saying, “I love this part of my life more than the other part.”
“The Kitchen God’s Wife” was the second book, and that was the book my mother asked me to write. She loved “The Joy Luck Club” so much, but she knew it was fiction and everybody thought it was her story. She said, “Now write the true story.” And I kept saying, “No, no, no. That’s not how fiction works.” But what I ended up doing was actually writing a story that was much closer to what her life would actually be. So I’m very fond of that book for having been able to have her give me her story and for me to give it back to her in the form of a novel.
I had another book that I was writing because at the time it had to do with my mother and my editor both being sick with fatal illness at the same time. And this story, “The Hundred Secret Senses,” has a lot to do with ... do you believe in life after this one? It was deeply personal to me.
The next book, [“The Bonesetter’s Daughter,”] was after my mother had died. It’s about memory — but losing memories — of losing a person who is very much a part of who you are.
I often used to say that the book that I love the most is the one I’m working on, but I think that’s only half true. I also hate that book most. I love-hate, you know, until I’m so consumed by it — the thoughts and the ideas, the elements of the sentences. If I don’t love it, I have to keep working on it. [There’s] a lot of self-consciousness and confusion.
Writing became full of anxiety for you at one point. Can you tell me what you tell your students in your MasterClass session about being able to weave in your emotions in terms of writing?
After we did [the documentary] and we talked so much about my life and how that shaped who I am today and how I became a writer, I found that when MasterClass asked me to do [the tutorial], I actually said yes. I had said no before. It’s clear to me now that all these parts of my abilities and my obsessions as a writer, that they are very much related to my emotions. So, yes, I can talk about this.
It’s about memory, fiction and imagination. I do say in the MasterClass that you’ll encounter blocks where you just can’t go. You’re anxious; you’re feeling like this is the end of the world. You’re not a writer. You want to give up writing. Well, I’ve been a published writer for many years, and those are my feelings. It’s normal to want to make things as good as possible. And you’re going to feel anxious unless you have such an overblown ego that you think everything that you write is absolutely true.
I think anxiety just is part and parcel of being a writer. The feeling of rejection, berating yourself. I think it helps other writers to know that writers such as myself and every writer I know, great writers or new writers, whatever, they all feel the same. So it’s, “Welcome to the club.”
When other authors are talking about how influential you are, what goes through your mind?
This is a really terrible one: that I’m dead and they’re talking about me in religious terms. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s because I have a different sense of myself than I think most people would have who didn’t grow up with me like my best friend. When I’m seen as a writer of an elevated status, that seems like a fictional character. It is gratifying. And to be honest, disorienting. I have to kind of shift myself and keep in mind my perspective that I’m still the same person and then also be grateful that somebody thinks I’m better than I am in this other context.
In that vein, how hard was it for Jamie Redford to persuade you to do the documentary? Seems like that might have been a tough sell.
It was actually running right up against my goal that I had, which was to enter into a path of what I jokingly called “the path to obscurity.” I’ve been very comfortable with the idea that one day I get to be a lot more private and that people are not going to ask to interview me.
But [Jamie and I] were friends to begin with. We had already talked about so many things related to another documentary. I just remember standing on my veranda looking at trees and talking about life and about trauma, pain, survival, resilience. Finally, after he literally courted me for a period of time, bringing me sandwiches for lunch and, you know, “If you don’t want to do it ... Can I just show you? I’ll never say that again.” Blah, blah, blah. Finally, I decided that we’d talked about this so much, I really trust him. I just had to say to myself, is this going to be worth doing it, having conversations with Jamie and looking at his creative ideas for doing this? I decided yes.
There was another reason, and that is because I knew he was very, very sick and he had talked openly, admitting that he could die.
I told him, “You don’t need any more uncertainty in your life.” And I said, “Go ahead and do this.” No hesitation.
He had the whole documentary mapped out and he said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be done.” And I said, “Jamie, I’m not worried about the documentary at all. I worry about you.”
Now, if I hadn’t known Jamie, if I didn’t have that level of trust in him, I wouldn’t have done it. Because you open yourself up so much to who you are and your family, everything. The archives, my photographs.
[Having done] this documentary thing, it’s clear to me now that all these parts of my abilities and my obsessions as a writer, that they are very much related to my emotions.
What I think that a lot of people may be getting from this documentary is that they say, ‘Hey, what about my life? The life of my parents and my parents’ parents before that? And how does that all continue or transmute over the years, over the generations? How did I become who I am?’
Last question is the obligatory one nowadays: How have you fared during this pandemic?
I feel lucky every day because I’m not homeless. I’m not worried about paying my rent. I don’t have the kind of job where I have to show up someplace or I don’t get paid. So it was not a terrible burden for me to stay home every day. I watch birds. I have, right there on the other side of this screen, just a backyard full of birds flying everywhere. I draw as well when I want to be outside of my head and into nature.
Something weird that’s happened, I think, for many people is an awareness of time that gets skewed. It’s as though time has become one moment of time. It’s just stuck. And so I often don’t know what day of the week it is or anything and it’s just so discombobulating.
It also comes with this thing about looking at the length of my life. This may sound really gloomy, but I think about death every single day. And I know a lot of writers do so. This is not a depressive notion — I’m going to die. This is the notion that life is finite and that I have a finite number of years because I’m now 69. And you look at that and that makes a difference.
Like I went to buy a new mattress. Somebody said, “Oh, and this one’s good for 20 years, or has a lifetime warranty.” And I said, “20 years?!”
So it’s just, you know, the strangeness. I got to work on a lot of political campaigns. I tried to keep myself doing meaningful things during this past year, eating at home, my husband cooks for me. We had home-cooked meals every day, which was wonderful.
This remainder of my life may still seem like a number of years, but look what happened during this one year. And it went by like no time at all.
‘American Masters: Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir’
When: 9 p.m. Monday and any time on pbs.org
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)