I’ve always felt a kinship with Amy Tan. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants; I’m the daughter of German immigrants. She understands going to school and being different from the other kids, having parents who are different. She is the same age as me, and she married her husband around the same time I married mine. I feel like we’ve lived parallel lives.
Amy Tan would be annoyed I presume to know her. In Where the Past Begins, she says, “I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain.” Oops. That’s entirely what I think about her books. So apparently, I’m mistaken. I don’t get her at all. She goes on to explain, “I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.” Tan writes to understand who she is in this world. She often explores old family stories in her work, copiously researching to learn what is historically accurate and how circumstances impacted the people who came before her.
Where the Past Begins grew out of Tan’s editor, Daniel Halpern’s, suggestion that she write a book about her process, based on “some of the thousands of e-mails I bombarded him with during the writing of The Valley of Amazement.” Tan didn’t like the concept, and I’m glad because the book is so much more; the one chapter that consists of some of the e-mails is not as interesting to me as it was to Mr. Halpern.
The rest of the book blends together the story of her life, her parents’ lives, and even her grandmother’s too-short life; it’s fascinating reading. Much of her writing process is described, especially concerning The Valley of Amazement. I am comforted somehow to learn that Tan suffers from the same insecurities that I and so many of my writer friends do—that the current project will never be finished, that it won’t be good enough…
There are photographs, too. Some of her grandmother, her parents, young Amy and her brothers, and pictures Tan has drawn. I love the pictures of Amy in the 1950s; they could have been me in my fluffy-skirted dresses. Her Christmas picture shows a tree decorated just like the ones from my childhood, with individual strands of tinsel meticulously hung from the branches; my family owned a TV just like the one standing in the corner of the Tan living room.
Tan details some of the devastating pain in her life: the deaths of her older brother and her father from brain tumors within six months of each other when she was a teen; her mother’s battles with mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease.
There are surprises, as well: I didn’t know Tan has a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters and Ph.D. in linguistics.
Reading Where the Past Begins makes me want to reread her earlier (2003) memoir, The Opposite of Fate. I suspect some of the same facts appeared there, but I’d forgotten.
Where the Past Begins is well worth the investment of time and money, especially if you like Tan’s novels. As a lily-white American of European heritage, I found reading about Tan’s family history compelling and enlightening.