Reading Amy Tan’s “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” feels like taking up temporary residence in Tan’s swift mind, a place where metaphors bloom like flowers. Tan will read from her memoir on Oct. 25 at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library.
Twenty-eight years ago, Amy Tan came to Seattle for her very first event for her first book, “The Joy Luck Club.” It was in the basement reading room of the old Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square, Tan remembered in a phone conversation last week.
“I think people were sitting on stairs,” she said of the 1989 reading. Though Tan had no particular connection to Seattle at the time, the city was chosen for her visit because “it was known as a big reading town.”
Since then, “The Joy Luck Club” — a novel about a group of Chinese-American mothers and daughters in San Francisco — has been both a best-seller and a 1993 movie, and Tan has written five other novels, among other works. She’s returned many times to Seattle with her books (“I think of it as a very friendly city,” she said), and will read from her latest, “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir,” on Oct. 25 at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library.
The author of “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library; free (spl.org or 206-386-4636).
The new book is something different: a collection of pieces born from an exercise Tan embarked upon with her editor, Daniel Halpern. Thinking to write a nonfiction book as an interim between novels, Tan began perusing her emails to Halpern, intrigued by the looseness with which they were written. She considered a book made up entirely of emails, but rejected the idea in favor of “doing a book more related to different thoughts about writing.”
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So she and Halpern agreed upon a structure: Tan would turn in a piece every week, over a period of several months in the late summer and fall of 2016. Each needed to be at least 15 pages, on strict deadline, and could be about whatever was on her mind. “I didn’t know what was going to come out each week,” she said — but gradually, a book began to take shape.
“The further I got into writing these pieces,” she said, “it became apparent to me that so much about my writing — my imagination, my narrative, my metaphors — had much to do with emotional memories … It wasn’t until about probably the 10th piece that my editor started calling it memoir.”
Reading “Where the Past Begins” feels like taking up temporary residence in Tan’s swift mind, a place where metaphors bloom like flowers (my favorite: writing a novel’s narrative is “a laborious and confounding experience tantamount to conducting an orchestra of ghosts”) and where cinematic memories live.
Tan writes — not chronologically, more impressionistically — of her childhood in Oakland, California; of struggling to please her immigrant parents, who were more focused on the brilliance of her older brother. She puts us inside the family car during a harrowing experience after church one Sunday; something that she had never written about and which left her physically shaking, half a century later, from the effort of getting the words on a page. (That passage is written in the third person, she said, “to allow me a little distance.”)
And she wrote of “that year of failed miracles,” when both her father and her teenage brother were diagnosed with brain tumors and died; Tan was then in high school. It was a tragedy from which her mother, she writes, never recovered.
One of her childhood stories has a present-day postscript: Tan remembered being evaluated in early grade school by a “mysterious lady” who saw her over a period of several years, administering academic tests. At the time, it made her feel special, but as an adult she began to wonder just who the woman was, and why she was being singled out.
“I found that woman as I was writing that piece,” said Tan. “It was a real detective story — and heartbreaking to me, at times.” The tester turned out to be a pioneering researcher in early childhood reading; Tan was chosen because, at 6, she knew how to read. Finding her identity — and finding some truths about Tan’s parents along the way — makes for gripping reading, right up to the essay’s final line: “She had said exactly what I needed to hear.” (I’ll give you the pleasure of discovering what that was; Tan told me she heard it through tears.)
Some of the stories are beyond Tan’s memory: She writes of her mother’s history before and immediately after arriving in California (where Tan was born in 1952). And, gazing at old photographs, she pieces together the history of her grandmother in Shanghai: both the sanitized version of the story Tan’s mother originally told her, and the more complex story that eventually unfolded.
A few brief journal entries appear in the book (categorized as “quirks”), as do several fiction excerpts. Tan was eager to clarify that the first-person piece entitled “Language: A Love Story,” in which a narrator describes learning to speak again after an accident, is fiction — many early readers, she said, have assumed that it was part of the memoir. “I wasn’t some snobby linguistics professor who had a terrible accident because of a fox!” she said, laughing, noting that she’d thought too late of changing the title to “An Outtake From an Abandoned Novel.”
And some emails between Tan and Halpern made it into the book as well. Tan said she had about 15,000 of them saved, and was fascinated by them. “To me, they were the most informative part of my writing process, because in the emails I talk so spontaneously. They are unedited — whatever comes out. I think that is also an indication of what goes on in a writer’s mind.” In the book — which she at one point jokingly suggested titling “Dear Dan” — they appear in a section called “Letters to the Editor,” and their charming back-and-forth will make Tan the envy of any writer.
Tan, who ends the book with a poignant description of the room in which she writes at her coastal California home, said she’s not currently working on a new novel. “I can’t talk about an old book and start writing another one,” she said. “It interrupts me and makes me self-conscious about the writing process.” She’s immersed herself in drawing (a fascination since childhood), and in pondering the journey into her past that her current book explored.
“I think it was Auden who talks about the qualities of the writer being the undertow,” she said. “You can’t mimic somebody’s writing, because you don’t have the same undertow. I wanted to know what that undertow is in me, what are those things that are churning.”