Amy Tan, American Masters: Unintended Memoir
Literary giant Amy Tan: “I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture. I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is a perpetual state of uncertainty, and a tether to the past.
PBS’s reliable American Masters turns its gaze to acclaimed novelist Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, The Hundred Secret Senses) in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, the last film from director James Redford (Robert’s son). It premiered at Sundance back in February, but has now made it’s way to PBS for a debut timed to Asian American And Pacific Islander Heritage Month. But Viewers Like You are likely to find added relevance in Redford’s portrait of Tan as we face down a global mental health crisis. The film explores how Tan’s writing career began as a mental break from a taxing job, as the writer “opens up to Redford with remarkable frankness about traumas she’s faced in her life and how her writing has helped her heal,” per a press release.
This is a very good interview with Amy. Hope you take the time to learn more.
“I’m a pretty normal person,” Amy Tan says, with a heaping mound of humility. The writer has published six novels, two children’s books, a memoir, and accumulated a smörgåsbord of nominations and awards, including the Commonwealth Club Gold Medal — but as she’ll tell you, Tan isn’t just a writer. On any given day, she’s also an artist, singer, linguist, reader, activist, wife, daughter, or amateur ornithologist; even as she’s pigeonholed by the public, Tan insists her identity fluctuates with her activities and surroundings.
Regardless of how she views herself, Tan is an icon. And that is immutable.
Tan’s legacy is one that can’t be refuted or even argued. A trailblazing figure for AAPI writers, she found her writing had near-universal appeal. The Joy Luck Club, Tan’s first and arguably most beloved novel, remained on the New York Times’ Best Sellers List for over 40 weeks after its initial release in 1989. The 1993 film of the same name, which Tan co-wrote, received equal praise, and was preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year.
Chilean writer Isabel Allende — one of Tan’s friends and colleagues featured in Unintended Memoir — says the way Tan writes about family appeals to people of all backgrounds. “Those grandmothers are like my grandmothers, and that makes it so close, so personal, so touching in so many ways,” Allende explains. “I think that’s what every reader feels anywhere in the world, in any language, when they read Amy.”
Now, this next paragraph is why I wanted to feature her story; stereotypes and family legacies. It was very evident in the documentary by James Redford. It is no secret that throughout time, societies have emphasized men’s roles and rights. Laws were written by men, for men; education was developed with men in mind. women were denied equal rights in nearly every aspect. But over the centuries, more and more women have stood up to say “this isn’t right.” To those women, we raise a fist in reference and gratitude. They have shown us how to change the world.
Be Kind…we are all just walking each other home.
But I do have to say that the criticisms that were leveled against me, mostly by male Asian writers, had to do with their feeling that my stories were about stereotypes, like the rape of a woman who is forced to become a concubine, and who later kills herself. That’s what happened to my grandmother. She was not a stereotype. I was writing these stories to discover things about myself through their lives — how my grandmother could not bear a life of condescension, and how having no choice led to anger, desperation, and ultimately killing herself. How my mother, who watched her die, became suicidal the rest of her life. And how they passed onto me — not the suicidal tendencies — but the absolute need to take control, to be in charge of my own choices and create my life, which is why I’m a writer. The people posing these criticisms wouldn’t know that my stories are based on my family history. They just see it as exotica. We don’t know the personal importance of a writer’s stories. But today, I’m glad there are many more AAPI writers out there, and their voices are there to speak about their own truths.
Amy Tan performs as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders at Nokia Theatre on April 23, 2010 in New York City.
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