Amy Tan was born February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California. Her parents shared some of the dark history fictionalized in The Joy Luck Club. Her mother, Daisy, was born to a wealthy family and left Shanghai and a disastrous marriage right before the Communist takeover in 1949. She was forced to leave behind her three daughters. Tan's father, John, a Baptist minister and electrical engineer, also fled the civil war in China. Tan and her two brothers were raised in Santa Clara, California.
Tan was a good student. At age eight, her treatment of the theme "What the Library Means to Me" won her a transistor radio and mention in the local newspaper. When Tan was fourteen, her brother Peter and her father died within seven months of each other, both from brain tumors. A neurosurgeon gave no explanation other than bad luck. This twin tragedy spurred Daisy Tan to hoist anchor and move the family to Switzerland. After they returned to California, Tan was ready for college, where she eschewed her mother's wish for her to study medicine and studied literature instead. She met her husband, Lou DeMattei, on a blind date in Oregon while enrolled in one of the seven undergraduate institutions she attended. Tan followed him to San Jose, California, where she later earned an MA in linguistics in 1973.
While Tan was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, her best friend was murdered. Shocked by the event, Tan left school and started working with children as a language development consultant. Her love of reading reawakened in 1985, when she read many woman novelists for the first time, including Louise Erdrich and Maxine Hong Kingston. Tan settled into a lucrative business-writing career, but restlessness led her to a writing workshop. Her second story, "Waiting Between the Trees," was noticed by a literary agent.
Tan started The Joy Luck Club two years after her first trip to China with her mother in 1987, and she completed it in less than five months. The book stayed on the bestseller list for nine months and has been translated into thirty-six languages. Tan cowrote the screenplay for the 1993 movie, and she and her husband appear in the movie as guests at the opening dinner party. Besides writing, she toured with the now defunct benefit band the Rock Bottom Remainders, which included fellow writers Stephen King, James McBride, and Matt Groening. Her fifth novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, was published in 2005.
On August 7, 2006, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Amy Tan at her home in Berkeley, California. An excerpt from their conversation follows.
Dana Gioia: You were born in Oakland in a family where both parents had come from China. Were you raised bilingually?
Amy Tan: Until the age of five, my parents spoke to me in Chinese or a combination of Chinese and English, but they didn't force me to speak Mandarin. In retrospect, this was sad, because they believed that my chance of doing well in America hinged on my fluency in English. Later, as an adult, I wanted to learn Chinese. Now I make an effort when I am with my sisters, who don't speak English that well. It's such a wonderful part of me that is coming back, to try and speak that language.
DG: Would you explain the special symbolism of your title, The Joy Luck Club?
AT: I don't think joy and luck are specific to Chinese culture. Everybody wants joy and luck, and we all have our different notions about from where that luck comes. Many Chinese stores and restaurants have the word "luck" in there. The idea is that, just by using the word "luck" in names of things, you can attract more of it. Our beliefs in luck are related to hope. Some people who are without almost any hope in a situation still cling to luck.
DG: This is a great book about the American immigrant experience. Did you think about that theme consciously when writing the book?
AT: If I thought about this at all, it was the immigrant experience according to my mother and father. This influenced the way I took their immigrant story-the things that I rejected, the things that I thought were American. The basic notion of this country is that with self-determination, you can create who you are. That, in turn, allows an amazing freedom to a writer, because freedom is also creativity.
DG: Why is reading important?
AT: In childhood, reading provided a refuge for me, especially during difficult times. It provided me with the idea that I could find an ending that was different from what was happening at the time. Imagination is the closest thing that we have to compassion and empathy. When you read about the life of another person, you are part of their life for that moment. This is so vital, especially today, when we have so much misunderstanding across cultures and even within our own communities.
DG: What did you read as a child?
AT: I read every fairy tale I could lay my hands on at the public library. It was a wonderful world to escape to.
DG: Do you feel that your early love of fairy tales expressed itself in The Joy Luck Club, or did you look on its content as realistic?
AT: As a minister, my father told us many stories from the Bible that were like fairy tales. Those stories can reflect very strong beliefs that Christians have, but they also have all the qualities that are wonderful about fairy tales. Life is larger than we think it is. Certain events can happen that we don't understand, and we can take it as faith in a particular area, or as superstition, or as a fairy tale, or something else. It's wonderful to come to a situation and think that it can be all kinds of possibilities. I look at what's happened to me as a published writer and, sometimes, I think it's a fairy tale.
"[W]hen she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved."
—Ying-ying St. Clair in The Joy Luck Club