American Lives 1: Amy Tan

by Gail Forman

Clock Icon 10 minute read

Amy Tan

Amy Tan writes books that are read by millions of people. They show how people of different cultures and ages are alike and different.

A Chinese and American Childhood

Amy Tan's father came to the United States from China in 1947. Her mother came here in 1949. Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Her parents named her En-Mai. The name means "Blessing of America."

Tan learned Chinese and English as a child. And she learned both Chinese and U.S. culture.

Family Tragedies

Tan's older brother, Peter, died of brain cancer in 1967. Her father died of cancer a few months later. After these tragedies, Tan's mother moved to Europe with Amy and her younger brother, John. They lived first in the Netherlands and then in Switzerland.

Tan was angry over the tragedies. She rebelled and got into trouble. She made new friends who used drugs. She was even arrested. But she learned from her mistakes.

Back to the United States

Tan finished high school in Switzerland. Then Tan's mother brought the family back to the United States.

Tan started college in Oregon. She planned to become a doctor. Then she changed her mind. She studied English.

At about this time, Tan met Louis DiMattei. They fell in love. So she went to San Jose State University. There, she could be with Lou. They were married in 1974.

Tragedy Again

Tan's life seemed good. But then tragedy came again. Her best friend was murdered. Tan's anger and feeling of loss returned.

Because of this loss, Tan quit school and began working. She had several jobs. Then she started a business. She worked long hours as a business writer. In fact, she worked too many hours. She had to make a change. So she began learning jazz piano and writing fiction.

The Joy Luck Club

Tan first wrote short stories. One of them, "Rules of the Game," was published in 1987. She wrote more stories. She turned them into her first novel, The Joy Luck Club. It was published in 1989.

The Joy Luck Club tells about a young Chinese-American woman. Her Chinese mother died recently. So the woman visits her mother's Chinese friends. The novel shows that people are different because of age and culture. But they are also alike. The Joy Luck Club became a best-seller in the United States.

Other Books

Tan wrote a second novel. She called it The Kitchen God's Wife. It is also about a young woman and her Chinese mother. This book shows how the two women do not understand each other. They love each other. But they are sometimes angry with each other. Many people admire The Kitchen God's Wife.

Tan's next novels were The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter's Daughter. These books also look at mothers and daughters.

In 2003, Tan wrote The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. It is not fiction. It tells about her life and what she thinks.

Her Mother's Stories

Tan began writing to understand herself. Her writing also helped her learn about her Chinese culture. And it helped her understand her mother. Her books, she said, include her mother's stories.

"My books," she said, "have amounted to taking her stories—a gift to me—and giving them back to her. To me, it was the [best] thing I ever could have done for myself and my mother."

Many people feel that Tan's books are also gifts to them. These gifts help them see how people of every culture are alike. And they are gifts that tell how different cultures make the United States richer and more interesting.

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