What I Learned from Amy Tan

Amy Tan, author and tambourinist

Amy Tan is funny ya’ll. I looked up her website (the picture above links to it) and read a brief thing about her career and charity involvement (she’s in a band with Stephen King…). But the thing I loved the most was her “Mythology” essay. Apparently The Career and Personal Life of Amy Tan has been greatly fictionalized by the interwebs and she has made the effort to rein it back in. She has one of those old-fashioned writing qualities; I believe it is called a “sparkling wit”. Her tongue-in-cheek manner made the reading so enjoyable. I’d gathered from TJLC that she was rather wry and ironic. She embodies on her website the sophisticated cool I’ve grown to associate with a certain caliber of writer. So, I guess it is cemented: I am a fan of Tan.

Here’s what I learned

1 – Writing about mothers is difficult but awesome. I mean, seriously. The dynamics of these characters and their cross over relationships was so cool to me. The complexities of a mother/daughter relationship combined with the friendships and healthy rivalries of all the mothers provided subtle but entertaining conflict. One mother could claim her daughter as a protege, another forced her daughter into piano lessons, singing and dancing (in effort to be like Shirley Temple) and chess even in effort to compete. It’s funny. Mothers never want to be outdone by someone else (or someone else’s child) because they are fiercely proud of their children. What Tan did was show how this fierce pride sometimes alienates the child because all of the daughters felt they weren’t good enough for their mothers.

2 – Writing through a language barrier is possible though tricky. The fake TJLC that I read part of (the collection of essays) opened with an essay by Tan about taking her visiting Aunt and Uncle around New York. She discussed how even though she could speak to them in Chinese something in the subtler meaning was lost.

I discovered, for the first time, in my Hebrew classes the nature of translating languages was not a one-to-one sort of thing. Even though I know this it’s still fun sometimes to try. For instance I often refer to my young swimmers as a “silly goose” whenever they attempt something I didn’t tell them to do. This summer I was working with a little boy (about 3) who mainly spoke Spanish. I asked his mom how to say “silly goose” in Spanish and she laughed at me. She said, “That’s not really something we say…” and then she made fun of me for taking Hebrew in college instead of Spanish. Whatever, I can say important things like “It’s donkey time!” in Spanish, so I’m good…

What Tan does is take that lack of one-to-one and use in to make an already complex relationship even more frustrating. I cannot fully imagine what it must be like as an adult to be unable to fully communicate with your child because of a language/culture gap.

It was also interesting to read of the phrases and stories that the mothers were able to pass on to their girls. It reminded you that though it was sometimes difficult to communicate they still shared a bond.


3 – You don’t have to tell everything. Sometimes withholding information from your readers can just really frustrate them. However, Tan does it skillfully without alienating the reader or losing their interest (at least mine). This balance is different for each writer I guess… and their audience. It was just interesting to me the amount of detail that Tan had to go into when discussing a different culture and the amount she was able to leave out in the daughter parts.

4 – Time as setting. The book has elements that are very clearly details from the late 80s. Reading it 22 years later I noticed those things and obviously wondered how well those elements will stand up over time. For instance if they’ll become the pleasant backdrops of the time a la Regency manners in Austen or 20s slang in Fitzgerald’s work or always stick out awkwardly. Class and manners are not as big indicators of era as they once were. So finding those things that will serve the same purpose without sticking them too firmly in an outdated trend seems tricky.

Anyway, I enjoyed learning about Tan as an author and reading TJLC for sure. Next week the book up for review is The Book Thief. So get ready for some historical discussion.


2 thoughts on “What I Learned from Amy Tan

    1. It definitely has some solid story qualities that I really loved. 🙂 And the premise is something to which all we daughters can relate.

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