If Fate Were the Little Hand on the Clock

In an intimate conversation, Amy Tan discusses the experiences that formed her new book 'The Opposite of Fate,' now available in Hebrew.

Shiri Lev-Ari
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Shiri Lev-Ari

The conversation with Amy Tan became personal and emotional quite quickly. Perhaps this was because we were discussing her book "The Opposite of Fate," which is largely autobiographical and consists of pieces she had written at various stages of her life. Perhaps this was because the conversation was about fate, an especially fraught subject for her.

The Chinese-American author of the bestseller "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife" examines fate again and again - both in her writing and in her life. What would have happened if, she asks, why did things happen the way they happened, to what extent does a person have control over his life, and what is the place of hope in all this?

Tan, 53, who without noticing it has become the representative of the population of Chinese immigrants in America, is not afraid of revealing or of revealing herself. In the book she tells with touching sincerity about the expectations her mother had of her, their quarrels, the deaths of people close to her, her bout with depression and the pills she took in its wake, and also about the Lyme disease she contracted several years ago and the neurological disturbances that accompany it.

On the phone from her home in San Francisco, Tan is in a tense mood. It is morning in California, and she sounds like she has a cold; it is not clear whether she was ill or crying. With the professionalism typical of American authors she replies to all but one of the questions about her last book, "The Opposite of Fate," which has just been published by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan in Hebrew (translation by Erella Tallenberg-Lehrer).

Tan defined the book as a collection of musings. It consists of various texts she wrote, among them thoughts on her life, stories of things that happened to her, essays on literature, summaries of lectures she has given at universities, a love poem to her husband and more.

A faith of my own

Critics of Tan usually see her books as light, tear-jerking literature. But Tan's voice is indeed heard in this non-fiction book of hers, and some of the pieces are truly beautiful. In them, for example, she tells the story of how her parents met (her mother was married to a cruel man at the time, and she was imprisoned in a Chinese prison for adultery; her father had immigrated to America in the meantime and became a Baptist minister). She tells about how within one year her brother and father died of brain tumors and how she herself was almost killed several times during her life.

In one of the pieces in the book she describes how her mother, in one of her attacks of rage, threatened to kill her with a knife when she was 16 and had started dating a new boyfriend. In another piece she tells the story of a good male friend of hers who was murdered during a robbery. It is not by chance that the story was included in a book about fate - it is full of strange coincidences. The friend, for example, had expected his approaching death and had talked to her about this. After the murder he came to her in a dream and told her the first names of his murderers. A short time later the police captured two suspects by these names.

"A lot of the pieces were written around the time that I was losing my mother and my editor," says Tan quietly, "so they had a lot to do with faith, which was my editor's name [Faith Sale - editor's note]. I was raised with a mother who believed in many different things including fate, and a father who believed in God's will, a very particular kind of fate," she adds, noting that all her life she has thought about what happens in the world and how things occur.

Between your father's Christian faith and your mother's belief in supernatural entities and fate, what do you believe?

"My belief is not that of any specific religion. I have a virtuality that comes from my own questions, like what is greater than I am, than my own consciousness, how am I a part of that, what is goodness and what is evil, what happens after death, what happens before life begins - this is a very personal virtuality, personal spirituality. The more I live, the more I know what the questions are that I should ask," Tan says.

Three new sisters

Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952. After her father and one of her brothers died, she went to live in Europe with her mother and her siblings. That was when the crisis in her relationship with her mother began. Contrary to her mother's expectations that she would become a doctor, Tan chose to study linguistics at San Jose University. Since 1974 she has been married to Lou DeMattei (the two have no children, by choice, she once related). Her husband is an attorney specializing in tax law.

Tan completed a doctorate in linguistics at Berkeley, but decided to leave academia and work at teaching language skills to mentally handicapped children. After that, she and a friend started a company that wrote speeches for executives and marketers in large companies, but gradually she tired of commercial writing, quarreled with her partner and started to write stories.

In 1987 her mother fell ill and Tan promised herself that if her mother recovered, the two would take a trip to China together. This indeed happened, and this trip engendered her first book, "The Joy Luck Club," which was published in 1989. In 1993 a film adaptation of the book was produced by Oliver Stone and directed by Wayne Wang. On her visit to China she became acquainted with her family there and found three half-sisters whom her mother had to leave behind when she immigrated to the United States. She keeps in touch with them to this day - two of them now live in California.

It has often been written of her that her personal story is stronger than the fiction she writes. Tan thoroughly agrees with this.

"There are things that happen in our lives that we can't explain and are so mysterious, so wonderful. In fiction you can go back and undo it - you can't go back in life and see what is the truth, why did you meet the person you fall in love with at that particular time and place? What was the coincidence that led to whatever happened and became so important in your life?" she says.

Your mother has been a dominant figure in your life and in your books. Has your life changed since her death?

"She is not around to worry about me or criticize me or be the person who believed in me the most and did what hurt me the most," Tan says. She pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath and continues: "She was the person who created the wisdom in my life, the wisdom in my heart. When this person is gone your life is changed."

Greater love

In the book Tan colorfully describes all kinds of supernatural powers she feels she has, or at least that her mother believed she has - especially the power of communicating with the dead. She describes doors slamming shut suddenly every time the name of a dead person is mentioned, certain objects that vanish and a television set that turns itself on in the middle of the night to a religious channel.

Tan says that she believes everyone has such powers.

"I think that this supernatural power is an extension of love, that we have this quality, we feel it with our family, our lovers, our children. It is so hard to say what it is that continues and what is so strong about it. The supernatural is natural but we call it that way because we don't know a lot about it. I've had feeling of being with my mother, with my editor, feeling them, hearing them. Sometime I say it's my imagination or this is coincidence, I'm wishing for this so I felt it, but a lot of times I think no, it's not a coincidence, it would be too many coincidences, too much luck. I really think this is a greater aspect of love.

"I don't really know what it is that caused everything to happen in the world, I just think about trying a little bit of everything. That's what my mother did. She was a pragmatist, she was a person who told me about hope. When you need hope, you try everything and then something happens that you didn't expect. Somebody someway has decided what your life is going to be. One is lucky, one is not. We don't know really what that fate is based on."

In the book, you deal a lot with death.

Tan says that when her father and her brother died, "it made me very angry. My mother talked about killing herself all the time. She was always threatening. Whenever she got a bad mood she talked about it so I always thought about death, about our identities as human beings."

When you start asking these questions at a very young age, "that leads you to become a writer. There are questions that have no answers; the answers keep changing depending on how you feel and what the situation is," she says.

Finding the truth

In 2001, after her return from a lecture tour throughout the United States, she found out that she had come down with Lyme disease, which is caused by a tick bite and is considered rare. For months she suffered from neurological disturbances like dementia and mood swings, and it was many months before the doctors identified the disease.

Your writing in the book is very personal and revelatory. Does this require courage?

"Writing is about finding truth," she says, even the writing of fiction. "In the essays too I tried to find what in my life are the moments that I found truth. For example when I was ill and didn't know what was wrong with me, and I thought I'm losing things that were so important to me, the ability to write, for example, I was finding a kind of truth - what was the point of my life beyond my ability to write, beyond the ability to do certain things. And I wanted to know the truth about what happened to me, and why me. It's not just writing about 'look at me, poor me,' but more the questions that we come up with when we're faced with difficult moments, when the most terrible things happen in our lives - those are the times we also are forced to sit down, we can't think about anything else, and then we have to ask those very big questions.

"So by necessity I write about death, about falling in love, about losing somebody, being sick. When I was sick is when I thought about the title 'The Opposite of Fate.' This illness was happening to me - was it fate? Was it something I did that I shouldn't have done? What can I do to make it the opposite of the fate? I look back at my life and think about my mother, how she tried to undo fate when my father and brother died. And I realized hope is more than trying to make people to feel well - hope is a lot of things."

Chinese inspiration

In her books Tan depicts the Chinese immigrants in America - the stories they brought from China, women who were oppressed by men, class differences, forced marriages, a mother who murders her baby in order to punish her husband, a mother who is forced to abandon her children. The books are full of relationships between women - mothers and daughters, girlfriends, sisters.

Tan's identity is composed of both the Chinese heritage she inherited from her parents and the American culture into which she grew up. Tan says that she experiences duality frequently, but she does not investigate it. When she is in China, there are moments when she feels Chinese, and moments when she feels more American, for example regarding the right not to accept things that she does not like. In other countries, she adds, you can object to something but you will not necessarily protest against it. She observes that the United States is not a place where people can easily change the reality to their own benefit, but at least there is the dream that it is possible, a very American concept.

Several times a year, Tan visits China. There she gets inspiration for her stories, she says. She constantly asks herself there, "Who am I?" - a question very much connected to the history of her family.

China is arousing a great deal of interest in the world today; it is becoming a power. Tan concurs that China has rapidly opened itself economically and has become a place of many opportunities and ambitions. She notes that the world has noticed this and is starting to wonder who the Chinese are and whether they could be influential in other spheres. She adds that this is also what people feel about the United States - they wonder how it is a power that influences the rest of the world, and whether this is good.

In the final piece in the book, Tan writes about a time she was invited to the CNN studio in New York to talk about her children's book. Suddenly a tenseness developed in the studio. Tan, sitting in a chair and hooked up to a microphone, heard from one of the producers that a large building had collapsed in the heart of Manhattan. The date was September 11, 2001. The world, she writes, has become a harder place for all of us.

Many people in the Western world, and especially in the United States, had assumed for so long that the world was safe, she says, noting that we Americans were very lucky that we did not need to think about war and danger; the inhabitants of America thought that the rest of the world really liked them and liked the American way of doing things, but suddenly they found out that this was not so. When it happened, she recalls, she was in the CNN studio and she though that she would die on that day, but it didn't happen. Since then, she observes, she sees the world differently.

Of her mother she wrote that if fate were the little hand on the clock that moves forward unconsciously, she would have found a way to make it turn back. When asked whether she still uses this resource, Tan bursts into tears. "Always," she replies, and relates that recently she lost someone who was close to her. She thinks about this a lot, she says, because sad things always happen in life. She notes that when we lose people who are dear to us, it is a difficult time but it is also a holy time, a spiritual time, because then we think about the things that are truly important to us in life - which is what makes us better people.