Novelist Amy Tan's Family Secrets Are a Gift That Keeps on Giving

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Amy Tan's grandmother (right) in a picture taken of her in traditional courtesan attire.Credit: Courtesy

About a decade ago, American writer Amy Tan visited a museum of Asiatic art. She saw an exhibition about historical Shanghai, the city where her family lived for generations before her parents immigrated to the United States. Tan was on a short vacation with her family and ended the visit at the museum gift shop. For no particular reason, she purchased a history book about the courtesans of Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century. She’d never had any particular interest in courtesans, the elite of the Chinese sex industry, but something about the book – which depicted the women as “flowers” and as having a social status all their own – intrigued her.

She was writing a new novel at the time, but a day or two after the museum visit, found the time to leaf through the book during a morning coffee break at her San Francisco home. She arrived at a photo that made her heart skip a beat: It showed a group of beautiful Shanghai women, well-dressed in identical clothing, including an elaborately embroidered cap that covered the ears and a tight jacket with a fur collar. The photo was captioned “The Beauties of Shanghai – 10 courtesans chosen by customers in a popularity contest, 1910.” The matching clothes, the text explained, were typical garments worn by courtesans of the period.

The women’s garb fascinated Tan, because it was actually familiar to her: A cherished photo of her late grandmother as a young girl showed her wearing the exact same outfit: the cap, the jacket, the fur – it was all familiar after decades of looking at the photo. The possibility that her grandmother had been an elite prostitute for China’s wealthy was an intriguing and disturbing revelation for Tan. She set aside the manuscript she had been working on and plunged into a familial, historical and academic research project that took eight years. The 2013 novel “The Valley of Amazement” was the result (the book has just been translated into Hebrew).

The story’s protagonist is Violet, the daughter of an American madam who runs a prestigious Shanghai brothel where the clients, both Chinese and foreign, come not only for pleasure but also to arrange business deals and collaborations. At age 7, Violet believes she is completely American. However, all her attempts to find out the identity of her father from her mother – a woman of the world in whom motherly love does not abound – prove fruitless. She later discovers that her father is Chinese and she herself is of mixed race. In a cruel twist of fate, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and rise of the new republic, Violet is sold to another madam and becomes a popular courtesan.

“Part of the book started off with another story, with another character,” relates Tan in a telephone interview. “But once I saw this photo of the 10 women wearing courtesan clothes that matched [those of] my grandmother, I changed the character to a woman who was a courtesan. That led me to think about my grandmother, as well as the character of the book – the question being what is our identity, and how much is formed by our birthright, our circumstances, the actions of other people and our own choices? Is there a kind of state that operates in our lives? How much of it all do we determine? Those were the questions I had of my grandmother, because I imagine that was not a life she would have chosen.”

Anyone who’s read one or more of Tan’s many best sellers – including her debut success, 1989’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which was also adapted into a movie four years later – will recognize her handywork here. Her books are nearly always sweeping historical family sagas, centered around themes of identity, displacement and migration.

When Tan was 33, she discovered that before her mother immigrated to the United States and married her father, she had been married to another man, who abused her and her three daughters. The mother spent three years in a Chinese prison on an adultery charge, but Tan’s father proved to be her savior. After her release, she fled to the United States to join him, leaving her three daughters behind. Then Tan and her two brothers were born. It was only near the start of her career as a writer that Tan visited China, along with her mother. It was there she met her half-sisters and became acquainted with an entire branch of the family whose existence she had not known about.

Amy TanCredit: Rick Smolan

The unbelievable truth

The mysterious photograph indicating her grandmother’s profession was yet another twist in an unbelievable family story. Before she encountered the picture, Tan knew her grandmother had been widowed after losing her first husband (Tan’s grandfather), and afterward was raped and forced to become the fourth wife of the man who raped her; her children grew up on the new husband’s estate. She suffered from depression, though, and committed suicide by swallowing opium as her daughter (Tan’s mother) looked on. Tan also found out that her grandmother had previously been a courtesan and Tan’s grandfather was likely a client of hers: they fell in love and he took her as his concubine.

On her personal website, Tan relates that her relatives’ reactions to the new version of the family history were mixed. “Only one part of my family didn’t like that. The other part of the family, they were actually quite pleased that one of the possibilities was that she’d been a courtesan, and interested in why she ended up marrying the man who was their grandfather. Had it been that she was a courtesan and they’d actually fallen in love, and he took her as his concubine because he had been her patron?”

When asked if this is the version she pieced together after her research, Tan replies, “I believe that 75 percent of what I’ve discovered about my grandmother and the facts of that time, and about courtesans and what my family has said, leans more toward her being a courtesan than not.

“There are many inconsistencies,” she continues. “For example, I was told by the other side of the family that it was impossible she’d been a courtesan. She was very quiet and demure, and she had been a first wife. In fact, the other people said she had a wild temper. Everyone had to listen to her. She could make your life miserable if you didn’t. And she wasn’t the first wife of a scholar; she was the second wife, which makes her a concubine right from the beginning of her first marriage.

“It’s not so scandalous that the concubine of a man who died would have joined the household of a wealthy man as his fourth concubine – fourth meaning there were three others. She would have been known as the fourth wife, and that’s the order she came in. I’m told she was the favorite, she got the best room – and I saw that room, where she lived and where she died.”

Tan adds that her grandmother received other unique privileges, too. “Her son was given the inheritance of the home and doted upon. My mother, who was only a stepdaughter, was given an education, given a house, a lavish wedding. They had found for her the son of the second-richest family on the island. The stepfather was the richest man on the island. They made sure they got a very good match for her. You have to understand in the context of Chinese society how much that speaks to the devotion he had. She was the daughter of a concubine – a fourth wife. Typically, she would not be qualified to marry the son of the second richest family on the island.

“All these things seem to me to be very inconsistent with the other side of the tale I’ve heard related to my grandmother. I was struggling to make a list of things that didn’t make sense or followed a different logic. The facts I have found – the actual facts – contradict what has been said to me about who she was.”

Tan laughs when asked what it’s like to grow up in a family with so much drama. She seems liberated having discovered the skeletons in her family closet. Intimate, even painful, information rolls off her tongue as she washes the dishes or scolds the dog that’s barking in the background.

“I thought I had the most boring family when I was growing up,” she relates. “When I thought about becoming a writer, I thought there was nothing I could ever write about from my family. They’re not very interesting. And this is even after I knew some things about the family. It just shows that as you reflect on the things you believe about yourself, when you ask this question about identity and faith and destiny, you come up with the ‘whos,’ ‘whys’ and ‘wheres,’ and all these pieces come together. I keep thinking, ‘I’m done with the family secrets.’ And then even more come up.

“I think with almost every immigrant who has left a place – not always willingly – there’s a secret. It may not be a secret about marriages or occupations or scandalous, but there’s a secret. People have reasons. Unhappiness was left behind when they went to a new country. I would imagine that would have been very true for many people who went to Israel. From the friends I have, it has a lot to do with the people who were left behind.

“My mother came to the United States to marry my father, whom she was madly in love with – and she left behind three daughters. They went through the Cultural Revolution and had to work in farms, bent over in the rice fields, getting leeches on their legs and diseases. She lived in the U.S. when this happened, but she felt she had no choices. But it was a terrible secret that my brothers and I were not allowed to know.

“That has something to do with abandonment, which is a theme in the book. It has a lot to do with love and forgiveness. When somebody leaves you, that changes your life in a drastic way for the worse. Can you ever forgive that person, especially if you were abandoned as a child? How can you forget that pain?

“My grandmother killed herself when my mother was 9. And that was a form of abandonment. She never got over that. She was damaged by that. My mother saw her, she was dying. My [half-] sisters, meanwhile, act like they understand what my mother did [in abandoning them]. But in my talking to them further, they were still angry with her. They could never understand how she could have left them. One was 5, one 8, one 12. They were really young and the oldest was abused by the father. The father was a pedophile. He raped little girls. She had to bring home her school friends so he could rape them instead of her. What a moral dilemma – to have a child be forced to make that decision. I think it affected her personality. She is somebody who will sacrifice other people for her own survival, quite easily. Somebody made a choice for her – my mother left her – and she was left with this man, her father, who sexually abused her. Yep, I thought I had a boring family.”

Fulfilling destiny

For Tan, the family secrets that drive her writing are also connected to a sense of fulfilling her destiny. Several years ago, she delivered a TED lecture. The theme was “Creativity,” and with much humor she explained how the circumstances of her life made her what she is, and how all this is connected to the books she writes. She is always looking for a personal meaning in every story.

“It wasn’t until [I was] 33, when I started writing fiction, that I suddenly realized what that meaning was,” she explains. “That meaning was making sense of my life – what I believe about humanity and emotions and love. For me, the very act of writing was the very meaning of my life. It wasn’t seeing a book in a bookstore; it was nothing to do with that. It was doing the writing and figuring out who I was. Writing really enabled me to know what was important.

“These questions are very important to us, to everybody,” she adds. “To think about ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I different from the billions and billions of people who have ever lived? Why am I not?’ We mostly have no time to think about questions like that, we just live.”

Aren’t you tired of thinking about your place in your world, and why you’re like this and not like that?

“No, I think it’s fascinating. It’s not that I’m fascinating; it’s just the process of thinking about it. And the things I discover are always so surprising. It makes it worthwhile. It has a lot to do with human nature, it’s not just about me. It’s about the larger world. What’s different about me, but also what is common in human nature?

“And I’m very interested in that interaction of mothers and daughters. What’s the nature of the humans in that relationship? Mother and daughter; mother and child. Very, very different to how I feel as a woman toward my husband or my brother or a friend. And I also believe that the inner relationship between a daughter and her mother, or my relationship, at least, was the one that most affected who I am. The way I end up writing about things is influenced by my mother, and I think it’s interesting to think, ‘Oh, that’s where that came from.’ Especially the way in which I look at people, how I judge people.”

Tan herself chose not to have children, but notes about mother-daughter tensions, “I think it’s true in Jewish families and also Chinese families: It’s very similar how the mother deals with the daughter. The expectations, all the suffocating ways in which mothers can be with their daughters. I have so many Chinese and Jewish people telling me, ‘Oh, Chinese people are like Jewish people.’ I say, ‘No, they’re not. Jewish people are like Chinese people – we’re the original model!’

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