Hundred Secret Senses (Tan)

The Hundred Secret Senses
Amy Tan, 1995
Random House
406 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375701528

Amy Tan's latest effort unfolds a series of family secrets that questions the connection between fate, beliefs, and hopes, memory and imagination, and the natural gifts of our hundred secret senses. Years after her Chinese half-sister assails her with ghost stories set in the mysterious world of Yin, a young woman finds herself in China, looking for a way to reconcile the ghosts of her past with the dreams of her future. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Also named—En-Mai Tan
Birth—February 15, 1952
Where—Oakland, California, USA
Education—B.A., M.A., San Jose State University
Currently—San Francisco, California

Amy Tan is a Chinese-American writer, many of whose works explore mother-daughter relationships. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989) brought her fame and has remained one of her most popular works. It was adapted to film in 1993.

Early yeaars
Tan is the second of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan. Her father was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who traveled to the US to escape the Chinese Revolution. Although she was born in Oakland, California, her family moved a number of times throughout her childhood.

When she was fifteen, her father and older brother Peter both died of brain tumors within six months of each other. Tan subsequently moved with her mother and younger brother, John Jr., to Switzerland, where she finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux.

It was during this period that Tan learned about her mother's previous marriage in China, where she had four children (a son who died in toddlerhood and three daughters). Her mother had left her husband and children behind in Shanghai — an incident that became the basis for Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club. In 1987, she and her mother traveled to China to meet her three half-sisters for the first time.

Tan enrolled at Linfield College in Oregon, a Baptist college of her mother's choosing. After she dropped out to follow her boyfriend to San Jose City College in California, she and her mother stopped speaking for six months. Tan ended up marrying the young man in 1974 and subsequently earned both her B.A. and M.A. in English and linguistics from San Jose State University. She began her doctoral studies in linguistics at University of California-Santa Cruz and Berkeley, but abandoned them in 1976.

While in school, Tan worked odd jobs — serving as a switchboard operator, carhop, bartender, and pizza maker. Eventually, she started writing freelance for businesses, working on projects for AT&T, IBM, Bank of America, and Pacific Bell, writing under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms.

In 1985, she turned to fiction, publishing her first story in 1986 in a small literary journal. It was later reprinted in Seventeen magazine and Grazia. On her return from the China trip with her mmother, where she had met her half-sisters, Tan learned her agent had signed a contract for a book of short stories, only three of which were written. That book eventually became The Joy Luck Club and launchd Tan's literary career.

In addition to her novels (see below), Tan has written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. She has also appeared on PBS in a short spot encouraging children to write.

Tan is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band consisting of published writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Dave Barry and Stephen King, among others. In 1994 she co-wrote, with the other band members, Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an Attitude.

In 1998, Tan contracted Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for a few years. As a result, she suffers from epileptic seizures due to brain lesions. Tan co-founded LymeAid 4 Kids, which helps uninsured children pay for treatment, and wrote about her life with Lyme disease in a 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Tan is still married to the guy she ran off with from Linfield College and married in 1974. He is Louis DeMattei, a lawyer, and the two live in San Francisco.

1989 - The Joy Luck Club
1991 - The Kitchen God's Wife
1995 - The Hundred Secret Senses
2001 - The Bonesetter's Daughter
2003 - The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (Essays)
2005 - Saving Fish from Drowning
2013 - The Valley of Amazement
2017 - Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia and the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Ms. Tan has...injected a large dose of supernatural whimsy into her story in an effort to explore the connections between the generations. The results are decidedly mixed: a contemporary tale of familial love and resentment, nimbly evoked in Ms. Tan's guileless prose, and unfortunately overlaid by another, more sensational tale of reincarnation that undermines the reader's trust.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

The wisest and most captivating novel Tan has written.
Boston Globe

Her most polished work.... Tan is a wonderful storyteller, and the story's many strands — Olivia's childhood, her courtship and marriage, Kwan's ghost stories and village tales — propel the work to its climactic but bittersweet end.
USA Today

Truly magical...unforgettable.... The first-person narrator is Olivia Laguni, and her unrelenting nemesis from childhood on is her half-sister, Kwan Li.... It is Kwan's haunting predictions, her implementation of the secret senses, and her linking of the present with the past that cause this novel to shimmer with meaning.
San Diego Tribune

Tan has once more produced a novel somewhat like a hologram: turn it this way and find Chinese-Americans shopping and arguing in San Francisco; turn it that way and the Chinese of Changmian village in 1864 are fleeing into the hills to hide from the rampaging Manchus.... The Hundred Secret Senses doesn't simply return to a world but burrows more deeply into it, following new trails to fresh revelations.

Again grounding her novel in family and the workings of fate, Tan (The Kitchen God's Wife) spins the tale of two sisters, two cultures, and several acts of betrayal. Kwan, who came to San Francisco from China when she was 18, remains culturally disjointed, a good-natured, superstitious peasant with a fierce belief that she has "yin eyes," which enable her to see ghosts. Kwan's younger half-sister Olivia (or Libby-ah, as Kwan calls her) is supremely annoyed by Kwan's habit of conversing with spirits and treats her with disdain. Despite herself, however, Libby is fascinated by the stories Kwan tells of her past lives, during one of which, in the late 1800s, she claims to have befriended an American missionary who was in love with an evil general. Kwan relates this story in installments that alternate with Libby's narration, which stresses her impatience with Kwan's clinging presence. But Kwan's devotion never cools: "She turns all my betrayals into love that needs to be betrayed," Libby muses. When circumstances take Kwan, Libby and Libby's estranged husband, Simon, back to Kwan's native village in China on a magazine assignment, the stories Kwan tells of magic, violence, love and fate begin to assume poignant and dangerous relevance. In Kwan, Tan has created a character with a strong, indelible voice, whose (often hilarious) pidgin English defines her whole personality. Needy, petulant, skeptical Libby is not as interesting; though she must act as Kwan's foil, demonstrating the dichotomy between imagination and reality, she is less credible and compelling, especially when she undergoes a near-spiritual conversion in the novel's denouement. Indeed, some readers may feel that the ending is less than satisfactory, but no one will deny the pleasure of Tan's seductive prose and the skill with which she unfolds the many-layered narrative.
Publishers Weekly

Tan's fantastical novel is both mesmerizing and awkward. She is obviously betting that readers will find the ancient and modern worlds she draws here equally fascinating, but Kwan steals every scene she appears in, and her magnetic ghost stories completely overpower Olivia's more modern tale of a broken relationship. It's no contest, for who can resist the lure of a good old-fashioned ghost story.

As in The Joy Luck Club, Tan unwinds another haunting tale that examines the ties binding Chinese Americans to their ancestors. Nearing divorce from her husband, Simon, Olivia Yee is guided by her elder half-sister, the irrepressible Kwan, into the heart of China. Olivia was five when 18-year-old Kwan first joined her family in the United States, and though always irritated by Kwan's oddities, Olivia was entranced by her eerie dreams of the ghost World of Yin. Only when visiting Kwan's home in Changmian does Olivia realize the dreams are, in Kwan's mind, memories from past lives. Kwan believes she must help Olivia and Simon reunite and thereby fix a broken promise from a previous incarnation. Tan tells a mysterious, believable story and delivers Kwan's clipped, immigrant voice and engaging personality with charming clarity. Highly recommended. —Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
Library Journal

Olivia, the narrator of this story, was born to an American mother and a Chinese father. She meets her 18-year-old Chinese half sister, Kwan, for the first time shortly after their father's death. Kwan adores "Libby-ah" and tries to introduce her to her Chinese heritage through stories and memories. Olivia is embarrassed by her sibling, but finds as she matures that she has inadvertently absorbed much about Chinese superstitions, spirits, and reincarnation. Olivia explains, "My sister Kwan believes she has Yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin..." Now in her mid-30s, Olivia, a photographer, is still seeking a meaningful life. The climax of the story comes when she and her estranged husband Simeon, a writer, go to China on assignment with Kwan as the interpreter. In the village in which she grew up, Kwan returns to the world of Yin, her mission completed. Olivia finally learns what Kwan was trying to show her: "If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them anytime with our hundred secret senses." The meshing of the contemporary story of Olivia and the tales Kwan tells of her past life in late-19th century China may confuse some readers. Although this story is different from Tan's previous novels because of the supernatural twist, YAs will find some familiar elements. —Carol Clark, R. E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA
School Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Hundred Secret Senses:

1. In what ways are the two half-sisters, Olivia and Kwan, different from one another? How would you describe their relationship? And how does each reflect the two cultures: traditional Chinese and 20th century American?

2. Discuss Kwan's belief in the workings of a supernatural world, especially the World of Yin. How does Kwan believe this world plays out in San Francisco in the 1990s?

3. What is happening in Simon and Olivia's marriage? Why does Kwan want Olivia and Simon to accompany her to China—what does she hope for, and why does the couple agree to go along?

4. Kwan resists a strong spiritual connection between herself and her sister. According to Olivia, "In spite of all our obvious differences, Kwan thinks she and I are exactly alike. As she sees it, we're connected by a cosmic Chinese umbilical cord that's given us the same inborn traits, personal motives, fate and luck." By the book's end, who is right—Olivia or Kwan?

5. Do enjoy the interjection of a ghost world in a realistic novel? Does Tan make this spiritual world palpable and believable...or do you find it strained?

6. What about Kwan's stories? Did you enjoy them—did they enrich the story for you? Or did you find yourself impatient, skipping over them to get back to the central plot?

7. Talk about the ways in which the taboos of race, class, and politics affect the fate of the doomed lovers, Yiban and Miss Banner.

8. What is the significance of the book's title? What are the hundred secret senses?

9. Do you feel you came away from Tan's book having learned more about China and its history?

10. Who changes—and in what ways—by the end of the book? Do you, as a reader, come to feel differently about any of the characters at the end?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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