Where the Past Begins (Tan)

Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir
Amy Tan, 2017
Ecco Books
368 pp.

In Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan reveals herself in a way she never has before, delving into her childhood, adolescence, family history, beginnings as a writer and professional life to explore the answers to questions of purpose and meaning that we all ask ourselves as we get older.

Moving from her childhood in Oakland and growing up with her Chinese parents through her success as a novelist, Amy Tan delves into her creative interests in music, the paralysis of beginning a new project, journal-writing and travelling.

Where the Past Begins chronicles the making of a writer.

With characteristic humor and poignant observation, Tan weaves a nontraditional introspective narrative that is as complex and vibrant as this beloved American novelist’s fiction. Interspersed with direct correspondence between the author and her editor, the book will give fans and critics unparalleled insight into the author’s process, her thoughts on the literary enterprise, and her singularly warm, intelligent mind. (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
In this wise and profound memoir, novelist Tan, now 65, looks back on her life, illuminating the path that led her to writing. Tan’s fans and writers of all kinds will find her latest work fascinating.
Publishers Weekly

[Tan's] new book digs deeper [than The Opposite of Fate], revealing more about he difficult childhood, her … relationship with her father, family secrets, and how all these experiences led inevitably to her becoming a writer.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) In her…revealing memoir, beloved novelist Tan chronicles with striking candor, sharp wit, and storytelling magic stranger-than-fiction traumas.… A profound work of endless fascination, discovery, and compassion.

Tan's candid revelations make much of the book entertaining, but the slight journal entries and short pieces she calls "quirks" read like filler, and many chapters would have benefited from further editing. A composite portrait that should appeal to the author's fans.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to start a discussion for Where the Past Begins … then take off on your own:

1. The subtitle of Amy Tan's book is "A Writer's Memoir," but its structure feels like something different — a collage, perhaps, with letters to her editor, an essay written when she was 14, a drawing from age 12, and so-called "interludes" and "quirks." What was your experience reading Where the Past Begins? Do you consider it a memoir … or something else? Did it's fragmentary nature distract from your enjoyment? Or did you find the fragments enjoyable?

2. What does the book reveal about the path or inspirations that led Tan to become a writer? Mary Karr, a friend of Tan and the author of both Lit (2009) and Art of a Memoir (2015), says that Tan is "an interesting person because she is both tortured and happy." What role, in particular, does personal family trauma play in Tan's writing career?

3. Talk about the letters Tan and her editor exchange. How would you describe their relationship? What do those letters suggest, if anything, about the role an editor plays in shaping a writer's career and/or works?

4. Talk about the family secrets that Tan has revealed in Where the Past Begins. She has said she worries that other family members might feel she has gone too far. What do you think about authors who mine family background for artistic reasons? Many, if not most, authors do. Fair? Unfair?

5. Tan traces her participation as a youngster in a psychological experiment about early childhood readers. How did that experience reveal her parents' expectations for her? What half-truths did they tell Tan? Years later, when Tan located the mystery woman who administered the tests, according to Tan, "She had said exactly what I needed to hear." What was the revelation and why was it so powerful (Tan later told an interviewer that she "heard it through tears")?

6. Talk about Tan's mother and also their relationship with one another — a relationship that has been central to Tan's writing.

7. Tan writes that "While writing this memoir, I was conscious that much of what I think I remember is inaccurate, guessed at, or biased by experience that came later." How much of anyone's memory is accurate and/or reliable? What about your own? What affect does Tan's acknowledgment about the frailty of her own memories have on your reading of Where the Past Begins? Is she a trustworthy recorder of her own life?

7. Tan considers the role of music in her life and in her writing. Discuss the comparison she makes of writing to jazz improvisation.

8. What do you find most surprising, maybe even shocking, about Tan's life: her mother's prior secret life in China, her mother's attempt to throw herself out of the family car, her father's and brother's deaths, her own battle with Lyme disease? Something else?

9. Talk about the book's title: what does it mean? Where does the past begin in Amy Tan's life?

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

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