Where the Past Begins (Tan) - Discussion Questions

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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