“Everything I’ve written is about identity,” author Amy Tan said while promoting her latest book at University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle’s University District on December 5.
Tan, who gained international acclaim for The Joy Luck Club, said her the biggest influence on her identity comes from her mother—the inspiration behind her latest endeavor, The Valley of Amazement.
Tan’s inspiration for the novel, as the story goes, happened while Tan was doing research for another project. She had stumbled upon a photo titled “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” In the photo, five beauties wore clothing identical to what Tan saw her grandmother wear in another photo. Tan said one of the five beauties was the most popular courtesan in 1910 and 1911. Tan said she began to wonder why the courtesans wore the clothing they did and what their lives were like. This curiosity prompted an eight-year journey to discover what life might have been like for courtesans in the early 1900s.
The Valley of Amazement begins in Shanghai in 1905, centering on Violet. The story begins when her mother abandons her and she is prompted abducted and sold to a courtesan house.
For Tan, the book was never about courtesans, however.
“It’s all about me,” Tan said. While Tan’s work is often said to revolve around mother-daughter relationships, she said she always believed that her writing was about identity. “The biggest influence in my identity, and probably many others, is my mother,” she said.
Unlike many authors, Tan said she did not grow up wanting to be a writer. She often wrote fiction as she was growing up, but never thought of pursuing fiction as a career. Dissatisfied with her job later in life as a business writer, Tan wanted writing to be different. She attended workshops and set her own personal goal—to be published by a literary magazine before she was 70. “I still have some time left,” she said.
But publication and money were never what really drove her. In fact, Tan said she was fearful for writers who would evaluate their worth based on publications and sales.
“You cannot take anything for granted when it comes to writing,” Tan said. “You can have enormous talent and never get published.”
Tan said the success of The Joy Luck Club was an unanticipated stroke of luck. Even if editors had rejected her writing, she said “that would be painful, but I would still have my meaning.”
Tan advised aspiring writers to ask themselves why they want to write and if they would still do it if they never published.
“My philosophy for the beginning [of the writing process] is to always know why I write,” Tan said.
Jeehyon Shin, 21, an aspiring writer who came to hear Tan speak, said she had always looked up to Tan for her beliefs and writing philosophy.
“Her messages are really great and she knows how to portray that in her writing,” Shin said.
Tan told the audience that when she writes, she focuses more on pleasing herself over her editors, and imagines herself in a place where no one can look over her shoulder.
Tan wrapped up the night by saying: “If writing has taught me anything, it has taught me the meaning of my life.”