“The Boomer List” Interview
with Kam Williams
Born in Oakland, California on February 19, 1952 to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan is an award-winning writer whose novel, The Joy Luck Club, was translated into 35 languages and adapted into a hit feature film. She resisted her mother’s pressure to become a doctor and concert pianist.
Instead, Amy chose to write fiction. Besides The Joy Luck Club, she is the author of The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Saving Fish from Drowning, and Valley of Amazement, were all New York Times best-sellers.
She also penned her memoir, The Opposite of Fate; two children’s books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa; The Chinese Siamese Cat; and numerous articles for magazines. In addition, Amy served as co-producer and co-screenwriter for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club and was the creative consultant for Sagwa, the Emmy-nominated PBS television series for children.
She wrote the libretto for the opera based on her novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter. With music composed by Stewart Wallace, the opera had its world premiere to sold-out audiences in September and October of 2008 at the San Francisco Opera.
Here, she talks about being profiled in The Boomer List, a PBS American Masters documentary featuring icons of the Baby Boom Generation. The special premieres from 9-10:30 PM ET/PT on Tuesday, September 23rd (check local listings).
Kam Williams: Hi Amy, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you. We’re also both Boomers born in 1952.
Amy Tan: Thanks, Kam.
KW: What interested you in participating in The Boomer List?
AT: I thought it would be interesting to examine who we are as a generation. I also thought it would be fun because I’d worked with [director] Timothy [Greenfield-Sanders] before.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles says: Thank you for The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and all your fine writing since then right up to The Valley of Amazement which I just finished. You’ve been on plenty of best-seller lists. How does that compare to representing your generation on the The Boomer List?
AT: I suppose you could call me representative in terms of my going from being a part of an invisible set of writers who were outside of the mainstream to becoming a mainstream writer. That, people thought was very significant, breaking through some sort of barrier that I wasn’t aware of. I wasn’t trying to break through barriers. I was just writing a book. Before, there were plenty of books out there that had been written by African-Americans which were always treated as somehow on the periphery. They’d be in Ethnic Studies classes but they eventually became part of mainstream American literature. In that sense, I do think my novels have contributed to that development of American literature.
KW: That reminds me of when I took a course in college called The Great American Short Stories and all the writers we covered were white males. On the first day of class, I raised my hand and asked the professor why all the great American writers were white males.
AT: I went through exactly the same education that you’re talking about. I was an English major, and the only woman represented on the course curriculum was Virginia Woolf. I ended up taking a special class in Black literature as part of a summer program, and Asian literature classes still didn’t exist yet.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: You are among the most successful female writers. Only about a dozen women laureates have won the Nobel Prize for Literature since its inception. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin had to take the pseudonym George Sand to become a French novelist and memoirist. Historically, it has been difficult for women to thrive in the literary world. How can we break the glass ceiling and what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
AT: I really don’t know how one breaks through unless you have more diversity on the judging panel. What I have observed is that the winners are often books about larger political world issues. All I know is that my books would never win a prize like that because, in the judges’ minds, do not concern larger world politics. As a judge, which I’ve done, you look for literary merit overall, but so many prizes, especially the Nobel, have a political tinge to them. Not to say that’s wrong. It also has to do with what people perceive the value of literature to be, and what function it should perform, as opposed to simply being its own art form and entertaining.
KW: I found it interesting that your mother focused more on teaching you about being a female than about being Chinese-American?
AT: I think that was because she felt the greater impediment, the greater danger, had to do with being a woman. Among the lessons she taught me was that I should never let anyone else look down on me or determine how I saw myself. She felt that you can be constrained by the way that people think in any culture.
KW: Yet, she also told you that you weren’t beautiful.
AT: I look back at pictures of myself as a teenager and laugh. I certainly was not beautiful. I had acne, hideous glasses, a hideous hairdo, a puffy face, all the usual things for a 13 year-old. My mother was not one to coddle and say, “You’re so beautiful, darling. People just can’t appreciate it.” My mother always saw danger in beauty and said: “If you try to rely on beauty, you’re going to find yourself lost after awhile because beauty doesn’t last, and because people are attracted to beauty for the wrong reasons. So, you should be glad that you’re not beautiful.” That was her perspective. [Laughs] I think I was very fortunate that at that point when I was forming an image of myself I understood that I was going to have to depend on something else to find someone who was interested in me. My mother never stopped talking about how beautiful she was and how much that had gotten her into trouble. The worst of men were attracted to her.
KW: I saw some pictures of you as a teenager, and I think you looked very cute. When you look in the mirror today, what do you see?
AT: I’m very content when I look in the mirror. I’m happy with the way I look. I’m just me. I’ve grown into this face.
KW: As a child you also felt ashamed of being Chinese. Why was that?
AT: By the time I was 6, I had gradually become aware of the fact that I was different. And as my family moved up the economic ladder, we moved a lot, to better and better neighborhoods, and the classrooms in my schools became whiter and whiter, until eventually, I was the only Chinese girl in the class. By the time you reach 11 or 12, no child wants to be too different. You kinda want to look like everybody else. I had that same feeling. I wanted to have blonde hair and a perky nose and have boys look at me and admire my figure. But that didn’t happen. So much of it had to do with the boy-girl thing which became a hallmark of popularity and acceptability in junior high and high school. I just wanted that like everybody else. And I believed that I didn’t get any dates because I was Chinese.
KW: What inspired you to swim with sharks after you turned 60? A desire to do something daring and dangerous?
AT: No, it was that I literally wanted to discover something new in the way that Darwin did in discovering new species. It’s such an ambitious and almost impossible goal, but it would keep prompting me to look for something no one had ever noticed before. In some way, we are all different from everyone else in the world. That could be manifested by noticing something no one else has noticed. In Indonesia, I found the ugliest ant condo, and I decided, “I’ll take that.”
I also sensed that one way I could discover something new was by exploring the ocean, because there are so many unidentified species there. So, swimming with whale sharks with some conservationist friends became part of that adventure. I had not anticipated that it would be so life-changing. You simply abandon fear for the pure excitement and beauty and joy and surrealism of being around the world’s largest fish, and having them look you right in the eye. I even accidentally touched some of them at times as they started to turn when swimming close by.
KW: Do you think China is a lot like the United States today?
AT: Superficially, yes. But I think China has gone beyond just being more Western. There’s a lifestyle, an attitude, and a pace unlike that of the U.S. It’s hyper-speed. As Baby Boomers, we were the last American generation that could assume that we would own a house. However, that’s the norm now in China. Acquisition! And over the top acquisition! People will pay $100,000 for a designer purse. You have no idea how hyper-acquisitive people are in China. I don’t think many Americans would find they have much in common with them. I have relatives in China and I have seen them change dramatically as a result of this new acquisitiveness. Here, a lot of younger people don’t identify with Baby Boomers because they see us similarly. We were the big bulge and set a lot of the trends in the consumer model of what was popular. China is doing that now as well. But they aren’t desirous of being like Americans.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Kevin Williams says: While the Boomers did accomplish much good in breaking up some of the social and gender stratification in our country, many Generation Xers resent the Boomers’ cultural domination in the 80s and 90s, and even now as child-raising adults. Do you think that Baby Boomers, as a group, are aware of this animosity towards them on account of how they shaped our country at a high cost to future generations and where they’ve taken the U.S. economically, spiritually and socially?
AT: I’m certainly aware of it, but I don’t know that all Baby Boomers are. I think there are different strands of our generation. One that was very interesting was behind our grassroots efforts which got some traction on behalf of the anti-war movement, women’s liberation and equal rights for gays. We’re the last generation with the expectation of upward mobility and the home ownership and the credit card mentality. Those coming behind us feel that debt is what we’ve left them with, and the idea of having it now, but paying for it later. I think they also resent the amount of our pollution. We were the start of McDonald’s and the fast food culture and of massive consumer waste. But we also did a lot of positive things, entering the Peace Corps, campaigning for George McGovern, loving Jimmy Carter for what he was doing for social good, and I think many Boomers still have that consciousness. I would say to those who really despise Boomers: Don’t lump us all together. The credit card Boomers led us down a very nasty path of debt and unemployment.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
AT: I’d be embarrassed to admit the name of the last one I really read. It was a funny, fluffy book. But before that, I reread Love in the Time of Cholera.
Next, I’m planning to read Middlemarch which, oddly enough, I’ve never read.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
AT: Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, sautéed together in oil and garlic, and garnished with capers and lemon. I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat. I could talk about how bad it is for the environment, but…
KW: Let’s say you’re throwing your dream dinner party—who’s invited?
AT: I’m always terrible at that “If you were stranded on a desert island” type of question. I think, if I could have dinner with almost anyone, I would prefer it to be with people gone from my life, rather than important political figures like President Obama and President Assad to see what they’d have to say to each other. I want to see loved ones again and to hear about things that we didn’t have time to talk about. So, it would be the impossible dinner list of people I know I would never be able to see again.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
AT: I remember sitting under a tree in the summer, at 2½, when something fuzzy and round fell on top of my head and made me cry. I picked it up, and it looked like a peach. But my mother says it must have been an apricot since we only had an apricot tree in the backyard. We were living in Fresno at that time.
KW: What are you working on now?
AT: I’m working on a book about writing. It’s not a how-to book. It’s really about what Ezra Pound call “The Undertow.” The undertow of your life. All the things that come to the surface and all the things can drag you down and take you away forever. I’m trying to capture that sense of who I am from the very beginning, and of what I’ve noticed about life, and death, and relationships. So, I can’t really say what the book is about yet because I still have to find out more of what this writer is about first.
KW: Wow! I look forward to reading it. Well, have a good trip. I hear you’re leaving for Europe today.
AT: Yeah, I’m headed to Holland, Germany, Iceland and Italy. My big thing is I need to make sure I get enough sleep everyday.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Amy, and bon voyage!
AT: My pleasure, Kam.