Novelist Tan (The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2001, etc.) offers a wry but bracing take on life and writing in this collection of her nonfiction, some previously published.
Although the author recalls some painful subjects—a friend’s murder, her mother's dementia, her own battle with long-undiagnosed Lyme disease—her prose is thoughtful, never maudlin or self-pitying. Tan writes as easily and unpretentiously about herself as about others. She is equally balanced in her treatment of such contentious subjects as multiculturalism—she believes in an inclusive, truly American literature—and human rights in China, which are more complicated, she argues, than it seems from a US perspective. (She cites as an example her own banning from the country after a misunderstanding about fundraising for orphans in need of surgery.) The author also offers pertinent advice, originally delivered at a commencement address, on how to write; on the perils of translation, particularly in conveying social context; and on the challenge of writing a second novel after a bestselling first. But the heart of this collection concerns Tan’s mother, who left the children of her first marriage in China and immigrated to the US to marry Amy’s father, whom she had met and fallen in love with in China. Tu Ching Tan taught her daughter about the permutations of fate, but equally defended the strength of hope. The author suspects that her mother’s many threats to kill herself reflected underlying depression: at nine Tu Ching had seen her own mother commit suicide; she endured an abusive first marriage and then saw her second husband and elder son die, within months, of brain tumors, deaths that led her to flee with Amy and her younger son to Europe. Tan writes lovingly and perceptively of this woman who could exasperate with constant advice and criticism, but who was also her daughter’s strongest defender, bragging that she always knew Amy would be a writer, though she had as adamantly believed Tan would be a doctor.
An examined life recalled with wisdom and grace.