Amy Tan, whose books The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife were influenced by her own life and that of her friends, said writing took her closer to her mother.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, a documentary about the 69-year-old poet, will air on PBS on Monday. It deals with her tumultuous relationship with her girlfriend, Daisy Tan.
“The person who was most exposed in the books, of course, would have been my mother,” Amy Tan said. “She desired more books on herself. She asked me to say the whole truth.”
Daisy Tan died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1999, at the age of 83. The documentary features excerpts from Amy Tan’s video interviews with her mother, through which she learnt more about her family’s roots, descriptions of which inspired the 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club and the 1991 film Kitchen God’s Wife.
Amy Tan said Daisy Tan believed that if the author wrote about her mother’s pain in Shanghai, the painful experiences would be transformed into something meaningful.
In both the book and film adaptations of The Joy Luck Club, a character’s grandma poisons herself. Daisy Tan said her mother poisoned herself after years of living in an abusive marriage.
Daisy Tan was married to a pilot in Shanghai who she refers to as “that bad man,” a term Amy Tan uses in The Kitchen God’s Wife. Daisy left her three daughters behind when she married John Tan, and their son died of diarrhoea.
John and Daisy Tan entered the country on student visas and lived until theirs expired. They had Amy Tan here, and she said she didn’t know about her mother’s past life experiences until she interviewed her.
“I got to experience not only being with immigrants, but the kinds of secrets that immigrant families that are illegal will have,” Amy Tan said. “I did not know about my mother’s daughters back in China. I did not know she was married before.”
The Joy Luck Club was named after John and Daisy Tan’s stock market and social club. They would discuss investment opportunities, and then they would socialize.
In the book and film, the Joy Luck Club is a group of mothers who play Mahjong together, as the women in Daisy Tan’s club did. The book and film depict the struggles of American-born daughters to relate to their Chinese immigrant mothers.
Like in The Joy Luck Club, Daisy Tan encouraged her daughter to play the piano as a child and pursue a financially stable career. However, once Amy Tan became an author, Daisy Tan encouraged her to tell her family’s story.
Amy Tan said sharing her interviews with her mother and discussing her past in the documentary proved more challenging than adapting her family to fictional stories. Amy Tan also has written nonfiction memoirs.
“The video was difficult because it’s me that you see,” Amy Tan said. “In this documentary, you don’t see a character.”
In the documentary, Amy Tan described her mother as suicidal. Daisy Tan once attempted suicide by jumping from a moving car. Another time, Daisy Tan ransacked the kitchen and living room on her daughter’s birthday.
Amy Tan said she grew to understand the traumas that led to Daisy Tan’s erratic behavior. Amy said she witnessed such events when both her brother and father were diagnosed with brain tumors.
John Tan’s diagnosis came two weeks before his son, Peter, died. John Tan died within a year.
“My mother thought we were next, that we were going to die,” Amy said. “She and I had many arguments during that time, because she didn’t think I felt enough, that I wasn’t grieving enough.”
Amy Tan said her mother also had a great sense of humor. She said Daisy Tan could be self-deprecating about her own volatile personality.
“We were driving in the middle of the night,” Amy Tan said. “She said, ‘Let’s get in an argument so I can stay awake.’ And we both knew it was funny.”
Amy Tan has also written children’s books and other novels. The author said finishing a book still feels like a death of something on which she’s worked so hard. However, she has learned how to process that mourning.
“I’m pretty sure that my life is over once it gets out in public,” Amy Tan said. “Then I just have to say, ‘It doesn’t matter. You wrote the book you wanted to write.'”