Jump to content

Amy Tan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Amy Tan
Tan in 2007
Tan in 2007
BornAmy Ruth Tan
(1952-02-19) February 19, 1952 (age 72)
Oakland, California, U.S.
EducationSan Jose State University (BA, MA)
Notable worksThe Joy Luck Club (1989), The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001)
Notable awards
SpouseLou DeMattei (m. 1974)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese譚恩美
Simplified Chinese谭恩美

Amy Ruth Tan (born February 19, 1952) is an American author best known for her novel The Joy Luck Club (1989), which was adapted into a 1993 film. She is also known for other novels, short story collections, children's books, and a memoir.

Tan has earned a number of awards acknowledging her contributions to literary culture including the National Humanities Medal, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service.

Tan has written several other novels, including The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), Saving Fish from Drowning (2005), and The Valley of Amazement (2013). Tan has also written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series that aired on PBS. Tan's latest book is The Backyard Bird Chronicles (2024), an illustrated account of her experiences with birding and the 2016-era sociopolitical climate.

Early life and education[edit]

Amy was born in Oakland, California.[1] She is the second of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan. Her father was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who traveled to the United States in order to escape the chaos of the Chinese Civil War.[2][3] She recounts that her father and she would read the thesaurus together since “he was very interested in what a word contains.”[4] This was the beginning of her path to become a writer as she wanted to use words to create stories to make herself feel understood.[5] Amy attended Marian A. Peterson High School in Sunnyvale for a year. When she was fifteen, her father and older brother Peter both died of brain tumors within six months of each other.[6]

Her mother Daisy subsequently moved Amy and her younger brother, John Jr., to Switzerland, where Amy finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa, Montreux.[7] During this period, Amy learned about her mother's previous marriage to another man in China, of their four children (a son who died as a toddler and three daughters). She also learned how her mother left those children in Shanghai. This incident was a key part of the basis for Amy's first novel, The Joy Luck Club.[3] In 1987, Amy traveled with Daisy to China, where she met her three half-sisters.[8]

Amy had a difficult relationship with her mother. At one point, Daisy held a knife to Amy's throat and threatened to kill her while the two were arguing over Amy's new boyfriend. Her mother wanted Amy to be independent, stressing that Amy needed to make sure she was self-sufficient. Amy later found out that her mother had three abortions while in China. Daisy often threatened to kill herself, saying that she wanted to join her mother (Amy's grandmother, who died by suicide).[9] She attempted suicide but never succeeded.[9] Daisy died in 1999[10] at the age of 83; she had Alzheimer's disease.[11]

Amy and her mother did not speak for six months after Amy dropped out of the Baptist college her mother had selected for her, Linfield College in Oregon, to follow her boyfriend to San Jose City College in California.[3][12][13] Amy had met him on a blind date and married him in 1974.[6][12][13] Amy later received bachelor's and master's degrees in English and linguistics from San José State University. She took doctoral courses in linguistics at University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California, Berkeley.[14]


While in school, Tan worked several odd jobs—serving as a switchboard operator, carhop, bartender, and pizza maker—before starting a writing career. As a freelance business writer, she worked on projects for AT&T, IBM, Bank of America, and Pacific Bell, writing under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms.[6] These projects had turned into a 90-hours-a-week workaholism.[15]

The Joy Luck Club[edit]

Early in 1985, Tan began writing her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, while working as a business writer. She joined a writers' workshop, the Squaw Valley Program, to refine her draft. She submitted a part of the draft novel as a story titled 'Endgame' to the workshop. Before attending the program, Tan read Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and was "amazed by her voice... [she] could identify with the powerful images, the beautiful language and such moving stories." Later, many critics compared Tan to Erdrich. Author Molly Giles, who was teaching at the workshop, encouraged Tan to send some of her writing to magazines. Tan credits Giles with guiding her to the end of writing the book. It began with Giles' seeing a dozen stories in the 13 page draft submitted to the program. Stories by Tan, drawn from the manuscript of The Joy Luck Club, were published by both FM Magazine and Seventeen, although a story was rejected by the New Yorker.[15]

After the acceptances and a rejection, Tan joined a new San Francisco writers' group led by Giles.[15] Giles recommended Tan to academic-turned agent Sandra Dijkstra in 1987. In May that year, an Italian magazine translated and published 'Endgame' without permission. Dijkstra advised Tan to send to her another story; "Waiting Between the Trees" arrived, written as an experiment to decide whether the stories collectively become a novel or a book of short stories. Dijkstra signed up Tan and asked Tan to write a synopsis for the book along with an outline for other stories.[15]

Working with Dijkstra, Tan published several other parts of the novel as short stories, before it was sent as a draft novel manuscript. She received offers from several major publishing houses, including A.A. Knopf, Vintage, Harper & Row, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Simon and Schuster, and Putnam Books, but declined them all as they offered compensation that she and agent considered to be insufficient.[15] Tan eventually accepted a second offer from G. P. Putnam's Sons for $50,000 in December 1987.[16] The Joy Luck Club, consists of eight related stories about the experiences of four Chinese–American mother–daughter pairs.[17] Tan dedicated the book to her mother with the following words: "You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more."[11]

Being a realist, Tan had predicted to her husband that the novel would disappear from the bookstore shelves after six weeks. She thought that most first novels meet that fate within that time. [18] Putnam Books auctioned the reprint rights in April 1989,[19] which were bought by Vintage Books, the trade paperback division of Random House. Vintage's successful bid was at US$ 1.2 million. However, Random House decided to alter plans, and Ivy Books was assigned to print the paperback version first in the mass-market version followed by Vintage for a smaller audience as a more expensively produced version.[20] When the paperback version came out, its hardcover had already undergone 27 printings with sales of over 200,000 copies.[21] By 1991, the book had already been translated into 17 languages.[22]

The Kitchen God's Wife[edit]

Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, also focuses on the relationship between an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[6] On its writing inspiration, Tan explained, "My mother said, when I started The Kitchen God's Wife, that she liked The Joy Luck Club very much, it's very fictional, but next time tell my story." Tan added that there are many fictionalized parts in the story narration too.[21] Tan later referred to this book as the "much more" that she remembered as mentioned in the dedication page of her first book.[11] This novel is significant as it narrates a historical period of China between the 1930s and 1940s, including Nanjing Massacre.[23]

G. P. Putnam's Sons released the book in June 1991 and priced the hardcover at US$ 21.95.[22]

Other books[edit]

Tan's third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, was a departure from the first two novels, in focusing on the relationships between sisters, inspired partly by one of the half-siblings Tan sponsored to the United States.[24]

Tan's fourth novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, returns to the theme of an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.[25]

In 2024, Tan published The Backyard Bird Chronicles, her illustrated account of birding as a coping mechanism during the divisive 2016 US Presidential election.[26]

Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir[edit]

4th Estate published Tan's memoir in October 2017. The book cover was released earlier in April.[27] In the book, using family photographs and journal entries, she writes about the relationship with her mother, death of her father and brother, stories of her half-sisters and grandmother in China, her diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease, and life as a writer.[28] In comparison to her fiction writing, Tan said, a memoir is "unvarnished". While writing a memoir, her recollection and sequence of events might not be orderly for reader. They emerge according to their importance and how they shaped her.[29][30]

Other media[edit]

Tan was the "lead rhythm dominatrix", backup singer and second tambourine with the Rock Bottom Remainders literary garage band. Before the band retired from touring, it had raised more than a million dollars for literacy programs. Tan appeared as herself in the third episode of Season 12 of The Simpsons, "Insane Clown Poppy."[31]

Tan's work has been adapted into several different forms of media. The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a play in 1993; that same year, director Wayne Wang adapted the book into a film. The Bonesetter's Daughter was adapted into an opera in 2008.[32] Tan's children's book, Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat was adapted into an PBS animated television show, also named Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat.[33]

In May 2021, the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir was released in the American Masters series on PBS. (It was later released on Netflix.) [34]

Critical reception[edit]

Tan's writing has been praised for its bravery in exploring both the personal struggles and triumphs of immigrant families.[35] Her first book The Joy Luck Club, was called "a jewel of a book" by the New York Times, noting Tan's "deep empathy for her subject matter" and the "rare fidelity and beauty" of her storytelling.[36] The Joy Luck Club went on to be a bestseller, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. That book and her subsequent novels have spent forty weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list.[37]

In 2021, Tan was presented the National Humanities Medal for her contribution to expanding the American literary canon, and in the same year won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.[35] Tan also received the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service for her contribution to world community.[38]

Tan has received criticism, notably from Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote that Tan's novels "are often products of the American-born writer's own heavily mediated understanding of things Chinese", and author Frank Chin, who has said that her novels "demonstrate a vested interest in casting Chinese men in the worst possible light".[39][40] Tan has dismissed these criticisms however, stating that her works arise from her personal family experiences as a Chinese-American, and are not intended as a representation of the general Chinese/Asian American experience.[41][42]

Personal life[edit]

While Tan was studying at Berkeley, her roommate was murdered and Tan had to identify the body. The incident left her temporarily mute. She said that every year for ten years, on the anniversary of the day she identified the body, she lost her voice.[43]

Tan believes she developed chronic Lyme disease, a condition unrecognized by medical science, in 1998. She attributes health complications like epileptic seizures to chronic Lyme disease. Tan co-founded LymeAid 4 Kids, which helps uninsured children pay for treatment.[44][45][30]

Tan also developed depression, for which she was prescribed antidepressants. Part of the reason that Tan chose not to have children was a fear that she would pass on a genetic legacy of mental instability—her maternal grandmother died by suicide, her mother threatened suicide often, and she herself has struggled with suicidal ideation.[43]

Tan resides near San Francisco in Sausalito, California, with her husband Lou DeMattei (whom she married in 1974), in a house they designed "to feel open and airy, like a tree house, but also to be a place where we could live comfortably into old age" with accessibility features.[46] In recent years she has developed avid interests in birding[47] and nature journaling.[48]


Short stories[edit]

  • "Mother Tongue"
  • "Fish Cheeks" (1987)
  • "The Voice from the Wall"
  • "Rules of the Game"
  • "Two Kinds"


Children's books[edit]

  • The Moon Lady, illustrated by Gretchen Schields (1992)
  • The Evil Maris Claussen Yapper of eternity, illustrated by Gretchen Schields (2020)
  • The Chinese Siamese Cat, illustrated by Gretchen Schields (1994)


  • Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an Attitude (with Dave Barry, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Barbara Kingsolver) (1994)
  • Mother (with Maya Angelou, Mary Higgins Clark) (1996)
  • The Best American Short Stories 1999 (Editor, with Katrina Kenison) (1999)
  • The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2003, ISBN 9780399150746)
  • Hard Listening, co-authored in July 2013, an interactive ebook about her participation in a writer/musician band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. Published by Coliloquy, LLC.[49]
  • Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir, (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, ISBN 9780062319296 )
  • The Backyard Bird Chronicles, written and illustrated by Tan (Knopf, 2024, ISBN 9780593536131)


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Amy Tan". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  2. ^ Sherryl Connelly (February 27, 2001). "Mother As Tormented Muse Amy Tan Drew On A Dark Past For 'Daughter'". nydailynews.com. New York Daily News. Archived from the original on March 14, 2011. Retrieved December 15, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c "Amy Tan Biography and Interview". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  4. ^ "Amy Tan". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  5. ^ "Amy Tan". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  6. ^ a b c d Huntley, E.D. (1998). Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. pp. 5–7. ISBN 0313302073.
  7. ^ "The Archives of my Personality", address to the American Association of Museums General Session (Los Angeles), May 26, 2010
  8. ^ "Penguin Reading Guides - The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan". Archived from the original on July 24, 2010. Retrieved August 7, 2010.
  9. ^ a b "'I Am Full Of Contradictions': Novelist Amy Tan On Fate And Family". NPR.org. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  10. ^ Krug, Nora (October 11, 2017). "Amy Tan talks about her new memoir, politics and why she's not always 'joy lucky'". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  11. ^ a b c "Daisy Tan Dies at 83". Washington Post. January 10, 2024. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 23, 2024.
  12. ^ a b Kinsella, Bridget (August 9, 2013). "'Fifty Shades of Tan': Amy Tan". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  13. ^ a b Tauber, Michelle (November 3, 2003). "A New Ending". People Magazine. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  14. ^ "Amy Tan Biography". Archived from the original on July 2, 2008. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  15. ^ a b c d e Feldman, Gayle (July 7, 1989). "The Making of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: Chinese magic, American blessings and a publishing fairy tale". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  16. ^ McDowell, Edwin (April 10, 1989). "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; First Novelists With Six-Figure Contracts (Published 1989)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  17. ^ Hunter, Jeffrey W., ed. (August 2008). "Amy Tan". Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 257. Cengage Gale. ISBN 978-1-4144-1893-3.[page needed]
  18. ^ Tan, Amy (April 23, 2019). "Amy Tan Reflects on 30 Years Since The Joy Luck Club". Literary Hub. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
  19. ^ McDowell, Edwin (April 10, 1989). "The Media Business: First Novelists With Six-Figure Contracts". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
  20. ^ "Paperback-publishing switch surprises industry". Chicago Tribune. July 13, 1989. p. 12.
  21. ^ a b Wilson, Peter (July 14, 1990). "On common ground: The Joy Luck Club delves into the intensity and distance of the mother-daughter bond". The Vancouver Sun. p. 17.
  22. ^ a b Fong-Torres, Ben (June 12, 1991). "Can Amy Tan Do It Again? / Publisher, public hoping for a second blockbuster". San Francisco Chronicle. pp. B3.
  23. ^ Adams, Bella (2003). "Representing History in Amy Tan's "The Kitchen God's Wife"". MELUS. 28 (2): 9–30. doi:10.2307/3595280. JSTOR 3595280.
  24. ^ "Amy Tan" (interview) Seth Speaks Broadway! SiriusXM On Broadway, 16 May 2021.
  25. ^ Hoyte, Kirsten Dinnal (March 2004). "Contradiction and Culture: Revisiting Amy Tan's 'Two Kinds' (Again)". Minnesota Review. No. 61/62. p. 161.
  26. ^ Tan, Amy (April 23, 2024). "The Backyard Bird Chronicles". Knopf.
  27. ^ Biedenharn, Isabella (April 25, 2017). "Amy Tan Pokes Fun at Her New Book Cover". EW.com. Retrieved February 21, 2024.
  28. ^ Roy, Nilanjana (January 19, 2018). "Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan — dark materials". www.ft.com. Retrieved February 21, 2024.
  29. ^ O'Kelly, Lisa (October 17, 2017). "Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir". The Guardian.
  30. ^ a b Whelan, David (February 23, 2007). "Lyme Inc". Forbes.
  31. ^ "Amy Tan, Novelist". TED.com.
  32. ^ Kosman, Joshua (September 15, 2008). "Opera review: 'Bonesetter's Daughter'". SF Gate. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  33. ^ "Sagwa: About the show". PBS Kids. Archived from the original on October 17, 2014.
  34. ^ "American Masters: Amy Tan". Retrieved May 23, 2021.
  35. ^ a b "Amy Tan | The National Endowment for the Humanities". January 4, 2024. Archived from the original on January 4, 2024. Retrieved January 4, 2024.
  36. ^ Schell, Orville (October 21, 2021). "Review: 'The Joy Luck Club,' by Amy Tan". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 4, 2024.
  37. ^ "Where to Start with Amy Tan | The New York Public Library". January 4, 2024. Archived from the original on January 4, 2024. Retrieved January 4, 2024.
  38. ^ "Powell, Mamet, Berners-Lee, Tan and Thorne Win 2005 Common Wealth Awards". January 4, 2024. Archived from the original on January 4, 2024. Retrieved January 4, 2024.
  39. ^ Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia (1995). "Sugar Sisterhood: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon". p. 55.
  40. ^ Yin, Xiao-huang (2000). "Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s. p. 235.
  41. ^ Lee, Lily (2003). "Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: The Twentieth Century, 1912-2000". p. 503.
  42. ^ Gioia, Dana (May 1, 2007). "A Conversation With Amy Tan". The American Interest. Retrieved January 4, 2024.
  43. ^ a b Jaggi, Maya (March 3, 2001). "Interview with Amy Tan". the Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  44. ^ Stone, Steven (August 2015). "Summertime Blues: To DEET or not to DEET...". Vintage Guitar. p. 60.
  45. ^ Amy Tan (August 11, 2013). "My Plight with the Illness". The New York Times. Retrieved April 12, 2014.
  46. ^ Tan, Amy (July 30, 2014). "Amy Tan on Joy and Luck at Home: The novelist builds a home she can grow old in". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  47. ^ "Christian Cooper and Amy Tan on How Birding Brings Them Joy". The New York Times. June 14, 2023. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  48. ^ Laws, John Muir; Lygren, Emilie (2020). How to Teach Nature Journaling: Curiosity, Wonder, Attention by Emilie Lygren, John Muir Laws. Heyday. ISBN 978-1-59714-490-2.
  49. ^ "Hard Listening - Coming June 18th 2013". www.rockbottomremainders.com.
  50. ^ "National Book Awards". Archived from the original on October 12, 2018. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  51. ^ "All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle. Archived from the original on April 27, 2019. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  52. ^ "APALA: 2005-2006 Awards". Archived from the original on October 16, 2014.
  53. ^ "The Big Read: The Joy Luck Club". August 13, 2021.
  54. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.

External links[edit]