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If you like Amy Tan's story, you might also like:
Rita Dove,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
Dorothy Hamill,
Khaled Hosseini,
Maya Lin,
Frank McCourt,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields
and John Updike

Amy Tan's recommended reading: The Catcher in the Rye

Amy Tan also appears in the videos:
Changing Lanes,
The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Amy Tan in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Amy Tan
Amy Tan
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Amy Tan Interview (page: 3 / 7)

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  Amy Tan

What kind of a kid were you? How would you describe yourself?

Amy Tan: It's hard for me to say objectively. I ask people now and they say, "You were a great kid, you were so well-behaved." That's because now I have achieved a certain kind of success so they remember things differently. Their memory is warped. I have a writer's memory which makes everything worse than maybe it actually was.

Amy Tan Interview Photo
I think I was a gloomy kid. I was trying to behave, trying to be good. I really loved my father. He was my mentor in a way, so I wanted to please him a lot. My mother said I was a clingy kid until I was about four. I also remember that from the age of eight she and I fought almost every day. I remember that starting at the age of six I had thoughts of suicide. My first suicide attempt was with a butter knife. It hurt and then I stopped. The fact that I had those thoughts when I was very young was an indication that I was a very gloomy kid. I had some ways of thinking that were not healthy.

I loved to read. I was solitary and later I became a rebellious kid. There is one side of me that wanted to behave and to hear a voice that was God's voice saying, "Amy, I have a mission for you. You are going to go out and save this country." On the other hand, I wanted to go out and be a rebel and wind up in jail, which is what I almost did.

I think the rebellious side came about because I thought I was never going to hear the voice of God. I'd never be good enough for God or for my family or for my mother or father so I might as well be bad. And that I could succeed in.

The year after my father and brother died, my mother took us to Europe. And there, away from everybody, away from the past, away from people who always thought I was this nerdy little girl, I exploded into a wild thing. I shortened my skirts, I put on makeup, I hung out with hippies. I got myself a first boyfriend, who was a German man who was 24. I was 16. And it turned out, much to my delight, that he was also the father of an illegitimate child, which made him even more despicable in my mother's eyes. Anything that my mother hated, that was better. He deserted from the German Army. I found out later, not simply from its Army but the mental hospital. My mother was convinced that this man was going to ruin me. I can tell her to this day -- she still doesn't believe this -- I swear on camera that this man did nothing more than kiss me. I wasn't that stupid. I knew he was pretty low. But it was pretty exciting. You know, first romance. This guy wrote beautiful love poetry and I just wanted somebody to think I was special at that age.

It turned out that his friends were dealing drugs: hashish or marijuana. I was a girl who went to church every single day: Bible study, choir practice, youth sessions. Suddenly I'm hanging around with these people in this environment where I know nothing about anything. I start smoking, I start drinking. People roll hashish in their cigarettes and I think that's part of it all and I end up getting arrested.

This was a moment when I thought for sure my life was over. I think I understand kids who have made a few mistakes. They're relying on everybody else's opinion of who they are. They can't change the fact that they made this really stupid mistake, so they are just going to keep going that way. "You think I'm bad now? I can be really bad." That's the direction I could have taken. Fortunately, I didn't.

I had a chance, for one thing, to move away and not tell anybody what had happened. To start over again. It's wonderful to be able to look back and kind of talk about that humorously but I tell you it was a horrible, horrible time. I thought my life was over then, that all chances of ever going to college -- of having a decent life, of being respected -- were gone.

What pulled you through? How did you get in a position to do something with your life?

Amy Tan: I reached a point where I had infuriated my mother so much we nearly killed each other. Literally. And I was sick to my stomach, literally. I had dry heaves, and the pain was so enormous that at one point, when I thought I was going to die, I just suddenly realized that that scared me. And it was scary to live but it was scarier to die. I remember just saying, "I want to live, I want to live, I want to live." Some strength -- it's hard to describe what it is, you know? You just start to pull through.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Amy Tan Interview Photo
I still did a lot of things out of anger for a while. I was lucky that I met a very kind person, a very good person and that person is now my husband. He is a very sweet man. I wasn't in love with him when I first met him, but I knew he was a good person. I said, "This is the kind of person my father was." Four years later I married Lou and we have been together ever since. We have been together for 26 years. He's been my stability in life.

I also learned to forgive myself, and that enabled me to forgive my mother as a person. She wasn't a perfect mother, but a lot of the things she did, she really did do out of love. Maybe they weren't the right things to do, but it really was out of love. Once I realized that and stopped taking it as a personal attack to torture me and make my life miserable, then I could look beyond it. I could even look at it with some humor eventually.

It's not as though I came to one crisis, overcame that, and the rest of my life was smooth and perfect. Life is a continual series of bumps and crises. You think you're never going to get over a hurdle, and you get over it. You enter into what one writer, Richard Ford, calls the "period of existence." That's when you survive. You can look back on what's just happened and you make sense of it and grow, or you stagnate or you go back down, but it's your period of existence. The hurdles and conflicts are really momentary. You get over them and you see what happens afterwards.

Do you think your conflicts with your mother were really over generational issues, or cultural issues, or both?

Amy Tan Interview Photo
Amy Tan: I think the conflicts were both cultural and generational. They are cultural if you're raised bi-culturally and, in this day and age, who's not? Even if you're not, if your family is of one culture, you are around people of many different cultures. So you see different cultural expectations going on all around you.

I think the cultural issues can sometimes confuse the generational ones. I'll give you an example. If my mother didn't want me to date boys out of fear that somehow I would lose myself to this boy and ruin my life, I chalked up all of her fears to Chinese fears, not generational ones. Anything that was unreasonable, I said was Chinese so I made the culture the scapegoat. That's unfortunate, because it made me grow up wanting to deny that part of my family, of myself. Anything that was Chinese about me made me feel ashamed. I wanted to bury it so that what I thought was the stronger, more independent, American side could come out.

I realize now that some of the stuff that happened to me was simply the uniqueness of my family and my mother. It had nothing to do with Chinese culture. Some of it, yes, was rooted inside traditions of Chinese culture, like the use of fear in old families to keep children under control. But I think any mother worries about her daughter losing herself to some boy and ruining her life. So there was a mix of things.

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This page last revised on Jan 16, 2008 16:17 EDT
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