Amy Tan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 12:00am

Life: Do not be deceived by her aura of professionalism. Unlike other hot-shots who waltz from Harvard or Oxford to rave reviews and prizes, this daughter of California-based Chinese immigrants has experienced hell.

For most of her 51 years, Tan has been bedevilled by depression. Sometimes it was so intense that suicide seemed the only solution. 'The urge was always to destroy myself violently,' she is quoted as saying. 'Like crashing my car into a tree.' Tan first tried to kill herself when she was six, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, by dragging a butter knife across her wrists. She stopped only because she could not tolerate the sting. As a child she never told anyone how wretched she felt because her mother had her own problems - she would hurl furniture around and threaten to kill herself.

Life for Tan became even more of a nightmare when, before she reached 15, both her brother Peter and her father - a Baptist minister and an electrical engineer - were diagnosed with brain tumours that proved fatal.

Tan's mother believed the family was cursed. Tan may well have wondered whether she was right. She was molested, was the victim of an attempted rape, and one night her mother backed her against a wall and tried to murder her with a meat cleaver.

With such a traumatic upbringing, Tan evolved into a therapy junkie who supported herself through business writing. Only after a perplexing experience with a psychiatrist who kept nodding off did she consider writing.

Putnam snapped up the outline of her first novel for US$50,000 (HK$390,000). The novel developed into Tan's debut, The Joy Luck Club, about four Asian women, who fled China in the 1940s, and their four Americanised daughters. One of Asian literature's brightest stars was born.

Tan now owns a condominium in the swank Presidio district of San Francisco where she lives with her tax lawyer husband, Louis DeMattei, and two 'babies' - Yorkshire terriers Bubba Zo and Lilli. Despite all the tribulations she has experienced, Tan claims she essentially feels happy.

Work: The Joy Luck Club (1989); The Kitchen God's Wife (1991); The Moon Lady (1992); The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994); The Hundred Secret Senses (1995); The Bonesetter's Daughter (2000).

Subplot: Amy Tan somehow contrives to straddle the gulf between literary respectability and mass-market success, wowing both readers and critics. The New York Times praised her for refusing to delineate cutout characters 'from a Chinese-American knockoff of Roots'. Grab a copy of her meditation on the occult, The Hundred Secret Senses, which The Boston Sunday Globe dubbed 'the wisest and most captivating novel Tan has written'. The story centres on a Chinese-American called Olivia who, in classic X-Files/Scooby Doo fashion, sees her naively realistic world view shaken by the supernatural. Her sister Kwan, who claims she has 'yin eyes' and can see ghosts, tells Olivia about her previous life when she was a maiden with only one eye.

More helpfully, Kwan delivers some insights into the nature of reality. On that quality which Tan's life has so conspicuously lacked, love, Kwan memorably comments: 'It's a trick on the brain, the adrenal glands releasing endorphins. It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.'