So begins Amy Tan’s third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses. Although it has flown up the best-seller lists in the month since its release, the book is a risky departure for the 43-year-old writer, with its emphasis on spirits, magical time-shifts and other unearthly phenomena.
Tan spoke enthusiastically about her book, but admitted that she feared it would be ridiculed as “Chinese superstition.” She sat for an interview on the balcony of her San Francisco home, where she surreptitiously lit up a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke in public, it’s not a good image, it’s not a good role model,” she apologized. “Not that I actively set out to be one.”
With her tiny Yorkshire terrier, Babbazo, snugly ensconced in her lap, Tan, a brilliant smile often belying the frankness of her words, talked about the burdens of fame, the world of Yin, and her struggles with her own emotional demons.
SALON: Have you felt the need to be a role model ever since the success of your first book, “The Joy Luck Club,” in 1989?
AMY TAN: I don’t feel the need to be a role model, it’s just something that’s been thrust upon me. Teachers and a lot of Asian-American organizations, for example, say to me, “We need you to come and speak to us because you’re a role model.”
Are you comfortable with that?
No. Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they’re writing a very specific story. There’s also a danger in balkanizing literature, as if it should be read as sociology, or politics, or that it should answer questions like, “What does The Hundred Secret Senses have to teach us about Chinese culture?” As opposed to treating it as literature — as a story, language, memory.
Are you finding more or less of that pressure to be categorized?
It’s lessening in the United States. Other Asian-American writers just shudder when they are compared to me; it really denigrates the uniqueness of their own work. I find it happening less here partly because people are more aware now of the flaws of political correctness — that literature has to do something to educate people. I don’t see myself, for example, writing about cultural dichotomies, but about human connections. All of us go through angst and identity crises. And even when you write in a specific context, you still tap into that subtext of emotions that we all feel about love and hope, and mothers and obligations and responsibilities.
Speaking of mothers, do you get a hard time from relatives or close friends who think they see themselves in your books? Any accusations of personal secrets being told or confidences betrayed?
I did, at one point. One relative felt that the story of my grandmother should not have been revealed. My grandmother was the woman (in The Kitchen God’s Wife) who had been raped, forced to be a concubine, and finally killed herself. My mother, though, got equally angry at the relative and said, “For so many years, I carried this shame on my back, and my mother suffered, because she couldn’t say anything to anybody.” And she said, “It’s not too late; tell the world, tell the world what happened to her.” And I take her mandate to be the one that is in my heart, the one that I should follow.
In “The Hundred Secret Senses,” you draw much more on the world of the spirit than in your previous books. Was that a theme that you had always wanted to tackle as a writer, or did more personal experiences compel you to address it?
It’s been a part of my life for at least the past 20 years. I’ve had a lot of death in my life, of people who have been close to me. So I’ve long thought about how life is influenced by death, how it influences what you believe in and what you look for. Yes, I think I was pushed in a way to write this book by certain spirits — the yin people — in my life. They’ve always been there, I wouldn’t say to help, but to kick me in the ass to write.
Yin people is the term Kwan uses, because “ghosts” is politically incorrect. People have such terrible assumptions about ghosts — you know, phantoms that haunt you, that make you scared, that turn the house upside down. Yin people are not in our living presence but are around, and kind of guide you to insights. Like in Las Vegas when the bells go off, telling you you’ve hit the jackpot. Yin people ring the bells, saying, “Pay attention.” And you say, “Oh, I see now.” Yet I’m a fairly skeptical person. I’m educated, I’m reasonably sane, and I know that this subject is fodder for ridicule.
Does that worry you?
To write the book, I had to put that aside. As with any book. I go through the anxiety, “What will people think of me for writing something like this?” But ultimately, I have to write what I have to write about, including the question of life continuing beyond our ordinary senses.
You have a very optimistic way of looking at life and death. But these concerns have also been a cause for deep distress in your life, including bouts with serious depression.
Some of it is probably biochemical, but I think it’s also in my family tree. I mean, my grandmother killed herself; she certainly had depression in her life. And anyone, like my mother, who witnessed her own mother killing herself, is going to be prone to the same disease. My own father died of a brain tumor when I was 14. My brother died of the same disease. I didn’t do anything about it for a long time, because, like many people, I worried about altering my psyche with drugs. As a writer, I was especially concerned with that. A lot of writers believe that the trauma and the angst that you feel is an essential part of the craft.
And depression is still not respectable — especially taking medication for it.
People look at me as this very, I don’t know, Confucius-like wise person — which I’m not. They don’t see all the shit that I’ve been through (laughs). And going back to the question of being a role model, well, my life hasn’t been perfect. I needed help.
What do you take?
Zoloft. I don’t think it’s made me a Pollyanna. I can still get angry and upset, but I don’t fall into the abyss. I’m grateful that I have some traction now. It doesn’t change essentially who you are, but it fixes things just the way insulin does for people with diabetes.
In “The Hundred Secret Senses,” the central character, Kwan, is packed off to a California mental hospital for seeing “ghosts.” She is somewhat weird, often embarrassing, and doesn’t exactly look like Joan Chen. Where did Kwan come from?
Kwan comes strictly from my imagination, from that world of yin that I write about. I don’t know anybody in my life like Kwan, although I feel Kwan-like characters all round me. I would find myself laughing and wondering where these ideas came from.You can call it imagination, I suppose. But I was grateful for wherever they came from.
Olivia, Kwan’s American half-sister is not so happy-go-lucky. Pained, needy, she accidentally pulls heads off pet turtles and has a hard time with other people.
I took my own skepticism and embedded it into Olivia. Some of her — or the questions that trouble her — are drawn from friends who have the usual existential questions about life and relationships and work and success, and “Why are we here?” and “Why are we with this person?” I’ve already had interviewers wondering if Olivia’s relationship with her husband, Simon, is like my marriage, and I think, “Wait a minute, that’s not my husband, that’s not my relationship.” Certainly all of us have gone through fights with partners in our life, but that’s not drawn from my relationships per se. But I know that I’m going to be subject to that assumption.
You write that Olivia’s mother suffers “from a kind heart compounded by seasonal rashes of volunteerism.” She thinks of her step-daughter Kwan “as a foreign exchange student she would host for a year.” In other words, she’s a somewhat self-centered ditz — like some of your other less-than-appealing Caucasian characters, in “The Joy Luck Club,” for example. Is there a problem between you and white characters?
(Laughs). No. Some of these characters have to be foils. I needed a mother who was kind of undependable, so that Kwan could become that fount of love that Olivia is looking for. There was no intention — unless there is something subconscious — in trying to depict a Caucasian mother as not so great. I’d have to go through psychotherapy to explore that one. No, some of my best friends are Caucasian.