January 17, 2004
Communique #8 from "Crossing Borders: The Immigrant Voice in American Literture"
Amy Tan sat very relaxed and comfortable in front of the large audience, her puppy in a large cloth bag next to her on the seat. She told this story...I'm sending this from memory of what she said, not notes, so there may be some errors. She deals with this material in one of her novels.
In China, her father fell in love with a married woman who had three daughters. The husband had his wife put in jail to stop the affair. At just this time, Amy Tan's father received a scholarship to go to MIT and was able to escape the encroaching Chinese civil war, however he was deeply troubled at leaving his lover in jail. He prayed for a sign...and apparently got one since when he came to the US, instead of continuing on to Boston and MIT, he studied to become a Baptist minister. The woman was subsequently released from jail and she wrote wanting to join him...a problem for an about-to-be-ordained Baptist minister. She was however able to get out of China on the last boat to leave Shanghai before the Communist takeover in 1949, but was forced to leave her three daughters behind. The Baptist minister and his lover married and Amy and two brothers were the result.
She said, "My mother believed in Fate. My father believed in Faith."
When Amy was a teenager, her father and one brother both died of brain tumours.
Amy's mother believed that Amy could talk to ghosts so she got a Oujii board set up and every night made Amy use the Oujii board to talk to her father. She said at first it was easy. Her mother would ask: "Do you miss me? Do you love me?" She would direct the Oujii marker over to the word Yes. or "My daughter is so naughty. Should I send her to a strict girls school in Shanghai?" Amy would direct the Oujii marker to No. She began to feel more in control of Destiny. Then her mother would started asking "Should I invest in US Steel or Bank of America?"
She said her mother did very well on the stock market and she figured her advice was at least as good as any brokers.
She talked about many things. Once she said her mother was cleaning the sink with "Old Dutch" cleansor. She turned to Amy and said, "We'll go to Holland. They're clean there." Within six months she had sold the house and taken 16-year-old Amy and her brother to Holland and eventually to Switzerland. This was when Amy started seeing "Franz" who was a 22-year-old soldier who had gone AWOL from whatever army he was in. They were in a Swiss town. Amy's mother found a private investigator to see what was going on with this Franz fellow. The PI was also the mayor of the town. Soon Franz and his two Canadian friends were busted for hashish possession and deported.
Amy said American writers have a complete assumption of freedom of expression. Immigrant writers are under some pressure to provide positive role models and are considered a traitor if they do not. She said
"I write because I'm confused. Narrative lays a structure over a lot of pieces of chaos."