Amy Tan: Her Mother's Daughter

amy tan
Every time Amy Tan checks into a hotel, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver, she sends her two Yorkshire terriers (her constant companions) to search her room. It is a ritual for her.

"I'm a little aware of danger," she says, "and I think that was transmitted to me by my mother. I'm trying to overcome it. But Mother was right: In many instances, the world is a dangerous place."

It is also a place that Tan has struggled to understand through her writing. Her best-selling debut novel, "The Joy Luck Club," was based on the stories of her mother, Daisy. and her circle of Chinese immigrant friends. It was made into a movie that recreated Daisy Tan's flight from China in the chaos of World War II. And it also featured Mrs.Tan's ceaseless efforts both to protect and prod Amy.

Says the author, "I've spent a lifetime obsessing about my relationship with my mother...because within that are contained all the questions about love and hope and despair. Within that relationship are all the important questions I need to meditate on."

Tan's new book, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," has also hit the bestseller lists. She wrote it in the wake of her mother's death, returning to themes of love and memory. This time, she was inspired by a photograph of her grandmother, a concubine who committed suicide when Amy Tan's mother was 9 years old.

Tan's grandmother

"I looked at this picture of my grandmother, and I thought, 'Here was a woman who is nearly unknown to everyone in the world except my mother, and she's leaving this world.' She was a voiceless woman who killed herself, and this legacy of voicelessness is something she passed on to my mother and, in a sense to me…"

Whether Tan is at home in San Francisco, or on tour in cities like Miami, she is aware that she has become a symbol of what many Americans see as the Chinese-American experience.

"It worried me that people think that all Chinese families are like the families in my books," says the author. "If anything, they're drawn from my own family's experiences. But I always thought my family was weird, you know – so specifically weird that it would be unlike anybody else's experience."

Not so, she found out when she read from her new book, this time to a sold-out crowd at a Miami synagogue. Fans came forward to tell Amy Tan how her stories echoed in their own lives.

But it's those fearfully charged mother-child relatinships that help explain why Tan has never had children of her own. She says she has often thought about how she would deal with a child...say, a son who wanted to ski without a helmet:

"I would be saying, 'You're gonna crack that precious brain of yours.' And he'd say, 'Why do you always have to be so vivid about being so negative in life?' You know, I imagine these things that I would have gone through. I think it's those fears and those worries that also kept me from having kids."

But if you're worried that Amy Tan has never learned to enjoy life, you can relax. Just go with her to the Fountain Court restaurant (mentioned in several of her books) where she and Lou DeMattei, her husband of 27 years, are regulars.

Did her mother like this non-Chinese fellow her daughter picked out to marry?

"She never objected to him," Tan replies. "What was No. 1 extremely important: She thought he was a good eater, that he liked Chinese food."

Her real-life family story has had as many twists and turns as one of Amy Tan's novels. In 1967, her father and older brother died within six months of each other from brain tumors.

Recalls Tan, "My mother believed it was not bad luck in the American sense. It was bad luck in the Chinese sense, that there was a curse, and that my brother and I were doomed."

And that led to one of the most searing events in Amy Tan's life, when she and her mother quarreled over Amy's wild, teen-age behavior.

She says, "She had a knife, a cleaver, and she backed me up to the wall with this up to my throat, and she said she was going to kill me. And then my brother, and then herself, and then everything would be finished. The curse would be finished, and we would be with my father and brother. She was clearly imbalanced."

But the moment passed and, as she grew older, Tan grew to understand her mother's anxiety.

"She couldn't have loved me more," she says. "Part of this, I realize, it that now that she's gone, that there is no one else in the world who would worry for me more than my mother.

One of Tan's survival skills is humor, making light of her days as her mother's business translator.

"She would say, 'He didn't send me money. Make me so mad! What he want me do? Go down, yell at his boss?' And I'd be on the phone, 'Yes, this is Mrs. Tan. I'm rather perturbed the check has not yet arrived.'"

Just for fun, she dresses as a dominatrix to perform with Dave Barry and Stephen King in their band of authors: The Rock Bottom Remainders. Says Barry, "You think she's a nice person. You think she's a good girl. That's because you're not going to believe this is Amy Tan. But it is."

One of her big numbers: "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."

"I said yes, thinking that it would be a chance to wear a silly costume, not realizing until later I'd actually have to sing and make a complete fool of myself. But I think it really loosened me up."

Does she think original artist Nancy Sinatra feels threatened?
"No. I got a nice note from Nancy Sinatra that she actually thought the rendition was very funny and great."

Still, it's probably best that Tan is not counting on a musical career. She's got lots of other things to keep her busy. PBS is launching an animated series based on her children's book, "Cat, I Want You Out Of The Palace."

"It's funny," says Tan. "Nobody ever asked me if that book's autobiographical, as they do with my other books. But it is. It is about a young cat that would be equivalent to a young girl going through a period of realizing that she has consequences on the world and that she can also change the world."

Even today, when she does a reading, Tan is sometimes reminded of the day she saw her mother in an audience with a distant expression on her face.

"And I asked her how she felt. Was she unhappy about anything I said? And she said, 'No. no. I heard nothing. I just sit there, think to myself, 'That my daughter. That my daughter.' You know, and in that expression was her complete pride and approval and…just amazement. It was a real high moment in my life, hearing her say that."

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