As Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s Laurie Dean Torrell went through her thank yous before Artistic Director Barbara Cole’s introduction of the night’s speaker, she gave us a statistic that posited how ticket sales for the event only fulfilled about a third of the costs incurred to produce it. While I’m sure it was an accurate breakdown, I couldn’t help look around at the packed lower level of Kleinhans Music Hall and remember how far Babel has grown since the less than one thousand people who packed into Babeville’s Asbury Hall almost seven years ago to see Orhan Pamuk. There was a time when it was feasible that the program wouldn’t last this long and yet here we are in 2013 with what could easily be two of the top three attended events in its history.
Last month’s talk with Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco was unsurprisingly popular considering Buffalo’s liberal base and fandom for all things Barack Obama, but last night’s entry was admittedly not—at least by me. Many “name” literary giants came before Amy Tan and most had seen moderate to large attendances with only Salman Rushdie getting the true rockstar treatment. But while I’d lump her into a class with Michael Ondaatje and Russell Banks, it’s obvious I was underestimating the power of her work. I knew her debut novel The Joy Luck Club was a pretty big phenomenon, but never thought its reach was this extensive. Buffalo came out to listen, declare their love, and give themselves over to the woman whose words spoke to them years ago as children and now again as adults.
At the beginning of the Q&A ending Tan’s talk, Cole mentioned that much of what was shared were stories and ideas published in a collection of essays entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. As a result, I could understand if many would have been a bit bored by the lecture because they perhaps already knew everything due to their stalwart fandom. I on-the-other-hand knew nothing of her work, history, or prevalent spirituality, so was actually excited when her speech was revealed to touch upon her life rather than specific motivations on the night’s book selection. It was a memorial to her mother and grandmother as much as an explanation behind her style and subject matter—a story about a young bookworm from Oakland, CA who learned how to wield vivid imagery from a tragic fate and crazy guardian.
By its finish, however, everything did come full-circle to become a process guide to her newest novel The Valley of Amazement‘s genesis. She jokingly opened her monologue by saying the best part of having a new book was that no one asked her when she’d be done anymore. The worst part, though, was those wondering why it took so long. Well, Tan explained her eight-year timeline was so long because she had been writing a totally different work for the first five before the spirit of her grandmother took her in another direction. It was through research into her own past—to understand where she came from, why her mom was suicidal, and what caused the family “curse”—that a new tale focusing on circumstances affecting who we are and our changing to accommodate them was born.
Within the recounting of her older brother and father’s death by brain tumor, her mother’s uprooting she and her other brother to Europe because the Dutch polish she used made her think Holland was clean, and the time Mrs. Tan threatened her with a cleaver saying she’d kill them all so they could rejoin those who died in the afterlife was both extreme tragedy and surprising humor. The notion her vain mother told her that a young playmate died as a child because she didn’t listen to her mother is horrible yet funny in its absurdity. Anecdotes about the Tans being a $1.99 Chinese buffet family moving across the Atlantic were cute while learning how her mother would ask their Ouija board serious, life-altering questions Amy then had to answer was heartbreaking.
Concepts of beauty and her acknowledging her own abroad because she became more exotic than in the United States were introduced. Stories about her mother hiring a private detective to break her up with a bohemian boyfriend in Switzerland who found evidence to arrest him and his friends in the city’s biggest drug bust ever were shared with more than a tinge of laughter. And learning how the same mother who wouldn’t just say she’d kill herself but actually tried more than once in front of her asking for forgiveness in a rare moment of lucidity while ravaged by Alzheimer’s explained how emotionally powerful one instance can be in wiping away the tragedy of so many before it. Tan used these experiences in her novels, writing versions of these maternal enigmas to captivate the world.
The most intriguing bit of history shared while she flipped through photographic slides of these women, however, was the serendipitous way in which she started to learn the truth. Told her grandmother died of an accidental opium overdose after marrying a rich man, Amy changed facts around while writing The Joy Luck Club. The character she based on her would now have a harsher backstory with a death by suicide. What she couldn’t have known was the reaction her mother had reading it, saying, “How did you know the truth?” From there she discovered her grandmother was a courtesan and concubine, a headstrong woman with attitude like her own, and a figure worth delving into for a new book. And a woman whose spirit helped connect her with those necessary to write The Valley of Amazement and in turn corroborate the truth.
Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.