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Finding Invisible Strength
In her first book of nonfiction, Amy Tan considers the triumph of hope over fate in her life, and her mother's.Amy Tan
By Judith Long
November 9, 2003
THE OPPOSITE OF FATE: A Book of Musings, by Amy Tan. Putnam, 399 pp., $24.95.
'Fang pi bu-cho, cho pi bu-fang," Amy Tan's mother would admonish her whining daughter. "There's more power in silence." Tan used that line in her bestselling first book, "The Joy Luck Club" -- a mother teaches this art of "invisible strength" to her 6-year-old daughter, who later becomes a chess prodigy.
CliffsNotes, those purveyors of Significance and Symbol, declare Tan's "invisible strength" to mean "human will," "female power," "the power of foreigners." Huh? says Tan. "The strict linguist might want to note that the literal translation of that Chinese phrase runs along these noble lines: 'Loud farts don't smell; the really smelly ones are deadly silent.'"
Almost 300 pages on from this anecdote in the opening essay of Tan's first nonfiction book, "The Opposite of Fate," the phrase surfaces again, this time in a commencement address. Tan employs the "silent but deadly" concept to exhort the graduates to avoid the empty, the cliche -- hot air. "My mother's saying is a good quotation. You should use it often," she says with a wink.
Such overlap -- of phrases, people, events, themes -- is one of the joys of Tan's wide-ranging collection of casual pieces (the "musings" of the subtitle): journal entries, photos, an e-mail, a eulogy, on-the-fly "ruminations" of a half-page or 30, a prize-winning essay ("What the Library Means to Me") written at age 8, a love poem to her husband of more than 30 years, a speech written in a panic at 2 a.m. (later anthologized and -- the ultimate yes!, since Tan was a mediocre scorer -- used on the English SAT). Some appear here for the first time; others have run in such diverse publications as The New Yorker, Ski, Harper's and Elle Decor.
Taking the reader from old China to modern San Francisco, Hollywood, New York, Switzerland and back to new China, from the 19th century to the fall of the Trade Towers, from horror to humor and hope, Tan's musings, she discovered, are "linked by my fascination with fate ... and its many alternatives" and have an unintended side effect -- they explain her fiction. "I offer it here for fun," says Tan.
And fun it is. Readers of Tan's novels will enjoy frissons of recognition as they see how she has mined her own life for the small details and large themes of her books. In Tan's superb latest novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," Ruth loses her voice every Aug. 12; Tan lost hers every year on the anniversary of the murder of a close friend. As a child, Ruth, like the young Amy, uses a Ouija board to invent stock tips for her mother, who believes they come from ghosts. (Incidentally, Ma's modest portfolio did quite well.) Tan's grandmother (a widow in China who was forced to become a concubine and eventually killed herself) and her mother (who married "a very bad man" and fled to America, leaving behind three daughters and the grave of her baby son) appear in various guises in Tan's stories. Her computer, says Tan, has a "motherboard" and a "grandmotherboard" -- her personal ghostwriters.
Movie fans will rush to rent "The Joy Luck Club" after reading Tan's account of the filming, here and in China. Tan and her husband, her 4-year-old niece, Ma and her dapper 86-year-old boyfriend, and some real Joy Luck Club "aunties" are extras. "In striking contrast to the rest of the audience, my mother did not shed a tear," reports Tan, who feared the scenes from Ma's own life would upset her. "Pretty good," says Ma. "In real life, everything so much sadder. So this, already much better." Invisible strength.
But the book is hardly just about "poignant mother-daughter tales," as Tan ironically calls her fiction in one essay (only to reveal in another that she never knew she wrote about mothers and daughters until her first editor pointed it out). Tan also covers skiing, interior design, outwitting squirrels (actually, the squirrels win), a ghost exorcism (it works), her rescue from a flash flood, coping with illness and horrific untimely deaths and overcoming loss.
Tan tells of the pitfalls (the dreaded second novel) and joys ("my world of make-believe") of the writing life. And we get a hilarious tour (in spandex and sequins, then dominatrix attire) with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock and roll band she joined (also starring Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry and others) that plays the American Booksellers convention then goes on the road to wild acclaim from the bookish, and the not-so.
There's a riveting account -- I wished it were longer -- of a trip with her mother to visit relatives in Shanghai -- Ma in her element, Tan struggling to keep up. And there's a wry, imaginary meeting, in Montreux, Switzerland, between Amy, a flower-power teen with a boom box, and a grumpy Vladimir Nabokov, 60, with a butterfly net ("it is likely Nabokov and I might have crossed paths," says Tan, who reveres him). From an earlier essay, we know Tan lived in Montreux at age 16 -- the result of her mother's snap decision, while staring at a Dutch Cleanser can in her California kitchen, to move the family to Holland. (They found they couldn't fathom Dutch, so they moved south.)
Tan lets us in on her peeves -- like being depicted with yellow skin in an episode of "The Simpsons" (reminding her that she feels "slightly uncomfortable in being called a Writer of Color"). She has some choice words for the "ethnic correctness" police and for the "literary separatists" (one once called her "a running-dog whore" sucking up to the "imperialist white pigs." You can only laugh). And although she's proud to be included on "lists for courses in ethnic studies, Asian-American studies, Asian-American literature, Asian-American history, women's literature, feminist studies, feminist writers of color," there's a nagging question: "What about American literature?" Indeed.
She detests the death-by-deconstruction of literature. And Tan, who holds an MA in linguistics, is not pleased when would-be anthropologists make absurd generalizations, as in a New York Times Magazine article that declared Chinese people to be "discreet" and "modest," traits supposedly exemplified by their language having no words for "yes" and "no." (Not discreet, says Tan, discrete -- "yes" and "no" are specific to what is asked.)
Tan's love of language and literature -- undeconstructed, unpoliticized, un-PC -- is, of course, boundless. It's great fun to check out her list of favorite authors (I won't spoil it by divulging names here), which is short on "white whales" and "white males."
Whales and squirrels, Nabokov and spandex, feng shui and ghosts, seemingly unbearable loss: The musings here are grounded in hope -- the opposite of fate. The book owes much to her mother, whose life embodied the triumph of hope over fate and who once told her, "I think you know little percent of me," inadvertently launching the career of Amy Tan, American writer. No hot air.
Judith Long is copy editor at The Nation.
Copyright ╘ 2003, Newsday, Inc.
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