Amy Tan is not dead yet

I know that I am right in the middle of telling the story of our trip to Costa Rica, but I have to interrupt to post about something else that happened today.

It actually started with something that happened in Costa Rica.

Our flights left San Jose at 6am, which meant we had to get on the shuttle from our hotel around 3:45 to be at the airport by 4. Chris and Joy knew from their last experience traveling through Central America that Costa Rica charges an “exit tax.” You have to pay about 30 bucks just to leave the country. If you don’t know this, and you cut it close timewise, you could end up scrambling to get all the security and customs taken care of before your plane takes off.

Because our hotel was literally about 7 minutes from the airport, and there was a shuttle that did the loop every 15 minutes, we decided to save ourselves the stress in the morning and just go over the night before to pay our tax and check in to our flights.

For some reason, the airline couldn’t print Jenn’s boarding passes, but a very nice girl, who looked about 12, was helping them figure it out. While we waited, Joy, Chris, and I looked around the extremely expensive gift shop. They actually had a pretty good book rack—not the newest releases, not classics, but just good books from all different genres.

One of them was Stephen King’s On Writing, which is one of those books that people are always telling me to read and I’ve just never gotten around to it. I have a theory that Stephen King will be seen by future generations as our Charles Dickens—a popular author who can actually write.

I mean, I’ve never read any of his books, per se, except about half of The Shining, but even just his plots are amazing—Carrie, Pet Semetery—the short story that inspired Stand By Me. I actually think the reason I didn’t finish The Shining is that he is too good a writer. I was scared.

So at the San Jose Airport gift shop, I picked up On Writing and started reading the introduction, which is all about how he (Stephen King) is in a rock and roll band with Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, a bunch of other authors, and Amy Tan. Apparently, they formed as sort of a joke during some kind of author conference, and they enjoyed it so much that they continued to play shows here and there for 20 years.

I love this. It is so refreshing to think of writers who like to have fun together. Even as a teenager, I thought Dave Barry was hilarious. That was back in the days when you still read his syndicated column in a real paper newspaper that was delivered to your house. And I adore Barbara Kingsolver—The Poisonwood Bible, especially.

And Amy Tan. When I was a senior in high school, I was in A.P. English. It was my first and only A.P. class, and it was what convinced me that I wanted to be an English major. We read some incredible books: As I Lay Dying; Native Son; Bless Me, Ultima; Beloved; The Brothers Karamazov.

One of my favorites was The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Like its predecessor, The Joy Luck Club, it is historical fiction based on stories from Tan’s own family in turn-of-the-20th-century China. It’s almost mystical the way that she transports you to other times—all in an effort to untangle messy present-day family relationships by better understanding why the elders think and behave the way they do. It just shows how universal so much of our family issues are, regardless of culture or ethnicity.

A few years ago, I was given a copy of her memoir from 2003, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life. There is a chapter called “A Question of Fate,” in which she writes about being a doctoral student in linguistics at Berkeley in the mid-70s.

She and her husband had a friend named Pete, also a Berkeley student, who worked part-time with them at a pizza place. They often drank beer and talked after their shifts about philosophy, metaphysics, and the nature of life—free will vs. destiny.

It turned out that Pete had tragically lost his wife in a car accident a couple years earlier. He revealed to Amy and her husband, Lou, that he had recently been having dreams about joining his wife in the afterlife. He had premonitions that two men would break in to his apartment and strangle him, but he felt that it was going to be okay because his wife would be there to guide him to the other side.

They were all feeling vulnerable because there had been some trouble with a gang that Amy, Lou, and Pete had thrown out of the pizza parlor. They felt they were in so much danger that they had reported their situation to the police, but there wasn’t much that the cops could do except advise them that they might want to move to a different neighborhood. Amy and Lou thought that Pete was just experiencing heightened anxiety because of this situation, and was having traumatic flashbacks to his wife’s death.

They decided that it would be best for them to move. They found a building in Oakland. Pete would move first; Amy and Lou would follow as soon as another apartment opened up. It was only a couple of days after he moved in that Pete was strangled to death by two men who broke into this apartment, just as he had predicted.

The way that Amy Tan writes about this is so inspiring, because she really doesn’t play it up for drama—the real things that happened were so dramatic already. She takes you through the feelings, the doubts, the skepticism that she experienced both then and now about what happened next.

She had a series of dreams in the months that followed wherein Pete guided and comforted her. In these dreams, he told her the names of his killers, which turned out to be accurate. He assured her that he was okay. And he encouraged her to release her fears. Eventually, he helped her question if she was really on the right life path. This self-reflection compelled her to quit her doctoral program and take a job doing speech and language therapy for developmentally disabled kids. She says in her memoir that this experience was fundamental to her becoming a writer.

The dreams ended when the murder trial wrapped up, and Tan is careful to say that, in reflection, she now believes that these dreams were probably a result of the shock and trauma she felt at losing her friend. But she also acknowledges that—real or imaginary—these visits from Pete after he died completely changed the course of her life.

So, today, I went over to the Tattered Cover on my lunch hour, and there was sign announcing that Amy Tan would be speaking and signing her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, tonight at 7:30. I had a few moments of feeling like, “Ugh, I’m too tired” or “I just want to curl up at home” right after work, but then I thought: When is the next time I am going to have this opportunity to see someone in real life who I find so interesting and inspiring? So I went.

She didn’t end up reading at all—instead, she showed us pictures of her grandmother as a young woman in China. She talked about what she has been doing these past eight years since her last book, and told about new revelations she has had regarding her family history.

And she talked about the power of coincidence—synchronicity—serendipity—the importance of just allowing things to unfold the way they are supposed to. Getting out of the way so that strange, magical things can happen.

The very first question of the Q&A, someone asked her about the rock and roll band. She said that Barbara Kingsolver quit because she decided to become a “a grown-up” and that some people in the group, like Dave Barry, are actually really good musicians. She is not very musical, so she dresses up in leather and sings “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” while doing a sort of campy dominatrix act.

They played with Bruce Springsteen once and he told them to stop trying to be good. He said that they are just good enough, and if they got any better, they would be bad.

Toward the end of the Q&A, she recounted something that had happened on a prior visit to the Tattered Cover, for a different book tour. She was waiting off to the side as she was being introduced, and standing next to a wire rack full of CliffsNotes.

She, herself, used CliffsNotes a few times in college, much to her embarrassment. She was taking more than 20 credit hours in one semester, plus working two jobs, and she just couldn’t do all the work. So she used CliffsNotes for three works: Lord Jim, Hamlet, and Ulysses. (No one can read Ulysses in one night, she joked.)

She saw those titles among the selections on the wire rack that night in the Tattered Cover. Then she looked further and saw The Joy Luck Club. She says she was shocked. She thought, “I’m not dead yet!”

Maybe that’s what I find so inspiring about Amy Tan. She believes in allowing mysterious things to unfold. She investigates with compassion and writes with purpose. She has lived through tragedy and explored the tragedies of her ancestors. Yet she still likes to play. She is still funny and warm, and smart and fierce. And she’s not dead yet.


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