Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Her parents, both Chinese immigrants, lived in various towns in California before eventually settling in Santa Clara. When Tan was in her early teens, her father and one of her brothers each died of a brain tumor within months of each other. During this period, Tan learned that her mother had been married before, in China. Tan’s mother had divorced her first husband, who had been abusive, and had fled China just before the Communist takeover in 1949. She left behind three daughters, whom she would not see again for nearly forty years.

After losing her husband and son, Tan’s mother moved her family to Switzerland, where Tan finished high school. During these years, mother and daughter argued about Tan’s college and career plans. Tan eventually followed her boyfriend to San Jose City College, where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English and linguistics, despite her mother’s wish that she study medicine.

After Tan married her boyfriend, Louis DeMattei, she began to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics. She later abandoned the program in order to work with developmentally disabled children. Then she became a freelance business writer. Although she was successful, she found writing for corporate executives unfulfilling. She began to write fiction as a creative release.

Meanwhile, Tan’s mother was suffering from a serious illness, and Tan resolved to take a trip to China with her mother if she recovered. In 1987, after her mother returned to health, they traveled to China, where Tan’s mother was reunited with her daughters and Tan met her half-sisters. The trip provided Tan with a fresh perspective on her mother, and it served as a key inspiration for her first book, The Joy Luck Club. Soon after its publication in 1989, The Joy Luck Club garnered enthusiastic reviews, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for many months. It won both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award in 1989. The Bonesetter's Daughter, Tan's 2001 novel about a Chinese-American daughter who finally learns the truth of her mother’s secret past, was clearly inspired by her and her mother’s experiences as well.

Tan continues to publish popular works, and her other novels include The Kitchen God’s Wife and Valley of Amazement. In 2017, Tan published a memoir entitled Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir.

In response to the widely held opinion that she writes with a social aim—to portray the Chinese American experience—Tan often emphasizes that she writes first and foremost as an artist. She argues that her bicultural upbringing is her work’s source of inspiration but not its primary subject. Through her writing, Tan approaches issues that are universally applicable to all groups of people. She explores themes of family and memory, as well as the conflicts of culture that arise in so many American communities.