Amy Tan Background

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952 to two Chinese immigrant parents and was the middle child of three siblings—the only girl between two brothers. Appropriately, the Chinese name her parents gave her was “An-mei,” which means, “blessing from America.” Her family lived in various cities 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 eight 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 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 (1991) and Valley of Amazement (2013). In 2017, Tan published a memoir entitled Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir.

Background on The Kitchen God’s Wife

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.

It becomes evident, after reading Tan's novels, especially The Kitchen God’s Wife, that her family history is highly influential to her writing. Her father John Tan, for example, worked for the U.S. Information Service during World War II, much like it is rumored that the character of Jimmy Louie in the novel was an American spy. Also, both Amy Tan's father and the character of Jimmy Louie were ministers in the Chinese Baptist Church. The most autobiographical element in The Kitchen God’s Wife, however, is the character and story of Winnie Louie, which is very much modeled after Tan's own mother, Daisy Tan.

Daisy, by the time she moved to the United States in 1949, had already been through a great deal, just as Winnie had suffered before reaching America. Both Daisy and Winnie were motherless children, both were involved in intensely abusive traditional marriages, and both lost children of their own. Furthermore, there are the facts of Tan's own life, growing up as an American in a Chinese home, that provide an important background for the novel. This predicament causes, as for many Asian-Americans and other “hyphenated Americans” a sense of being caught in between two worlds. Tan grew up feeling as if she were an outsider at school, someone who looked different from everyone else, someone whose parents cooked different foods from the American foods of her peers. And yet, she also felt, occasionally, like an outsider within her own home—a home in which there were often language barriers since a mixture of Mandarin and English were spoken.

Daisy Tan had attempted a conversion to Christian beliefs for her husband, but after his death, she returned to her old customs and her own Chinese beliefs. It is from this period that Amy Tan claims to have drawn much of what she knows of Chinese customs and traditions. The life of Amy Tan’s mother would remain something of a secret to her until Tan was much older. It was also not until Tan was much older that she realized that having grown up between two worlds—being both Asian and American—gave her an enhanced vision that would enrich her gift of writing. She realized that she had grown up in a world where Asian fairy tales were commingled with the American stories she learned at school, and she was able to combine these two storytelling traditions in her own work.