Amy Tan packs the house

Updated: 2013-12-20 06:34

By MAY ZHOU in Houston (China Daily USA)

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Amy Tan packs the house

Chinese American writer Amy Tan (left) talks to local Houston author and host Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni about her new book The Valley of Amazement at the Asia Society in Houston on Monday. In the background are the photos of Tan’s grandmother that inspired the book. [Photo by May Zhou / China Daily]

Enthusiastic fans packed the auditorium of the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston to capacity on Monday night to hear writer Amy Tan talk about her new book The Valley of Amazement.

Tan showed the audience old photos of her grandmother, who was dressed rather fashionably for 1920s China, saying there was a family rumor that her grandmother — who died young and never knew Amy Tan existed — might have been a courtesan in her day.

Tan did some research on the fashions of Shanghai courtesans at that time and recognized a lot of similarity to her grandmother’s way of dressing, which seemed to lend validity to the rumor.

Out of curiosity, Tan embarked on a quest to find out more about her grandmother and the life of courtesans in Shanghai in the ’20s, and after eight years of extensive research and creative productivity, The Valley of Amazement was born.

The story revolves around the lives and relationships of two pairs of mother-and-daughter set in the lavish parlors of Shanghai courtesans, a remote Chinese village among fog-shrouded mountains and across the Pacific Ocean in the US.

Tan told the audience she not only went to Shanghai to research courtesan life, but she also managed to live for three weeks in a 400-year-old house in a Dong ethnic village in remote Guizhou province, where, among other adventures, she was bitten by a poisonous snake.

"The book is really about people — how you see yourself in relation to how others see you, how you create your own sense of identity," she said. "I am curious how my grandmother created her sense of self. I want to know her attitudes and beliefs."

In the search for identity among her fiction characters, Tan admitted that "all my books are really about me, about my identity. I am viewed as Chinese in America, but I never felt more American than when I was in China. Of course, that’s changing and China is much more modern now".

In The Valley of Amazement, Tan projects her grandmother into the character of Magic Gourd who "says funny and sometimes inappropriate things, she’s pragmatic, a lot like my mom, but not as depressing and dramatic".

Tan explains that her book also explores some widely accepted concepts such as pride, sense of independence and how people attach importance to them and question the value of such concepts.

Tan told the audience about how her previous work, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, was transformed into an opera by working with Texas composer Steward Wallace. Despite the wonderful experience of collaborating with another artist, Tan said it was like "seeing your own child fall over a cliff — several times" and she vows to never do it again.

Though she is not able to read Chinese, Tan told the audience that she has read Chinese literature in translation, both classic and modern, from Plum in the Gold Vase Plum (or Jin Ping Mei) to Lu Xun, Xiao Hong, Wang Anyi and Mo Yan, as well as other Chinese writers living in the US such as Ha Jin.

The event was organized by Brazos Bookstore and the Asia Society. Apparently, Amy Tan is quite popular among Houston literature lovers — according to Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore, the tickets to the event were sold out weeks ahead of time. After the talk, most audiences lined up patiently for an autograph from Amy Tan.