Look out for a 25% discount coupon for Where The Past Begins in the print copy of your Nov 12 issue of Star2.
Amy Tan needs no introduction. The Chinese-American writer is best known for her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), which was made into a movie in 1993, of which she was coproducer and co-screenwriter. And I’ve been told that she has a large number of devoted fans among Malaysians.
I am not a devoted fan. Before this, I had read only her debut novel and never felt compelled to read any of her subsequent works, which include six works of fiction, two children’s books, a nonfictional work, and a libretto. Not because I disliked The Joy Luck Club; but because by the time I read it, my appetite for novels in English by diaspora Chinese women had reached saturation point. Most of them, it seemed to me, had a three-generation plot in which a young, Westernised woman discovers her ancestral and cultural roots by recounting the hardships of her immigrant mother and the abject misery of her China-bound grandmother.
It is fair to say, then, that when I agreed to review Where The Past Begins, it was with the sense that I was doing penance for my neglect of such a well-known, prolific, and versatile writer.
But it is also fair to say that when I began reading the book, I rather regretted my virtuous impulse. Much of the “Introduction”, which relates how the book came to be written, is a listing of her old family photographs, letters, and other memorabilia – “where the past begins”, as she puts it.
To me, it was more like “where fiction begins”; it read like a response to a common first exercise in creative writing courses, where one has find a story to write by going through old photographs and so on.
The first two chapters are about her skill and interest in art and music; how they have influenced and been influenced by her visual imagination; and the way they continue to play a role in both her everyday and her writing life. I found these chapters tedious, somewhat self-regarding, and “fictional” because my brain tends to go into sceptical mode when people talk in serious tones about how art and music affect them.
At this stage, I began to wonder whether, penance or not, I should go on reading. However, reminding myself that the book is, after all, subtitled “A Writer’s Memoir” and these are the things that most of her fans would be interested in, I pushed on.
Then, just as I had resigned myself to reading a textbook-like memoir, the third chapter drew me into her family life: her childhood growing up in the shadow of a slightly older brother, Peter, who was regarded as a genius destined for great and wonderful things by their parents; her relationship with him as they were growing up and their relationship with their pesky little brother; Peter’s dying of a brain tumour while a teenager, and their father’s death, also of a brain tumour, in the same year. From then on, I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down.
Yes, it is a three-generation story told by an American and Americanised daughter recollecting the difficulties encountered by her immigrant mother and reconstructing the hard life of an unknown grandmother in the cruel China of the past. But the knowledge that these excavations and reconstructions are based on facts, some supported by documents, makes the narrative much more poignant. In addition, falling out of the pattern of such narratives, it has a whole section devoted to the father’s life, and the author’s childhood memories and adult perspectives of her relationship with him.
The facts revealed about her parents and grandparents are not always pleasant, and I couldn’t help being impressed by the author’s determination to satisfy her “need for truth”. I shall not go into the details because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for fans looking forward to reading the book and finding out for themselves. It suffices to say that some of the facts, if included in a novel, would be deemed “unrealistic”.
When I reached the end of the book, I understood why it had to begin the way it does.
It is a writer’s memoir. Those interested in writing will find much that is useful and enlightening in it: where stories come from; how the writer’s mind works; how she deals with moments of inspiration and distraction while she is writing; and her relationship with her characters and language.
For those interested in editing, the chapter “Letters to the Editor” reveals the relationship of mutual respect and affection that can develop between writer and editor.
But beyond the literary, Where The Past Begins is a personal memoir that Malaysians can relate to because many aspects of Amy Tan’s life are not too different from ours.
Where The Past Begins
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Ecco, memoir