Writer, Chinese American, daughter, artist, bird lover—all of these describe the incomparable Amy Tan. “The reason I’m a novelist is because I can never reduce anything down to a single word,” says the bestselling author whose debut novel The Joy Luck Club catapulted her to commercial and critical success in 1989.
But it’s more than the words that have made her a success. “A lot of what I write is emotion-based. I have to feel the story,” Tan said. “If I’ve written it well, the readers will feel the emotions too. And when they feel the emotions, they will find relevance in their own lives.”
The American Masters film Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, which premiered at Sundance in February 2021, will air on Monday, May 3 at 9pm on GBH 2. The intimate portrait interweaves home movies and personal photographs, original interviews and animation to tell her story.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Oakland, California, in 1952, Tan rejected expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. A talented artist, she spent hours drawing, but her parents deemed it worthless fun. “When your parents punish you for something you were doing that you thought was good, what single word could capture all of those feelings? There is none. So what you have to do is write the story.”
When she was 15, her father and older brother both died of brain tumors within six months of each other. And it would be decades before Tan would come to fully understand how her mother’s self-destructive tendencies were rooted in watching her own mother kill herself after being forced into the former marital system of concubinage. This painful family history inspired her stories of women without the power to choose.
Tan’s work made her a global icon for Asian Americans, but some have criticized her writing as a misrepresentation. Tan said she never intended to promote stereotypes. Rather, she was merely sharing what she personally experienced growing up in her own Chinese American family.
“I don’t blame people for saying, ‘That’s not who we are.’ I would be the first to agree with that absolutely,” she said. “We are not homogenous.”
Tan has spoken out against violence directed toward Asian Americans, saying that racism is not just hate. “It can also be a dismissive attitude toward any opinion you express or stubbornly held ignorance that does not allow for a respectful relationship.” But ignorance still carries a degree of responsibility. “We have to be willing to learn and understand,” she said.
With her novels, libretto, short stories and memoirs, Tan has earned a place among America’s most popular and influential writers. Recently, though, she has traded the limelight for the sunlight, enjoying her days watching and sketching birds.
After a full career, Tan said the real measure of success is the joy we can bring to others. “I have been successful in making my mother happy,” she said. “Those are the moments of true success.”
American Masters/Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir airs on May 3 at 9pm on GBH 2, May 4 at 12 pm on GBH 44 and May 9 at 2pm on GBH 2 and 9pm on GBH 44.