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21st June 1998

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Mirror Magazine

Ghostly inspirations of Amy Tan

"We live in cynical times, and people want that hope. They want to believe that there's more to life than scandals and the daily grind."

By George Gurley

Amy Tan, who has worked as a switch board operator and pizza maker among other things, says that 'ghosts' have pushed her to write. And this experience has confirmed her sense of the human longing for connection with the world beyond

Amy Tan has been a switchboard operator, an A &W carhop, a bartender and pizza maker. But her ultimate vocation seemed established at an early age. Her first work, What the Library Means to Me, was published in the Santa Rosa (California) Press Democrat when she was barely 8 years old.

Tan became famous with the publication of The Joy Luck Club in 1989. The novel, which weaves the lives of young Chinese-American women with those of their mothers in restrictive Chinese society, was nominated for the National Book Award and made into a motion picture in 1994. She followed Joy Luck with The Kitchen God's Wife in 1991 and The Hundred Secret Senses in 1995.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, the 46-year-old Tan experienced the American dream firsthand, as her family started at the bottom, worked hard for little money and, finally, made it into the middle class.

Of all the jobs Tan held, the one that had most relevance to her eventual career as a writer was in special education, working with developmentally disabled children.

"I was meeting with families every day who'd just found out that their child had been diagnosed with a disability," she said in a recent telephone interview. "That experience was a crash course about humanity, what hope means and the things that matter most. It was rewarding and sad, and it helped me identify with many different kinds of people."

Childhood imagination and a love of words, however, drew her to writing fiction rather than social or academic work. There also was some mysterious force that she can't entirely explain even today.

"I can be a very pragmatic person, and I can be very Chinese and say it was destiny," she said. "But I remember, about 1987, I said something to my husband as we were walking around a lake on vacation. I told him: 'There is something pushing me to be a writer and it's not myself. It feels as though there is a force telling me that I'm going to do this, whether I like it or not.' Very strange things started to happen. I got some lucky breaks. I was delighted - and then I got a little scared... That's sort of my weird side."

Tan, whose mother insists that she has a gift of communicating with ghosts, explored that side of herself in The Hundred Secret Senses. "I was worried that people would think I'd gone a little flaky, but there have been so many things like that in my life, that I felt compelled to write it," she said. "So many things happened during the writing of the book, it knocked away any doubts I had. Literally, the ghosts came and helped me. That's the best definition of the 'ghost writer'. Whenever I needed any kind of research, I had a team of ghost reseachers who'd go out and come back with what I needed, the more arcane the subject the better."

For example, she said: "I could give them (the ghosts) the biggest challenge. I could tell them I needed an archaeologist who specialises in prehistoric China, and that day I would have 30 of them, meaning I'd get a call inviting me to a reception honouring the foremost archaeologists who work in China. "

None of that means that The Hundred Secret Senses was a simple matter of taking dictation. "I still had to do the grunt work of writing it," Tan said.

The experience of communicating with ghosts has confirmed Tan's sense of the human longing for conncetion with the world beyond, the hope that death is not the end, and feelings of love that reach beyond the senses.

"lt's the feeling l've had whenever I lose somebody," she said.

"We live in cynical times, and people want that hope. They want to believe that there's more to life than scandals and the daily grind."

Tan's work is an example of the way people from other cultures often seem to see America better than Americans do.

With China experiencing explosive economic growth and perhaps standing at the threshold of an artistic renaissance, does she wish that she were living there and writing about China as an insider?

"I've never felt that," she said. "There are times when I'm writing about China when I wish I had more insight or facility with the language.

"But I don't think I could have become the writer I am if I'd grown up in China. My sisters grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution.

They tell me that they, too, once had imagination but that it was pretty much stifled during that period.

They were taught so long what to think. It was as if they lost the use of that muscle. The imagination rusted...

"I was raised in this country, and I still have all these little voices in my mind that say to me: 'You can't say that.

People will think you're stupid.' So you can imagine what they went through."

Tan has visited China often, and is awed by the dramatic changes.

"You won't see a better definition of a freemarket economy," she said.

"It's the 'Wild, Wild East.' It's always exciting to go back, but I never feel more American than when I'm in China."

Tan has a strong belief in the power of fiction, even at a time when memoirs seem to be giving novels a run for the money.

"There's still a strong contingent of readers who love the written word, the pacing of the story in a novel, the multitude of details in fiction," she said.

Although Tan enjoys reading memoirs, she's not tempted to write her own, she said. She finds women who write memoirs more liberated than men in some ways.

"I think women are less inhibited about some things," she said.

"They can write about things men find it hard to write about, such as weaknesses and embarrassing moments, frailties, vulnerabilities.

Women are willing to be a little more critical of themselves, more self-revealing."

The one question Tan said she could not answer is, "What are you working on now?"

"I am working on a novel, but I can never talk about it publicly, because it's like letting the secret out for myself," she said.

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