Tan dug deep into her family’s past while writing “The Valley of Amazement” and uncovered fascinating stories of abandonment and despair.
When Amy Tan was a girl, her mother warned her to stay away from boys. “She said, ‘Don’t let a boy kiss you because maybe you can’t stop. And then you’re gonna have a baby.’ ” Her mother went on to enumerate all of the terrible things that happen to a girl when she has a baby, ending with, “You want to kiss a boy? You might as well just kill yourself right now!”
“And I thought, What was so good about it that you couldn’t stop?” Tan said.
It was a funny story, but one tinged with darkness, as were many of the stories Tan told at a recent Talk of the Stacks at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. “When she told me this, I didn’t know that she had had a first husband,” Tan said. “I didn’t know that she had three daughters living in China.”
Self-deprecating, elegant and fascinating, Tan mesmerized the crowd with her stories of family drama. And it was a true crowd, for sure — 450 people filled Pohlad Auditorium as well as two overflow rooms, one of the biggest crowds yet for the library’s popular free program.
Tan read only briefly from her new book, “The Valley of Amazement,” and instead told story after story about her mother and her grandmother — familiar figures to anyone who has read her novels. Her new book travels from China to the United States, following the lives of a courtesan and her daughter in the first half of the 20th century.
While writing “Valley,” Tan kept two photographs on her desk: one of her mother, and one of her grandmother. Her mother left Shanghai in 1942 on a student visa, leaving behind an abusive husband and their three daughters. Tan never knew if her mother meant to abandon her children, but she was not allowed to return to China for 30 years.
Tan’s grandmother was, she said, “a tragic figure. Spoiled. She married late, at 24, and her husband died in the 1919 Pandemic.” According to Chinese culture, she was supposed to remain a widow the rest of her life, but one night, when visiting a friend, she awoke to find a man in her bed. “There are two versions to the story,” Tan said. In one version, the man holds a knife to her grandmother’s throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill you.” In the other version, he holds a knife to his own throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill myself.”
Tan’s grandmother married him and worked out a deal: If she bore him a son, he would buy her a house in Shanghai. She bore him a son, he reneged on the house, and she killed herself, leaving behind Tan’s mother, who was then 9 years old.
“Valley” is not about her grandmother, but it is about her grandmother’s world, and Tan felt her grandmother’s presence while she was writing it. “It does have a lot to do with the themes in my family — betrayal, abandonment, passionate women, suicidal women, impetuous women, and love, love, love.”