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For those of you who have only heard about "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and decided you hated it, the Tiger Mother has a request: Read it. All of it. And then decide.
The memoir, a global bestseller that has prompted anger, scorn and vitriolic e-mails, is Amy Chua's account of raising her two daughters "the Chinese way."
Chua, a law professor at Yale University, was brought up by strict immigrant parents. This meant high academic standards, no goofing off, no talking back, and hours each day devoted to schoolwork and music lessons.
When she attempted to raise her own daughters the same way, however, things did not go as smoothly. Her older daughter, Sophia, thrived, but the younger girl, Lulu, did not. There were fights -- big ones. In the book, Lulu rips up her sheet music and Chua doggedly tapes it back together; Lulu refuses to practice her violin and Chua threatens to burn her stuffed animals; both girls make slapdash birthday cards for their mother, and their demanding mother rejects them.
The biggest battles were over the violin, and by book's end, Chua capitulates. "I realized that the violin had begun to symbolize oppression," she writes. "I couldn't lose Lulu. Nothing was more important. So I did the most Western thing imaginable: I gave her the choice."
Chua's book is newly out in paperback and she will be in the Twin Cities on Friday. We caught up with her by telephone last week.
Q Did you have any idea that your book was going to be so controversial?
A I didn't! I thought it was funny. When I was about halfway done, I showed it to a friend of mine, and she said, "You should think about publishing this. It's so interesting for people to know another model, because a lot of us are always wondering why are these Asian kids so good at math and instruments, you know? Is it something in the rice?"
If you read all the way to the end, you realize that it's very self-incriminating. I mean, I have my daughters saying these things to me: "You're selfish, you're insane, you're wrecking our lives" -- it's so filled with self-criticism in a way, coming out of the mouths of my daughters. And you know I end the book with questions about what does it mean to live life to the fullest. Which I still think is the ultimate question.
Q With people horrified by your anecdotes and largely missing the intended humor, do you wish now that you had written it any differently?
A I've thought so much about this. The models for my book were this kind of weird book by Vladimir Nabokov called "Pale Fire," and some books by David Sedaris, and "All Creatures Great and Small," which is a hysterical book about a veterinarian. All these are books where you have this narrator, it's like an unreliable narrator -- they're telling the story and you kind of have to figure out what's really going on.
I intended the book to be much zanier and satirical. Maybe I'm a stubborn girl here, but it's like what my editor said -- because I asked her, actually, when I was writing this, should I tone this down? She said, no, if you sterilize this thing and take out some of these parts it's not going to be the same honest memoir.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have put in a prologue that says, "Look, this book is supposed to be kind of funny." But some people do get it.
Q How is the paperback tour going?
A This year was so much better. Last year they had to hire security guards. I got some really mean e-mails, really just so intensely angry e-mails -- "I hope both your daughters commit suicide," "We're gonna come get you in Chicago." One said "fan mail" in the subject line and I opened it and it said, "There's a special place for you in hell."
This year there were still very, very big crowds. But I think somehow maybe the word had seeped out that the book was maybe not quite what people thought it was. People were much more open, the crowds were much more receptive.
Q But despite the hostility, people were buying the book, right? It sold all over the world?
A Thirty countries. I was so confused. I was wondering, What is going on? If everybody hates me, why are they buying it?
Q Do you worry that the book perpetuates stereotypes about Asian-American parents?
A I actually don't worry about that. I do hear that criticism and that's the one I have the hardest time seeing. The Asian stereotype is strict moms. But if you read the book, it conveys how much I, more than anything, love my children. And the other Asian stereotype is that we're these robotic people who just work hard and have no imagination. And even if you hate this book, the one thing it's not is, it's not conformist and robotic. It's a very bold, unusual, contrarian book, filled with satire. It destroys Asian stereotypes because it's a very rebellious book.
Q How are your daughters?
A They are actually doing great. Sophia just went back up to college [Harvard] yesterday. Lulu is a sophomore in high school. She just turned 16 a few days ago. I would say she's completely thriving. A lot of changes have taken place since she rebelled -- I really did change in many ways cold turkey. I mean, not totally -- I'm still a parent with very high expectations school-wise. But, you know, Lulu is a very social girl, so we've had a party at our house every weekend. She had a big sleepover for her 16th. She's a great student. She went back to violin, but the rule is: I cannot interfere. Ever. Period.
Q How have your views on parenting changed?
A I've had so many e-mails that say, Why only piano or violin? But the punch line of the book is that I let Lulu drop violin. One of the lessons that I learned is that, boy, I wish I'd have given my children more choices. I still believe that Western parents tend to give too many choices. But I think that I gave my kids too few choices. And certainly as they got older, I've had, you know, regrets. Like, why not? Why didn't I say, try the saxophone?