In “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir,” Amy Tan recalls the time a relative told her mother that she shouldn’t fill her daughter’s head with “all these useless stories.” Why should Amy know so much, visit her mother’s painful memories, when it was beyond her power to change the past? Her mother replied: “I tell her so she can tell everyone, tell the whole world . . . That’s how it can be changed.” As she writes in her memoir, “My mother gave me permission to tell the truth.”
Many of Tan’s novels, beginning with “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” were partly inspired by the stories of her own family. But “Where the Past Begins” is Amy Tan as we’ve not previously seen her in fiction. The book reveals her as a daughter, a seeker, and also as a writer — explicitly mining unexplained truths and unknown family secrets from her past and spinning a memoir that is generous and often breathtaking in its vulnerability.
“[O]nce the fiction-writing mind is freed, there are no censors, no prohibitions. It is curious and open to anything,” she writes. “But its most important trait is this: it seeks a story, a narrative that reveals what happened and why it happened.” What happened to her family, why it happened, and how it all contributed to her life as a writer are the questions “Where the Past Begins” seeks to answer. Many of the stories told in this memoir were only discovered in the process of writing it, while others grew from memories that returned to her as she worked on her other books. In September, I was fortunate enough to speak with Amy about her family, her life since the 2016 presidential election, her parents’ sacrifices and precarious status as immigrants, and how she wrote her new memoir.
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Nicole Chung: “Where the Past Begins” is a work of recovered history, and you say that a lot of these memories began to emerge when you started writing fiction. Do you think that’s a common experience among fiction writers?
Amy Tan: I do think it’s common. We often think that the memories we recover are those that immediately come to mind, but some memories really wend their way back into consciousness through many different means. For example, if you’ve been somewhere and associate a particular smell with that place, the smell is going to evoke that memory.
And it’s the same with writing fiction: I may be writing something fictional, but something will click, some element that is part of a memory, and then more of the memory comes back. This book went many, many levels beyond that. I was able to corroborate memories with these artifacts in my office, these boxes I had from my childhood. It was more than Connect-the-Dots—it was my brain suddenly coming into sync with the brain I had in the past. It was startling to me.
Link to the rest at Shondaland