Amy Tan explains how she changed the past for her mother

Novelist Amy Tan says she is always questioning. She obsesses and wonders over how and why things happen and how she is different from every other person. Her answers and meaning come, she said, through the act of writing.

“Writing a book is the meaning of my life,” the author of “The Joy Luck Club” and four other best-selling novels told a rapt audience of more than 900 people on Sept. 11 at Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Center for the Arts. “The meaning was that I was confused, and I discovered things.”

Tan’s appearance was sponsored by the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium, a group of eight library groups formed last year to encourage the study and enjoyment of books and authors and to encourage cooperation among libraries. The Consortium distributed more than 1,700 free tickets for the event through the public libraries of Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson and York County and the libraries of Christopher Newport University, Hampton University and Thomas Nelson Community College. The Consortium leaders plan to bring major literary authors to the Virginia Peninsula on a yearly basis.

Tan’s writing allowed her to discover her mother’s history, which she said was unknown to her while growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in California and Switzerland.

Tan explained to the audience how her Chinese mother, Daisy, had been born to a woman who was raped and forced to live as a concubine. Later, the woman killed herself, and as a child, Daisy watched her mother die.

As an adult, Tan said her mother was forced into an abusive marriage. Daisy’s son died in her arms when her husband refused to take him to the doctor. And she had to leave her three daughters behind when she escaped on the last boat out of Shanghai before the Communist takeover in 1949. She married in the United States, and gave birth to Tan and her two brothers.

But growing up, Tan only knew a mother who was full of dire warnings of what would happen if she wasn’t careful crossing the street – “you get squashed flat” – or kissed a boy – “you can’t stop … you get pregnant … shamed … and you might as well die.” And when Tan saw a playmate’s lifeless body in a casket, her mother leaned over and said, “This what happens when you don’t listen to your mother.”

After Tan’s father and a brother both died of brain tumors within a year, her mother went looking for the “bad luck” the doctor had said must have been responsible.

“When bad things happen, people look for answers, as if they could undo fate and make time go backward,” Tan said.

Daisy, believing that nothing was random, searched everywhere for answers, including ancestors, horoscopes, feng shui, a Ouija board – which Tan controlled to give her mother the answers she wanted to hear. “I made it all up,” she said.

One day, Tan said, as her mother was cleaning the sink, she picked up a can of “Old Dutch” cleanser. She looked at the can and announced, “Holland’s clean – we go to Holland.” The audience responded with laughter, but Tan said, “You laugh, but three months later, we sailed for Holland to find a new destiny.”

After wandering through Holland and Germany, the family settled in Switzerland, where their mother had found a furnished chalet and an English school for Tan and her brother on Lake Geneva.

At the extravagantly priced school with wealthy students, Tan found a new identity. Having felt ugly in the U.S. because she was Chinese, but “There I was exotic,” she said. “It was a strange time, and I was wondering what I wanted to be like.”

She had her first boyfriend, Franz, an older boy whose friends were into drugs.

“The more my mother complained about him, the more I was in love with him.” She described trying to break up with him to return to the U.S. for college, but he threatened suicide. When they tried to elope to Austria, Tan’s mother sent the police to stop them, and they were arrested.

“At 16 years old, I had to swear in front of a magistrate not to smoke, not to do drugs and to listen to my mother,” she said, with irony. She went on to attend a small Baptist college in the U.S. that her father, a Baptist minister, would have approved of, she said.

Working as a freelance business writer after college, she was not happy and turned to writing fiction.

A scare over her mother’s health caused Tan to make good on a promise to God to get to know her mother better and to write about her. She took her mother to China for three weeks and met her half-sisters, and that was where she really began to learn about her mother and her history.

“Writing fiction, you fool yourself into telling the truth,” Tan said. “It gives you a cover. But at the end, I realized that it was the story of my life.”

And her life, Tan said, “Forced me to ask those questions and to obsess, and my imagination pushed me to ask how it could have been different. Those things were uncovered in writing the novel.”

Years later, after her novels inspired by her families’ lives became so successful, a friend asked Daisy why she let her daughter write about the past, because it can’t be changed. “Now everyone knows how I suffered, and that is how she can change the past,” Tan said her mother told him.

Speaking on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tan related being at CNN television studios in New York preparing to go on air when her appearance was superseded by coverage of the tragedy.

“I felt like I had to get out of there to find out what was going on, even though I was somewhere where people tell you what’s going on.” She said. “We all felt united,” she said about the effects of that day.

Here are some photographs from the event.