I was twelve when I first watched The Joy Luck Club on a library VHS. Amy Tan’s novel (precursor to the film) had been released four years earlier, when I was in third grade and too young to notice. Joy Luck tells the story of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters, how they inherit each other’s fortunes and sorrows across generations and continents. Alone one evening in front of the television while my parents worked at our family’s restaurant, I saw on screen, for the first time, plots and characters that told my story of cultural negotiation, language barriers, and filial piety.
Later, my mom watched Joy Luck with me. I thought she would revel in seeing Chinese characters in an American movie, but she remained mostly unmoved—except during one dramatic scene of betrayal and escape, when she scoffed: Why should you buy Amy Tan’s books to learn these things? I could have told you these stories for free. Still, she praised the author for “getting it right.” She may have meant the history (Chinese women’s subjugation, famine, immigration) or trauma (war, family separation) or Tan’s portrayal of assimilation’s gifts and wounds.
This year, I picked up Tan’s Where the Past Begins (Ecco, $28.99, 368 pp.). Her second book of nonfiction is part memoir (fans will understand my thrill at learning what was and wasn’t autobiographical in Joy Luck) and part meditation on writing. To research the book, Tan describes digging into bins of childhood memorabilia; she finds her parents’ death certificates, a photograph of her teenage brother laid out in his coffin, letters, abandoned novels, and reams of sketches. She tests her memories against this evidence, revealing gaps, errors, and outright lies she now must reconcile to her story. Where the Past Begins contains interludes from source texts, namely early journal entries and letters Tan wrote to her mother from college (Tan often interjects to remark on the mystery of who her past self was). The book is deeply metatextual. One chapter is comprised of a series of emails with Tan’s editor, Daniel Halpern, about writing the book. Another chapter begins, “I am the author of this novel,” then enrolls readers in a master class on narrative structure, voice, and character. Where the Past Begins affirms that the past is not a set of memories but a living companion, that the present is not just the moment at hand but a spectral current flowing with history, childhoods, and ghosts.