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'Joy Luck Club' helped Amy Tan uncover immigrant mother's story

Author Amy Tan reflects on her mother in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. Photo courtesy of PBS
Author Amy Tan reflects on her mother in "Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir." Photo courtesy of PBS

LOS ANGELES, May 3 (UPI) -- Author Amy Tan, whose books The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife were inspired by her life and her mother's, said writing brought her closer to her mom.

The 69-year-old author is the subject of the documentary, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, airing Monday on PBS. It addresses her fraught relationship with her mother, Daisy Tan.

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"The person who was most exposed in the books, of course, would have been my mother," Amy Tan said. "She wanted more books about her. She wanted me to tell the true story."

Daisy Tan died of Alzheimer's in 1999 at age 83. The documentary includes some of Amy Tan's video interviews with her mother in which she learned more about her family's history, details of which in turn inspired the 1989 book The Joy Luck Club and 1991's Kitchen God's Wife.

Amy Tan said Daisy Tan felt if the author wrote the story of her mother's suffering in Shanghai, it would transform the traumatic memories into something positive.

The book and film of The Joy Luck Club include a scene in which a character's grandmother poisons herself. Daisy Tan said her mother poisoned herself after years of an abusive marriage.

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Daisy Tan had an unhappy marriage in Shanghai to a pilot she refers to as "that bad man," a phrase Amy Tan adopted in The Kitchen God's Wife. Their son died of diarrhea, and Daisy left her three daughters behind when she married John Tan.

John and Daisy Tan came to the United States on student visas and stayed after they expired. They had Amy Tan in this country, and she said she did not find out about her mother's previous life experiences until she interviewed her.

"I got to experience not only being with immigrants, but the kinds of secrets that immigrant families that are illegal will have," Amy Tan said. "I did not know about my mother's daughters back in China. I did not know she was married before."

The Joy Luck Club was named after John and Daisy Tan's stock market and social club. They would discuss investment opportunities, and then they would socialize.

In the book and film, the Joy Luck Club is a group of mothers who play Mahjong together, as the women in Daisy Tan's club did. The book and film depict the struggles of American-born daughters to relate to their Chinese immigrant mothers.

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Like in The Joy Luck Club, Daisy Tan encouraged her daughter to play the piano as a child and pursue a financially stable career. However, once Amy Tan became an author, Daisy Tan encouraged her to tell her family's story.

Amy Tan said sharing her interviews with her mother and discussing her past in the documentary proved more challenging than adapting her family to fictional stories. Amy Tan also has written nonfiction memoirs.

"The video was difficult because it's me that you see," Amy Tan said. "In this documentary, you don't see a character."

In the documentary, Amy Tan described her mother as suicidal. Daisy Tan once attempted suicide by jumping from a moving car. Another time, Daisy Tan ransacked the kitchen and living room on her daughter's birthday.

Amy Tan said she grew to understand the traumas that led to Daisy Tan's erratic behavior. Amy said she witnessed such events when both her brother and father were diagnosed with brain tumors.

John Tan's diagnosis came two weeks before his son, Peter, died. John Tan died within a year.

"My mother thought we were next, that we were going to die," Amy said. "She and I had many arguments during that time, because she didn't think I felt enough, that I wasn't grieving enough."

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Amy Tan said her mother also had a great sense of humor. She said Daisy Tan could be self-deprecating about her own volatile personality.

"We were driving in the middle of the night," Amy Tan said. "She said, 'Let's get in an argument so I can stay awake.' And we both knew it was funny."

Amy Tan has also written children's books and other novels. The author said finishing a book still feels like a death of something on which she's worked so hard. However, she has learned how to process that mourning.

"I'm pretty sure that my life is over once it gets out in public," Amy Tan said. "Then I just have to say, 'It doesn't matter. You wrote the book you wanted to write.'"

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir premieres Monday at 9 p.m. EDT as part of American Masters on PBS.

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