Life & Arts
7:55 am
Fri December 6, 2013

Amy Tan's New Book 'The Valley of Amazement' is Filled With Family Secrets

It’s been eight years since Amy Tan’s last book. But critics are already saying “The Valley of Amazement” was worth waiting for. 

It’s a complicated story of mothers and daughters, secrets and lies, the past and the present, China and America. And – perhaps above all – it’s about women’s fierce wills to survive.

KUT's Emily Donahue spoke with Amy Tan about her new book. She was five years into writing a different novel, Tan says, when she took a new look at an old family photo.

“I had a photo of my grandmother sitting on my desk and it was my favorite photo of her,” Tan says. “She looks quite beautiful and dreamy eyed, and it is in fact the photo that is on the hard cover edition of ‘The Bonesetter's Daughter.’” 

“But what surprised me and stopped me in my tracks … was I was looking through a book about Shanghai and I came across a page of ten women and it said, ‘The Ten Beauties of Shanghai, 1911.’ And five of those women were wearing a costume that was exactly like what my grandmother was wearing in that favorite photo."

The outfit was that of a courtesan.

“I can't, of course, say definitively that she was,” Tan says. “It just made me obsessed, however, with the possibility and wondering what life would have been and the reason why she would have become a courtesan. It was not a career choice for any woman.”

“This book is laced with secrets; complicated secrets that drive who these women are, what they believe and who they become,” Donahue points out.

“Yes, it's a characteristic of my family, these very complicated secrets,” Tan says. “I keep thinking that I'm done with the secrets, no other ones are going to come out. And then another one emerges, like the one having to do with the courtesan.”

In doing research for this book, Tan found that many of the things that had been said about her grandmother – that she was quiet, old-fashioned and traditional – just weren’t true.

“I learned that she was not the first wife of a scholar. She was the second wife – in fact a concubine. And all of this had huge ramifications in our family, as to what happened to her later. The shame of remarrying as the concubine to a rich man … So secrets are naturally a part of our family and the novel.”

An Excerpt: "The Valley of Amazement"

In this excerpt, the main character Violet is seven years old. And she confronts her mother over firing a woman she views as her only friend.

"What did she do?"

"By thinking only of herself, she betrayed us."

I did not know what betrayed meant. I simply sputtered in frustration. "Who cares if she betrayed us?"

"Your very mother before you cares."

"Then I will always betray you," I cried.

She regarded me with an odd expression, and I believed she was about to give in. So I pushed again with my bravado. "I'll betray you," I warned.

Her face contorted. "Stop this, Violet, please."

But I could not stop. Even though I knew that I was unleashing an unknown danger. "I'll always betray you," I said once more, and immediately saw a shadow fall over my mother's face.

Her hands were shaking and her face was so stiff she appeared to be a different person. She said nothing. The longer the silence grew, the more frightened I became. I would have backed down if I had known what to say or do. So I waited.

At last she turned, and as she walked away, she said in a bitter voice, "If you ever betray me, I shall have nothing to do with you, I promise you that."

Amy Tan will be in Austin at BookPeople on December 17 at 7:00 pm.