The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
Author Amy Tan
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #4 (January 20, 2004), page 24.
Finding the opposite of fate
The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
G.P. Putnamís Sons, 2003
Hardcover, 416 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
At some point in every successful writerís career, the reading public ó or a persistent editor ó demands a book that offers a more personal look at the writer, a peek at the person behind the prose. This book typically takes the form of memoir, nonfiction, a book about writing, or a collection of essays. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan has given us all of these, along with some family photographs, gentle responses to her critics, and her thoughts on American literature and the English language. Loosely organized into seven thematic sections, each introduced with a quote from one of Tanís books, the pieces in this book relate to the role of fate in Tanís life.
When Tan was a girl, her Chinese mother Du Ching (or Daisy, as everyone in America called her) always lectured her on the strange workings of fate and how it unavoidably steered their lives to some predetermined destination. Tanís mother and father met briefly on a boat in 1941, then did not see each other until four years later, when they happened to run into each other on a street in Tientsin, thousands of miles away from where they first met. Such a coincidence is surely the mysterious working of fate, Daisy Tan would say, and pointed clearly to their predestined marriage.
But fate has a dark side, too, and when Tanís father and brother died of brain tumors within a year of each other, Daisy Tan blamed that on fate as well. This awful coincidence seemed to unhinge her, and she became even more obsessed with the idea of fate and its control over happenings large and small. Ghosts, past lives, ouija boards, feng shui, even a can of Old Dutch Cleanser ó these all offered Daisy clues to the mysterious reasons behind the events of their lives.
And as she explains, Amy Tan always looks for the why of an event when she is writing, and at the reasons ó natural or supernatural ó for common events. The Opposite of Fate covers the myriad ways in which Tan has tried to grasp the logic of her own life, to understand why she is a writer, and why she writes the stories she does. Some of the essays deal directly with this, as Tan contradicts or contemplates the critical interpretations of her work. The opening essay springs from the Cliffs Notes version of The Joy Luck Club, where Tan is amazed to read about the many levels of metaphor and subtle "puzzle box" organization of her book, none of which were conscious choices on her part. Is this the power of fate, or writerly inspiration? Others begin as a direct discussion of some of her motherís fate-related ob- sessions ó the New Age exorcism performed on her San Francisco house, her precognition of the tragic murder of a good friend, or a contemplation of whether ghosts around her serve as inspirational muses.
The remaining essays touch on the subject of fate and its influence less directly. "What The Library Means to Me" is Tanís first published piece of writing, a prize-winning essay she wrote at age eight. Was she fated to be a writer even then? An anecdote about attempts to rid her Tahoe home of squirrels relates, perhaps, to the "past life" of her house ó that is, the infestation of squirrels most probably resulted from the sloppy lifestyle of the previous tenants. Her many non-fictional pieces about her mother are, in part, a way for Tan to understand how much she is affected by her motherís genetics and behavior. But always she returns to her obsessions of the reasons for things ó for the why behind her stories and life.
The title of the book comes from the final essay, about Tanís struggle with Lyme disease in the long shadow of the events of 9/11, and it suggests that there is an alternative to her motherís ranting about the control of fate. Tan could blame the problems of her life on the subtle machinations of powers beyond her ken, or she can "have hope and, with that, a determination to change what is not right." This, finally, is the opposite of fate: assuming some control over the sometimes chaotic flow of our lives, and taking responsibility for the effects of those things we cannot control or change. In the end, what Tan seems to be saying is that blaming fate is a cop-out, an easy way to explain away the tragedies, large and small, that we all must face.
Readers looking for wholly new Tan material may be disappointed, as seventeen of the thirty pieces in this book have been published elsewhere. The pieces come from such disparate periodicals, however, that it is hard to imagine anyone but her most ardent fans having read them all before. Also, because of the nature of the book ó an eclectic collection of loosely connected pieces of writing ó one must endure some repetition of anecdotes and autobiographical material. And many of the pieces respond directly to Tanís critics, a rare pleasure for any writer, but a pose that some readers will find defensive or simply tiresome. For someone who claims no longer to read critical reviews of her own work, she finds plenty to say to her critics.
All in all, however, Tanís book comes across much as a "required" book of personal stories should, springing as it does from the mind of such an accomplished and talented writer. Her fans will find many jewels of wisdom, interesting and revelatory autobiographical snippets, and remarkable insight into the author. Her stories of her mother and her familyís history are the most engaging, because they seem so much like her novels and because they, like good fiction, imply much more about the characters than they state directly. In these pieces, Tan stands back and lets the stories speak for themselves, allowing her readers to decide whether her career thus far has been the result of the manipulations of fate, simple coincidence, or the hard work of a gifted writer.