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How author Amy Tan makes her personal trauma universal

The author of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ is known for unpacking facets of the Chinese immigrant experience and complex family dynamics in her work. Here’s how and why she does it.

How author Amy Tan makes her personal trauma universal
[Photo: courtesy of Amy Tan]

Listen to the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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When Amy Tan’s debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989, it became a cultural phenomenon, spending more than 40 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

Tan’s story of four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters beautifully unpacked facets of the immigrant experience, the complexities of family dynamics, and the trauma that often fuels it. The novel centered on characters not seen in mainstream literature while having universal appeal.

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It also pushed Tan into depression. “Most people might dream they’d become best sellers. I never had that dream,” Tan says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “For me, it was so baffling that I was afraid of it. Good or bad, I did not trust things that were happening without my intending them. So I got very depressed over my life just going into some other direction without my even dreaming about it.”

Tan had several false starts with her follow-up novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, because she was trying to recapture what she thought readers and critics connected to in The Joy Luck Club.

“It wasn’t genuine,” she says of her abandoned drafts. “After a while I thought, the purpose of writing this is to understand myself, to understand human nature, and not to impress anybody.”

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Tan carried that momentum through her second novel, which was heavily inspired by her mother’s tumultuous marriage prior to the one with Tan’s father, to her subsequent works, which mine her personal and family trauma, for instance, the crippling anxiety of not living up to her parents’ expectations, her brother and father both dying of brain tumors within months of each other, coping with (and rebelling against) her suicidal mother—all of which Tan lays bare in her intimate PBS documentary Unintended Memoir.

[Photo: courtesy of Amy Tan]
“If you’re writing about something that is based on trauma, these things get transmuted over time. But if you can go back and capture the freshest of that, it becomes a source for many different stories,” Tan says. “It’s not just simply the moment, it’s everything around it. It’s a whole context. It all builds into it, but the main gravitational pull is that emotional experience, the trauma.”

Check out highlights from Tan’s Creative Conversation below, and be sure to listen to the full episode wherever you enjoy your podcasts.

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Tapping into past trauma

“I was discovering as I thought about these things, if I could capture, remember, recall a certain feeling that I had during an experience, I could possibly feel it again all over in my visceral system. It is the mechanism that is related to PTSD. I would use this to get back into the scene, to the emotions, and write from that emotional core. Sometimes it was very upsetting, because the feeling in there would just remain and I would finish writing it and I’d be shaking. And I would continue to shake as though something had just happened that made me recognize something from my past that had been a puzzle.”

[Photo: courtesy of Jim McHugh]

Finding the balance between personal and universal

“It’s my sense of wanting to write a novel that has greater importance than me, yet how can I still maintain this as personal? I don’t want to get in the role of being a proselytizer or somebody who’s writing politically with a position to begin with. I like to discover things as I write, and they have to be genuine—but I never want to be preachy. That’s a difficult challenge, especially when you start getting into certain issues that are important to me. If I were to get into political issues, issues about racism, how am I going do that without sounding didactic? What is the situation that would allow that to come through naturally?”

On joining the rock band of authors, Rock Bottom Remainders

“[I learned to] just not care about being perfect, because it was impossible for me even to approach some notion of perfect singing like that. The other [lesson] was that you have to connect with the audience. It was not so much about how well you sing, it was how well you connect. I used to give talks, and I thought, I’m just saying the same things over and over again. But then I realized, no, every audience is different. And my challenge is to say things that they will understand and feel. So it helped me in any and all the public performances I’ve ever done.”

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Listen to the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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