Book Talk: Amy Tan searches for meaning of identity in new work

NEW YORK Thu Nov 21, 2013 4:05am EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eight years after the release of her last novel, award-winning author Amy Tan focuses on the search for identity in early 20th century Shanghai in her new book, "The Valley of Amazement."

The plot chronicles the journey of protagonist Violet Minturn, who after being sold in a courtesan house, struggles to understand why her mother abandoned her.

Tan, who is well known for exploring the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, has sold more than 5 million books.

She spoke to Reuters about the process of writing books, identity and fate.

Q: How did the writing of the book unfold over eight years?

A: It became a different book completely from what I had been writing for the first five years. What is left from that is a setting that became Moon Pond (one of the chapters).

I changed the book because I became obsessed with a photo that I found of my grandmother, and I was doing so much research about that world of courtesans just to understand what might have been the case with her that I realized I should write a book set in that world.

A lot of my attitudes and beliefs have descended from my mother and therefore may have possibly descended from her mother. Who she was then lies partly in me.

Q: Does that explain the multi-generational mother-daughter plot?

A: I am writing about self-identity and how we become who we are. So much of that is by birthright. Some of it is by family, friends and circumstances in different periods of our lives, and some may be accidental. I want to know how these events affect who we are, how they strengthen and weaken us, shape our attitudes towards others and what we view as the meaning of our lives.

I mean 'we' as myself. I am very much writing for personal reasons, but I have to create a story that is entertaining for readers as part of that package.

Q: How did you wind up with the book's structure?

A: I started chronologically. But the bulk of the story is about Violet, with a perspective from her mother and how that influenced her. If I began with her mother Lucia instead, it would seem like the story is about her. I wanted to convey the idea of what Violet believed at that point, not knowing her mother's background.

Lucia is very selfish and prideful. She does things that are neglectful, which helps explain why she ended up leaving Shanghai without Violet. She has some culpability. But then you see how Violet and Lucia both view their parents as neglectful - the same pattern that Lucia has in herself repeats.

Both characters can be haughty and a little bit unlikeable.

But if I started with Lucia, I think people would dislike her more from the start. When you see what her circumstances were at the time and read about her later, it is almost as though you are better able to understand who she became as a result.

Q: The book's characters sometimes use fate to explain their predicament. What are your views on fate?

A: I don't believe in the kind of fate whereby something that you cannot change governs you, unless you consider to whom you are born as fate ... If I was born during the turn of the century in China and a woman of a certain class, I would say, 'What did I do in my past life to deserve this?'

At that time in China, so many people believed fate governed their lives.

This contrasts the Western concept of destiny, and some people confuse the two ... The difference is that fate precludes choice and if you believe in destiny you can do something about what you are trying to reach.

Lucia is trying to impose her notions of American destiny, ingenuity and conquering on Lu Shing (Violet's father), who was raised on quite different notions of tradition, family obligation, and fate. She foolishly believes that she, just through ingenuity and privilege, can do that. In a way, she throws herself into the world of Chinese fate when she moves to Shanghai.

She does find a way to change some of those notions, but what she has to understand is (that the) rules of that society operate in a fate-based culture.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Vicki Allen)

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