For a brief moment in Jamie Redford’s luminous new documentary on Amy Tan – author of classic, gate-opener novels like The Joy Luck Club – the writer is seen dancing on stage, her performance is part dominatrix, part Annie Lennox from the MTV years, and she is vibrating with a coltish vitality. The performance – as part of The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of authors that includes Stephen King – was an exorcism of sorts: Tan, at the time, had lost her sister, and this was the dance of her grief. In another moment in this expertly directed film out on Netflix, an adult Tan plays the piano as her mother Daisy watches, maybe even evaluates, the recital. As a young girl, Tan had prepped for the concert world. While that dream never came true, the carcass of this aspiration remained between mother and daughter. Now, the grainy footage of a much older Daisy hearing her daughter perform music, is deeply moving – what did she make of the music?
Such tormenting questions and residual disenchantments illuminate The Joy Luck Club, Tan’s debut, and now classic, novel. I was a teenager when the book came out, and reading it was such a clear-minded experience it was like looking at the bottom of a clear mountain lake where jewels poured forth a sunken trunk. Toni Morrison wondered for whom did some black authors write their books – Was it a white reader? You never need to ask Tan this question: she is writing for folks who grew up around a racket of uncles and aunties, kids who learn to sleep through the noisy nights their parent’s friends stayed over for too long, drank too many cheap whiskeys, and stank up the place with loneliness, dim sum, and ambition. She writes about hard-working, decent folks often filed off as ‘immigrants’ – someone for whom belonging can turn out to be a life’s work. And she writes, equally, about people who don’t feel at home in themselves, a republic from which exile is impossible. Years later, when I moved to America for graduate studies, I felt first-hand the grim disappointment of her characters: life in the new country was not all that much.
My affection for The Joy Luck Club met a strange and lovely echo. At age twenty-six, in 2004, I published my first novel, The Last Song of Dusk. Unbeknownst to me, Tan gave my novel to members of her book club as a Christmas present. The following year, I met Tan for the first time at a fundraiser in San Francisco. We became friends. After I moved back to India in 2009, our rapport slid into sleep mode – we emailed irregularly, yet always with affection. Meeting your hero is a setup for disillusionment, and the literary world is a graveyard of writer-writer friendships. Well, we cut a calculated risk, over time the thing turned into something kindly and tonic, and true. I call her GT – short for GranTan – for she has been protective, and as indulgent, as a grandmother (well, a grandmother who knows two American presidents on a first name basis). What can I say? GT is the OG.
As a spiritual elder, Tan did something incredible: she gave me hope, which is a lot like love, only more useful. After publishing my second novel, I quit writing, the flame went out. By then – in 2015 – she had long traded in the foggy glamor of San Francisco, in whose cultural cosmology she was an Issey Miyake clad rock star maharani, and had moved out to quiet Sausalito with its problem neighbours. With eyes gliding on the Golden Gate Bridge, Tan told me, over and over again, in tender and startling ways, that I had to do only one thing: be as it may, be as you are. A truth told with love becomes belief. Nine years since I last published, I took a small step and published a fairytale, The Rabbit & The Squirrel in 2018; and two years later, Loss. Both books owe existence in part to Tan, who fielded my many insecurities and fuelled me with conviction for my work. Tan’s support for younger artists also led her to Joey Alexander, a Grammy nominated music prodigy who blossomed under her soul patronage. Her heroism is her generosity – I have known it, so I speak of it. So has Alexander, and so many others whom Tan has lent the shade of her mind.
In Redford’s documentary you see Tan drawing birds, or on the trail, with fellow birders. In recent years, when we discussed her love for birdlife, she used drawing birds as a way to not talk about American politics – specifically, the Trump Administration, so violently antithetical to tenets of human decency she held sacred and infrangible. Her fear that Trump’s politics would foment violence against Asians was almost prophetic. Through the Trump years, she drew, keeping rage and despair at bay with this small, sturdy, vital task: sketching birds. For her, the rapture became the other side of cynicism. I wondered why Tan loved birds so much but you never know what she comes to love, except how, which is deeply, obsessively, and for a long, long time. In Redford’s documentary, Tan’s husband of over forty years, Lou DeMattei, looks European royalty dapper but when he speaks of his wife you can only hear the silver thing ahead of love: devotion.
Tan convinced me to take strength in softness and to game yourself – never the gallery. She showed me that you should never edit your life to fit into someone else’s narrative. One winter we were outside Jodhpur, her eyes filled with the icy blue sky, the flat desert landscape – her gaze pays as much tribute to reason as to magic. I turned to her, we were near a small pond. Her warm, atmospheric eyes narrowed, as if to say that so much beauty could only come from some great and essentially unknowable place. Later, she drew the birds she had seen in the bush; the particulars were transporting, and exacting.
She taught me that kindness is unique for it is beyond measure – that is it’s special, golden quality, you never have to stop being kind, and this Universe will never run out of kindness. Her company reminds you that among all the sparkling attributes none is sexier than a solid old-fashioned goodness. And that the proper way to be intelligent is to clearly speak your truth and to smile at all in the room before leaving it. The strength of Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is its profound integrity – a story of how one woman became a writer. I saw Tan in Paris only a few days ago, we were walking on rue de Bellechasse, so easy was her presence, so light her manner, the entire day had felt like a benediction, a piece of felt.
Content Director & Editor: Kamna Malik; Photographer: Kim Newmoney; Stylist: Venk Modur; Words: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi; Assisted by: Chanel Renee; Cover design: Ashlesha Sanjiva