Identity: a Discovery

Identity: a life-long discovery — Amy Tan visits UAFS for annual Read This!

Amy Tan didn’t expect to be a best-selling author.

“I sent two or three of my stories to the New Yorker, mostly to get that rejection letter that would signal to end that story and begin a new one,” she said. “I would pin that rejection letter on my bulletin board. I had a whole plan to have a decoupage of rejection letters. But that didn’t happen.”

The author of The Joy Luck Club didn’t begin her career as a fiction writer, she said. The business writer had a successful freelance company, but the strain of working 90-hour weeks was making her miserable. She asked herself a poignant question, then took a little leap of faith.

“I asked myself if working like this was something I saw myself doing in 10 or 15 years,” she said. “I asked if there was meaning in what I was doing. I had money and a notion of success, but I wasn’t doing anything for myself.”

Tan started taking lessons in improvisational jazz piano and working on fiction. It was the writing which she said unleashed something inside her.

“It felt like the meaning of my life — it was simply working it out, creating a story in my mind and finding something that had always been there. That felt like a discovery, but was also strangely familiar,” she said. “I knew that would be the reason for writing.”

But she wasn’t prepared to jump fully into fiction.

Pursuing fiction as a craft of personal discovery, she hoped to maybe publish in “a good, little magazine like Grand Street,” she said, augmenting her successful vocation with an avocation of passion. She had no way of knowing just how popular her personal stories would become.

“I didn’t even know if it would be published,” she said of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club. “There was a contract, but my very business writer self said we’ll be lucky if it sells 5,000 copies and is on the shelf for six weeks before it disappears. I didn’t have a great deal of self-consciousness that these personal things I was writing would ever be studied by students in Arkansas.”

But they have.

The University of Arkansas Fort Smith will welcome Tan to the River Valley next week for the seminal event of the Read This! program. She will present workshops with students before the opening the floor to an author’s talk and question-and-answer session Wednesday evening.

“It’s always good for me to talk to students,” she said. “I have been working on a nonfiction book that has a lot to do with the reasons that I write, but I never set out to write something that would be instructional to people.”

A Literal Program

The Read This! Community Literacy Program started at the University of Fort Smith in 2010 with a national novel that had a hometown hook.

True Grit was first published as a series by Arkansas-born Charles Portis and opened the door for students to participate in literature in a way previously not accessed by the university, said Erik Carlson, assistant professor of English at UAFS.

“The program has grown in recent years, but it all started with this one Arkansas writer,” he said. “Read This! is expressly a program of campus-to-community literacy. Our communities don’t just stay on college campuses, and we can use a novel to talk together about life and society in a way that respects everyone’s experiences and expertise in life.”

The Read This! program begins at the start of the spring semester, when English composition students crack open a book they will begin to see from more viewpoints than they may have thought possible, he said.

“Just as there is no one sided story, there is no one way to read a book,” Carlson said. “Coming together allows students to explore different sides of a story in a way that solo reading cannot do. This program is an idea that you read things together. It’s sharing ideas, culture; it’s sharing ideas that explain the world to us.”

College senior Matthew Farrar said the Read This! program was part of his decision pursue English for his major.

The 20-year-old said he changed majors “frequently,” before being inspired by Read This! speaker and novelist Mark Haddon. The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time visited Fort Smith in 2013 and worked directly with English students.

“I ended up in English because all of the teachers who have inspired me in the past have been English teachers,” Farrar said. “But I became very involved through the Read This! program. The English majors have had the opportunity to work with the most prominent authors and professionals in the academic world.”

But inspiration has not been a privilege reserved for English majors.

The Fort Smith Public Libraries and Crawford County Library System held community programming in conjunction with the book study.

“The university belongs to Fort Smith, not just the students, faculty and staff,” said Ann-Gee Lee, associate professor of rhetoric and writing at UAFS. “I think the Read This! program is a great way to work with colleagues and students across the disciplines and network with the community. We can create ongoing conversations and collaborations.”

“Fort Smith book clubs have been reading The Joy Luck Club, helping extend the readership through the community,” Carlson added. “We’ve also had people at the university get involved outside of the English department. Steven Kite had his historical interpretation students curate a display on immigrant experiences in Arkansas.”

And perhaps the most popular event in this year’s program included an aspect of Chinese-American culture which creates a unique dynamic in Tan’s novel.

Students and community members took part in Mahjong tournaments, utilizing local established Mahjong clubs to help integrate students into the culture, said Carlson.

“Mahjong plays such a large roll in the novel, so it was fitting that we would play the game, but it was more popular than expected,” he said. “I saw a student playing at a table with a first-generation immigrant and the ‘first lady’ of the university. It was really cool to see this kind of collaboration.”

A success of the past

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, Calif., to first-generation Chinese immigrants. Her father was a hardworking electrical engineer and Baptist minister who died when Tan was only 15 years old.

It was then that she began to discover her family history wasn’t as uncomplicated as she had originally inferred, she said. Her grandmother had committed suicide, and her mother had escaped an abusive marriage in China, leaving behind three daughters in her flight to America.

These realizations of identity are what Tan calls her “emotional DNA,” a discovery of family secrets that have defined who she is as not only a writer, but as a person, she said.

“The truth of our past is always revealed in some way,” she said. “It’s something in the personal history that gets revealed without knowing — the manifestation of that former trauma, such as my mother’s first marriage and abusive husband.

“I wanted to know who I was, how I became what I am now,” she continued. “I think everyone has these questions.”

The discovery of her mother’s traumatic first marriage and escape became a pivotal experience for the writer, and her retelling would eventually develop into a lead storyline in The Joy Luck Club, which propelled the unknown business writer to literary fame.

The 1989 New York Times bestseller focuses on four Chinese-American families who form a Mahjong club after immigrating to America. The novel is actually a series of 16 interlocking short stories, which focus on the mother-daughter relationship, although this was somewhat unintentional, Tan said.

“I don’t think of myself as writing about mothers and daughters — I write about identity,” she said. “It just so happens that the strongest relationships had to come from my early life with my mother. And trying to remove what she had proofed upon me, what was inextricable and ironed on like a decal. It will always be there.

“But I think what’s true with many first novelists. It’s natural that it is heavily autobiographical at least emotionally,” she continues. “Every time I tried to write something different, a story that had nothing to do with my life, my past, those stories would get derailed. So finally, assuming it would not get published, so just wrote what I knew.”

The next generation

“Students do not really realize how lucky they are to be able to meet these writers,” said Lee. “It is not as big as a deal for them as it is with the instructors. For students already familiar with the works, they are ‘geeking out’ as hard as my colleagues and I are.”

Lee said her students have enjoyed “filling the gaps” where their American culture departs from the Asian culture portrayed in The Joy Luck Club. “The Chinese culture, and other Asian cultures, seem so different to some people — strange and interesting at the same time.”

For students like Farrar, this exposure is vital, he said.

The founder of the American International Activities Council was recently accepted to the University of Sydney in Australia and hopes to use what he has learned with the Read This! program in his overseas studies and possibly teaching English as a second language in Japan or Korea.

And although the book focuses on the relationship between mothers and daughters, Farrar said he believes each reader, whether female, male, American or immigrant can draw from a novel that is refreshing in its uniqueness.

“We all go through some rebellion,” Farrar said. “You can see how several of the mothers who really push their children. In this respect, I can easily identify with this book, more so maybe than with the traditional English literary canon.”

Tan said she is looking forward to coming to UAFS, but she hesitates to claim The Joy Luck Club is a definitive text from which students should draw their inspiration.

“I never set out to write something that would be instructional to people,” she said. “I just wrote what was emotionally important to me in terms of memory — what I wish to revisit. What I want to share with people is the impetus of writing the first story and what happened in my life to cause this. I care very little about posterity, but that readers find something that resonates with them at a very deep level.

“I think that is one of the reasons reading is so important. It develops your sense of passion, but that passion can be found in any book.

“We all have our own identities, but how do we find these?” she asked. “It’s a life long question I have that I can’t help looking at.”

Allison Carter can be reached at acarter@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAAllison.Link to the article can be found here.

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