“These are the things you do, so that you cannot finish a book.”
These are the words that author Amy Tan used to open her lecture last Friday at Kleinhans Music Hall. She then proceeded to dive into the realm of what she was really doing over the eight years that it took her to write her latest novel.
Buffalo had the pleasure of hosting yet another acclaimed author, as part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series. Tan, a fan favorite, brought in the masses who wanted to hear of her process, her thoughts and, most importantly, her inspirations for her masterpieces.
The themes in Tan’s works are universal; everyone can see elements of their own family, or their tragedies, in her intricate stories.
Tan’s books “perfectly captured (everyone’s) family angst,” said Barbara Cole, artistic director of Just Buffalo Literary Center.
Tan described her mother. Atypical for these lectures, she brought with her a slide show containing photographs of her family, giving faces to the names she so frequently references. The pictures brought reality to her stories. The audience was immediately immersed in thoughts of Tan’s mother, grandmother and siblings, as their faces flashed across the screen.
However, Tan’s discussion was not light for long. Though often presented in a humorous manner, Tan’s story is not a funny one. The tragedy she has faced in her life is evident in her books, and highlighted in her discussion. She discussed growing up with an immigrant mother, a “beautiful, vain” immigrant mother. Though Tan was the American girl, she said she felt a constant struggle to conform to Chinese societal standards.
In her mid-teens, Tan faced the unthinkable. Her father and older brother both died of brain tumors within a year and a half.
Tan explored the role religion has played in her life, as well as the role of luck in her mother’s life.
Through her talk, Tan discussed the rocky dynamic between her and her mother, and eventually tied it back to the horrific suicide of her grandmother.
The vulnerability expressed in her work is often deeply felt by readers. The themes of abandonment and sorrow, and the unconditional familial love are relevant to those who explore the work.
The audience listened to Tan’s tales of moving around the world on a whim, simply because her mother wanted to on a particular morning. The blatant address of mental illness as well as abandonment were prominent themes in Tan’s lecture.
As she wrapped things up, she posed the following questions: “Who are we? How do we become the people we are? How do our circumstances affect us?” The consideration of these questions, she said, puts her “unhappiness into perspective.”
Tan eloquently finished by talking about how people generalize her works as books about Chinese culture or mother-daughter novels. She quickly debunked that thought, saying her work illuminates feelings of sorrow or family secrets in anyone’s life.
Lillian Kahris is a junior at City Honors.