Family revelations inspire Tan's latest novel
The photo of Amy Tan's grandmother was a revelation. Taken more than 100 years ago in China, the image of the woman with a hand on her hip — a suggestive pose in that era, even if she was clad in a high-collared garment with a hem that dusted the ground — indicated a revision of the family history might be necessary.
“I saw a photo of some other women who were wearing the same clothes, and I realized that my grandmother might have been a courtesan,” says Tan, who appears Nov. 25 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.
That photo caused Tan to reconsider a book she'd been working on for five years. The result became — after another three years of writing and research — “The Valley of Amazement,” a novel that has threads of Tan's ancestry deeply woven into its fabric.
The story opens in 1905. Violet is 7 years old and lives at the Hidden Jade Path, a high-class courtesan house in Shanghai that her mother owns. In less than seven years, Violet's somewhat idyllic existence is shattered when her mother is deceived by a suitor who sells the young girl to another courtesan house to pay off gambling debts.
That sets off a series of events — sexual enslavement, romance, a good marriage ending in death, and a bad marriage that starts with a trip worthy of the Odyssey ending in death — some of which happened in Tan's family.
“In my grandmother's case, she married someone for love, and he died during the pandemic (of 1918),” says Tan, whose other novels include “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter's Daughter.” “He was someone who was an idealist, a young scholar, unemployed, who wanted to help overthrow the Qing dynasty.”
Tan's grandmother eventually killed herself, setting in motion a series of incidents that irrevocably altered the family history.
“My mother wanted to fly up to heaven with (her mother),” Tan says. “My mother always regretted not having a mother to guide her. She blamed everything that went wrong on not having a mother there for her. So you can see that theme in Violet, blaming her mother for everything, as something that's rooted in our family.”
Violet, left to her own devices, gradually accepts her circumstances and embraces the life of a courtesan. While that choice might seem anathema to modern sensibilities, it was one of the better outcomes for many women in China at the turn of the 20th century.
“I don't think American women would necessarily look at their lives that way,” Tan says. “Or maybe they do: At least I have a roof over my head or a husband who doesn't beat me. But in China, women had fewer choices. You would look at your situation and say, ‘At least I'm not in a second-class house, at least I'm not a street hooker.' They would look at the continuum of a life in that world and say that they were lucky. A lot of these girls who ended up in the sex trade were kidnapped, or their mothers had been in that world, and it was not as shocking or horrifying to them because it was the expected world they would always live in.”
Tan speaks of reading heart-wrenching letters written by courtesans to patrons who had left them destitute and unable to pay their debts to the houses where they worked. She talks about her mother's abusive first husband (not Tan's father), who held a gun to her mother's head and raped her when she asked for a divorce, and who brought women to their home for sexual relations.
“She had little choice,” Tan says.
In the midst of such unrelenting hardships, there were moments of levity. “The Valley of Amazement” reflects this humor by way of the character Magic Gourd, who serves as Violet's Sancho Panza throughout the novel, and some especially bad poetry written by one of Violet's suitors.
Tan's mother sometimes referred to people in unflattering, unprintable terms, to the point where her bawdy references became comical to her daughter.
“My mother was hilarious,” Tan says. “But the thing is, once I was older, I learned about the people who she talked about. I learned the truth behind what she was saying. I'm just glad she was able to look back and laugh sometimes.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.