With a new documentary out detailing her expansive life, Tan reflects on what’s really needed to achieve racial equality.

By Claire Stern
May 12, 2021 @ 9:00 am
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Amy Tan
Credit: Julian Johnson

There was a time not too long ago when Amy Tan gave a talk at a university, and at the reception following, one of the school's benefactors asked her how long she'd be in town before heading back to China. "I was stunned," she said. "He assumed that because I look Chinese, I belong in China." To Tan, who resides in San Francisco, it was an act of ignorance that is sadly all too common.

Violence and racist acts against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community continue to dramatically rise in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "People actually think Asian Americans brought this pandemic to the United States, and you can't use reason when someone is upset and looking to lay blame," Tan says. Facing injustice both outside and within her own community is something the New York Times best-selling author discusses in PBS's American Masters documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, which is out now.

Also of note? She's the lead singer of a band with fellow author Stephen King.

InStyle: How have you been dealing with the rise in anti-Asian hate currently happening around the country?

Amy Tan: Considering that the population of Asians in this country is higher than ever before, you would think there would be less fear and resentment. The constant, hostile flare-ups represent a fundamental lack of desire to understand other cultures and points of view. I'm a longtime member of the Asian Pacific Fund, which asks companies in the [San Francisco] Bay Area to give money in solidarity with AAPIs [Asian American Pacific Islanders]. We are intent on finding better ways to report hate crimes. Many of us experience name-calling and don't do anything about it. When somebody insults you or tells you to go back to where you came from, that needs to be reported so it doesn't lead to further criminal action.

What made you decide that now is the time to be the subject of a documentary?

To be honest, I was reluctant at first. I had already vowed to return to a more private life — one less examined by the public. But my friend [the late filmmaker] James [Redford] was charmingly persistent. We had many long conversations over sandwiches at my house, talking about pain, trauma, and resilience. He felt that a documentary about me would pass to others a sense of hope. At the time, he had already had two [liver] transplants and was waiting for another, so he was quite ill and in constant pain. The film wound up being his last, which makes it all the more meaningful.

At one point in the film, you mention carrying the burden of the AAPI community. Do you feel a certain responsibility because you write about it?

I think people expect me to feel responsible for AAPI issues since most of my books chronicle the immigrant experience. But we're a very diverse group with different needs, and I'm just one voice. I don't represent everyone. We all need to reconsider what's needed to create lasting change. A Facebook post isn't enough.

What propelled you into writing in the first place?

I don't ever recall a time when I wasn't curious about my life or what was happening around me. I remember being called racist names like "Chink" and "Jap" at age 6, and I had questions about who I was and how I came to be. I know my worth as a human being and as a writer. I would never stay quiet if I felt I was being treated with condescension. Being different, thinking differently, and being exposed to trauma and tragedy made me ask questions out of necessity to understand and not be buffeted by instability without reason. Questioning everything, especially pat answers, is part of being a writer.

Is there something you hope readers will take away from your books?

I do think, as a writer, there's always a way to change minds and hearts, even when it comes to race. A story requires you to enter an imaginary world of a different person in different circumstances. And if you can identify with someone else's struggle, the behavior follows, then the action. I won't write simply to prove that I'm able to deliver what readers want; [a novel] has to come from a search for meaning. Sometimes that meaning is to take the gift of my mother's stories and return them in the form of a novel [like with The Joy Luck Club].

It's been 30-plus years since the publication of The Joy Luck Club, and there's still so much to be done. What do you think has changed for the better?

When the book first came out, I figured it was a hit because it was read by mothers and daughters, and the daughters realized that their mothers were not immortal — they had secrets and unspoken conflicts. Students were also introduced to it as required reading and wound up liking it. I didn't expect so many non-Asians to identify with the story; not being Chinese and identifying with a Chinese immigrant mother is a beautiful thing. I'm grateful every day for the book's success, but I can't take credit for breaking down walls for other Asian American writers. I'm happy that happened, though. I will admit, however, that praise makes me squirm, and sometimes I wonder if I died and am listening to my own eulogy.

The book did introduce many concepts of Asian culture to mass audiences, which a vast majority of people likely never knew or cared to learn about. How did that impact you?

I never expected the book to be published, let alone land on a best-seller list or be viewed as a pioneering literary work. Then it just kept going beyond what I could've imagined. Minorities felt that The Joy Luck Club kept them from being recognized because it filled the diversity quota, and that led to hostility and envy within the Asian community. Fortunately, progress has been made, but we need more voices, especially in film. Film is such a big part of popular culture — it's capable of changing the mainstream.

Major strides have been made in the past year with the success of Nomadland, Minari, and To All the Boys: Always and Forever. Does that make you feel optimistic?

It's encouraging to see more young writers and actors out there — they appeal to an audience that my books aren't able to reach. What's fantastic about films like the To All the Boys trilogy is that they're not about the main character [Lara Jean, played by Lana Condor] being Asian — she just happens to be Asian. She's just a girl who's got a crush on a guy, and the guy has a crush on her. We need more of that. Minari centered on a family and showcased history, culture, and race. I probably saw Crazy Rich Asians five times. Yet the fact that we look at these movies as big achievements means we don't have nearly enough of them. I want the day to come where we don't even say an Asian American movie is nominated and we just call it a movie.

So you think the next generation will rise up and meet the moment?

I'm of a certain age, and so are my parents. My grandmother was a concubine during World War II — that's not exactly familiar to millennials or Gen Z. To them, those are clichés and stereotypes that we need to get rid of. The next generation has a built-in activism that will make inroads. They're not going to be passive.

What else gives you a sense of hope for the future?

I keep in mind that not everybody has racist feelings. There are plenty of kind people out there who realize the difference between right and wrong. It gives me hope that we can continue to do better. No matter what happens, always remember nobody can tell you what you're worth.

Your latest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir, also tells the story of your life and career, which has included singing with a band of best-selling authors called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Is there something left on your bucket list?

I want to finish another novel, but not just any novel. I want to write a novel that's meaningful to me at this time in my life. Separately, I'd also like to learn how to compose music. Music lets you express emotion without words, and it exposes a completely different part of you. I think I'll start with a two-measure melody, then do variations on that—it would be my own anthem. As for the rest, who knows? I didn't start writing fiction until I was 33 years old. It's never too late!

For more stories like this, pick up the June 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 21st.