When Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club hit shelves in 1989, more than one reviewer interpreted the narrative’s central tension between mothers and daughters as autobiography. And when the movie adaptation came out in 1993—cowritten by Tan—those assumptions multiplied. That happens with any good piece of storytelling: If it strikes with enough clarity, it must have some basis in reality. But as Tan recounts, the best part of giving her mother a copy of the book was that they share a secret. They both know where the fiction lies.
Now in her late 60s, Tan has six novels, two children’s books, a couple of short stories, and a half-dozen works of nonfiction to her name. She speaks around the country, is no stranger to the talk show couch, and even tours in a supergroup comprised of fellow writers called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Tan sings while Dave Barry and Stephen King play guitar. Barbara Kingsolver and Matt Groening are also members. As a band, they’re not good, but I’d buy a ticket today if they were playing The Fox tomorrow.
And it’s all lovingly captured in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir from documentarian James Redford, now playing the Women+Film Festival.
Narrated by Tan, Unintended Memoir covers Tan’s life and work with efficiency and energy. It explores relationships with her husband, brother and peers, but the crux of the doc is Tan’s relationship with her mother, Daisy—an immigrant from Shanghai who fled an abusive marriage and wrestled with severe mental illness and suicidal impulses for the rest of her life.
Daisy’s struggle was their way of life. First in Oakland, California, where Tan was born, then as a teen in Switzerland, where Daisy relocated them—seemingly on a whim—after the death of Tan’s father. It was here that Tan learned of her mother’s past in China and the three children she left behind.
If you’ve read The Joy Luck Club, some of that should feel familiar. Like many great writers, Tan knew how to fictionalize the truth to get to the heart of the matter. For Tan, that wasn’t just the life a parent leads before they bring a child into the world, but in the gulf between a mother who grows up in one culture and a daughter who grows up in another. As Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, points out: There’s a generation of difference between the Asian and the Asian American experience.
Kwan is interviewed in Unintended Memoir, and he brings the insight of an acolyte. Tan’s brother, husband, editor and mentor are also interviewed, and provide perspectives outside of Tan’s own field of view. But the best part is Tan herself. She traces her past, some of it photographed—Tan’s father, John, fancied himself as an amateur photographer—much of it animated by Xaviera López. Either way, it’s the stories that resonate and the words Tan selects to tell them. They offer understanding and compassion. It’s what every parent and child is looking for, regardless of when and where they came from.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (2021)
Directed by James Redford
Written by John Behrens
Produced by Karen Pritzker, James Redford
Starring: Amy Tan
KPJR Films, Not rated, 101 minutes, Broadcasting on PBS on May 3, 2021.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 35, “Where the past begins.”