When the bestselling and critically acclaimed Chinese-American author Amy Tan finished her 2013 novel The Valley of Amazement, her editor, publisher Daniel Halpern, "suggested an interim book between novels", a work of non-fiction, based on the thousands of emails Tan sent him while writing the book.
She thought about it, but ultimately decided that however “compelling” and “insightful” – Halpern’s words, not Tan’s – her musings had been, they “would not add up to an insightful book on anything to do with writing”. Cue another year of searching around for a new idea before she and Halpern came up with a plan.
Harnessing the “spontaneity” that had enabled her to fire off those missives he held in such high regard, she would send him a weekly piece of between 15 and 25 pages, written with the same abandon: “I would simply write wherever my thoughts went that day and allow for impulse, missteps, and excess.”
For much of the process there was no discussion of the bigger picture. Certain words and phrases were forbidden: “chapter”, “essay”, “memoir”, “finished manuscript”, “the new book” and “deadline”. The pieces were referred to only as “cantos”. But they swiftly accumulated, and soon Tan discovered that not only had she inadvertently written her next book, it was also something of “an unintended memoir”.
Readers familiar with Tan's fiction, might also be aware that this isn't the first time details of her own life, and the lives of those closest to her, have found their way onto her pages. Most notably, her second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, drew heavily on Tan's mother Daisy's experience as a Chinese immigrant who fled to the United States to escape both an abusive first marriage and civil war.
“I don’t need to read it,” Daisy, by this time struggling to keep track of the story on the page due to Alzheimer’s disease, told her daughter when the novel was published. “That’s my story and I know what happened.”
From Tan's famous 1989 debut, The Joy Luck Club, onwards, relationships between mothers and daughters have always played an important role in her fiction. Tan wrote what she knew. Her adolescence was marked by two huge losses; her older brother Peter, and her father – a Baptist minister and engineer – both died from brain tumours months apart, when Tan was 15.
“I’ve had readers ask me in public why I have not included fathers in my stories,” she writes here. “I’ve answered that fictional characters must be dimensional, complex and morally ambiguous – in other words, flawed, rather than idealised.”
Thus, it's her mother and going further back, Daisy's mother – who take centre stage in both Tan's emotional life and literary imagination. Daisy's mother took her own life when Daisy was 9. Less than a decade later, Daisy married her first husband – "that bad man" – a pilot, who was revealed as both a coward in battle and violent at home. She bore him four children, three of whom survived. When, in 1949, she leaves for America to start a new life with the man with whom she's fallen in love – a young, attractive Chinese engineer who recently moved to the US on a student visa – she leaves her children behind. Unbeknownst to her, it is more than 30 years before she sees them again.
In California, the lovers get married and embark on their new life together. They have three children; Tan is the middle child. They hail their firstborn son Peter as a “genius”, and encourage Tan to push herself to his high standards.
She recalls a childhood of high scholastic achievement and gruelling daily piano practice. Identified as an “early reader”, at the tender age of 6 she’s “sentenced to an immigrant parent’s dream”: neurosurgeon five days a week, concert pianist at the weekend. Neither was meant to be. She also had to contend with her mother’s depressions, rages and suicidal urges, the recollection of which sends Tan down the winding paths leading to the past.
“I wonder what emotional tightropes my grandmother made my mother walk. What gave my mother her nature – a pattern of incredible resilience, which could, in an instant, become a furious impulse to hurtle herself into oblivion.”
Don't expect a straightforward, chronological story though. It's more Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life – Yiyun Li's memoir about the relationship between life and literature, which was published last year – than Mary Karr's The Liars' Club.
As beautifully written as Tan's previous work, Where the Past Begins is also thought-provokingly experimental. Both in the way it's structured – more traditional, albeit fragmented chapters are interspersed with extracts from Tan's journals (referred to here as "Quirks"), longer excerpts from unpublished writing ("Interludes"), and even a selection of the aforementioned emails between author and editor that provides fascinating insight into their working relationship – and in the way Tan demonstrates that her creative process is inseparable from her family history.
“My childhood,” she explains, “with its topsy-turvy emotions has, in fact, been a reason to write. I can lay it squarely on the page and see what it was. I can understand and see the patterns. My characters are witness to what I went through. In each story, we are untangling a knot in a huge matted mess. The work of undoing them one at a time is the most gratifying part of writing, but the mess will always be there.”