Amy Tan on anti-Asian racism and ‘Unintended Memoir, ‘ the new PBS film about her life


Amy Tan has just finished tutoring a 9-year-old boy. They were reading the graphic novel, which Brown likes because whatever the issue, it encourages reading. Their lesson evolves into a discussion about the word “degenerative” and what it means. Once the boy leaves, Tan thinks she could get him “March, ” the particular graphic novel created by the particular late Congressman John Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin plus artist Nate Powell that will illustrates lessons learned through the struggle for civil rights.

In one discussion, many sides of the award-winning author come to light. Educator. Advisor. Philosopher. Activist. Even MasterClass instructor . Anyone who knows Tan can tell you these things but even with numerous bestselling books (“The Valley of Amazement, ” “The Kitchen God’s Spouse, ” “The Hundred Secret Senses”), a seminal film (“The Joy Luck Club” from her first aplauded novel) and even an internet explorer (based on another guide, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”), Tan has led a relatively private life.

That will changed when documentarian James Redford whittled down the author’s reluctance and gained her trust so that he could direct a documentary, “Amy Bronze: Unintended Memoir. ” Through personal recollection and added insight from her husband Lou DeMattei, her brother John, best friend Sandy Bremner and others, a picture emerges that will adds more nuance to the author’s life than even she had envisioned.

But the process of making the documentary was bittersweet. Redford, the son associated with actor/director and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford, was in the late levels of cancer during filming and died in Oct at the age of 58.


“He was somebody that We trusted so much that I experienced he was never going to judge me, he has been never going to pity me personally, ” Tan said in February after the film’s digital premiere at the Sundance Movie Festival. “He was simply going to listen. ”

More recently, as Brown was preparing for the film’s May several release on PBS for “American Professionals, ” she reflected (via video chat) on the passing of Redford, her challenges and triumphs with writing, anti-Asian racism and living a life that the girl never dared to dream about.

Many readers of your books know about your daily life, but seeing your story on film adds the visceral element. Did the visual surprise you?

I was surprised when I saw it. It very much did for me what it did for you personally. I know my story plus my life. But to have this reflected back in a story joined together by somebody else was very moving. Here’s somebody who’s putting the pieces together and saying, “This is usually how you became who you are. ” I know it in a specific version within myself, but to see it presented by doing so was different. I always have to remember that this is Jamie Redford’s work, and I very much reliable him and believed he’d do a fantastic job. But then seeing it, it’s further than the fantastic job that he did as an artist and more this particular very deeply personal part of it, him coming to understand me well enough that he could put that together.

Your brother Bob and your best friend Sandy acquired observations from different facets on your life. Were there any revelations?

When [Sandy] produced the remark about her grandmother having been a second spouse? It was something I did not know. She’d never stated that. There were these surprises and haven’t had this discussion yet, even though I see the girl all the time, about her actual grandmother and what she feels about that now. But , you know, at this point we something else to talk about.

You’ve described composing stages in your life as producing “angry letters to yourself” and even as a “subconscious having to know. ” What stage of writing are you from now?

We started another book not long ago and then a number of things intervened that became very disturbing to me about our present world. It had a lot to do with politics, racism and, on top of that, the whole disjunction of life because of the pandemic. And suddenly I found that our story as a sort of a novel of manners has been no longer relevant. I think since writers, this neediness to learn has to do with asking questions and you have to be asking the right queries. As a child, the questions are usually pretty basic ones. ‘Do they love me? ’ ‘Well, what does that mean? ’ ‘They said this in my opinion. ’ Those are the queries that go through your mind in a child level.

But today, as an grownup, you do have to keep asking yourself — and I do. Some of [the questions] revolved around the notion of hate and exactly what that’s based on. Intent. Malevolence. Also the disparity between certain factions in our country. Will they ever get back together again? What do we need to realize? Do we want to understand? Can there be any little area intended for coming to a state, even an island, of agreement? Individuals are the kinds of questions that have filled me over these survive four years. These questions really influence and figure out the book.

Since you touched on it… Exactly how have you dealt with the anti-Asian, racist sentiments that have been surfacing?

I have voiced out against it, obviously. Spoken out about our need to find a way to address this with more than hashtags. And one from the things that’s happening which i think is wonderful will be the solidarity people are showing by having businesses join in and actually adding money for programs which will combat this. I’m also thinking we need a clearinghouse for registering hate messages. It’s not a crime to provide a hate message. We have to register those messages. We require a place to put them because are precursors to physical violence.


I have this feeling that part of it is electing a lot more people who are Asian American, plus it’s going to involve the community. Let’s get together, let’s work, because it has to do with helping those who have been traumatized. I’ve got this happen. Death risks. You’re afraid to depart your house for a while. You need to have several understanding and for people to state, “I understand why you’re sensation nervous” and to have support.

I just wrote something up on Facebook because I saw that somebody is running designed for Congress in Texas. She’s Korean. And she said, ‘I don’t want any Chinese in this country. ’ And she starts naming all these hurtful statements. She said, ‘I can say this due to the fact I’m Korean. ’ The answer is no, that gives a person no right. Because you’re Korean? The right that you are giving yourself is to be a craven politician and to market yourself for the sake of getting ballots. Yes, I very much speak out about this issue.

There is a line in the movie where you state fiction gave you a host to safety. Does it still?

In childhood, certainly fiction and being immersed in reading was a host to safety because I [was] outside of my very own reality. I entered one where the troubles are not mine, but I would be involved with these. Once I left that place, those troubles were not mine anymore and I returned to my own reality.


I think it helped because it didn’t make me really feel as lonely. There were people who were going through crises just like I was. Writing is a place I actually wouldn’t call safety normally because you have to take a risk as a writer. You have to go into dangerous areas of your mind, your heart, the way you see the globe and try to come up with enough within the story that suddenly a truth about it emerges. The fact is not always easy. Truths regarding human nature are sometimes disorienting and upsetting. It can just throw us off balance. I go into writing realizing that one of the exciting parts about writing a book is that ultimately, you get to these truths, yet it’s risky to go presently there.

Amy Tan stands in front of a tree

Author Amy Tan


You also say you often think that you’re dreaming this lifestyle. For some reason, that line strike hard. Do you still believe that way?

I do. As a matter of fact, I was remarking to a husband last night that we have been together for 51 years. Recounting our very first date, I was saying, “Wow, and here we are. ” First of all, we’re still together. Yet look at all that’s occurred to us. Would we have ever imagined this is the life that we would have had? Number It’s just too incredible.

You can’t make it happen. It’s nevertheless your readers and some fluke in the universe, so I am always conscious [and] always grateful that will whatever happened in the world of randomness did end up providing this life that I have now.


“The Joy Luck Club” is what a lot of people worldwide know. But you’ve written several bestselling books. Is there another that is as personal for you as “The Joy Good luck Club? ”

They’re all so deeply personal; they’re personal right now that I was writing the book. I couldn’t claim, “Now I love this book more than the other” because it’s like saying, “I really like this part of my life more than the other part. ”

“The Kitchen area God’s Wife” was the second book, and that was the guide my mother asked me to write. She loved “The Joy Luck Club” a lot, but she knew it had been fiction and everybody thought it was her story. The girl said, “Now write the real story. ” And I held saying, “No, no, no . That’s not how fictional works. ” But the things i ended up doing was actually writing a story that was a lot closer to what her living would actually be. So I am very fond of that book for having been able to have her give me her story and for me to give it back with her in the form of a novel.

I had one more book that I was composing because at the time it had to do with my mother and our editor both being ill with fatal illness at the same time. And this story, “The Hundred Secret Senses, ” has a lot to do with… do you believe in life after this one? It had been deeply personal to me.

The next guide, [“The Bonesetter’s Daughter,”] was after my mother had died . It’s about memory — but losing memories — of losing a person who will be very much a part of who you are.


I often used to say that the book that I love the most is the one I’m working on, but I think that’s only half accurate. I also hate that guide most. I love-hate, you understand, until I’m so consumed by it — the thoughts and the ideas, the elements of the sentences. If I don’t love it, I have to keep working on it. [There’s] plenty of self-consciousness and confusion.

Writing became filled with anxiety for you at a single point. Can you tell me that which you tell your students in your MasterClass session about being able to weave in your emotions in terms of writing?

After we all did [the documentary] and we talked so much about my life and how that designed who I am today and exactly how I became a writer, I found that when MasterClass asked me to do [the tutorial], I actually said yes. I had said no before. It’s clear to me now that all these areas of my abilities and our obsessions as a writer, they are very much related to my feelings. So , yes, I can talk about this.

It’s about memory, hype and imagination. I do state in the MasterClass that you will encounter blocks where you just can’t go. You’re stressed; you’re feeling like this is the end of the world. You’re not a writer. You want to quit writing. Well, I’ve been a published writer for several years, and those are my feelings. It’s normal to want to make things as good as possible. Plus you’re going to feel stressed unless you have such an overblown ego that you think everything that you write is absolutely correct.

I believe anxiety just is part and parcel of being an author. The feeling of rejection, berating yourself. I think it helps some other writers to know that writers like myself and every writer I realize, great writers or brand new writers, whatever, they all have the same. So it’s, “Welcome to the club. ”


When other authors are usually talking about how influential you happen to be, what goes through your mind?

This is a really horrible one: that I’m deceased and they’re talking about me personally in religious terms. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s because I have a different sense of myself than I think most people would have who did not grow up with me like my mate. When I’m seen as a writer of an elevated status, that seems like a fictional character. It is gratifying. And to be honest, disorienting. I have to kind of change myself and keep in mind our perspective that I’m still the same person and then also be grateful that somebody thinks I’m better than I am in this other context.

In that vein, how hard was it for Jamie Redford to persuade you to do the documentary? Seems like that might have been a tough sell.

It was actually jogging right up against my goal which i had, which was to enter into a path of the things i jokingly called “the path to obscurity. ” I’ve already been very comfortable with the idea that one day I get to be a lot more personal and that people are not going to request to interview me.

But [Jamie and I] were friends to begin with. We had already talked about so many things related to another documented. I just remember standing on my veranda looking at trees and talking about life and about griffure, pain, survival, resilience. Finally, after he literally courted me for a period of time, bringing me sandwiches for lunch and, you know, “If you don’t want to do it… Could i just show you? I’ll never say that again. ” Blah, blah, blah. Finally, I decided that we’d talked about this so much, I really trust him. I just had to say to myself, is this going to be worth doing it, having conversations with Jamie and looking at his creative ideas for carrying this out? I decided yes.

There was another reason, and that is because I knew he was very, very sick and he had talked openly, admitting that he could die.


I told him, “You don’t need any more uncertainty in your life. ” And I said, “Go ahead and do this. ” No hesitation.

He had the whole documentary mapped out and he said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be done. ” And I said, “Jamie, I’m not worried about the documentary at all. I worry about you. ”

Now, if I hadn’t known Jamie, basically didn’t have that amount of trust in him, I wouldn’t have done it. Because you open yourself up so much to who you are as well as your family, everything. The archives, my photographs.

[Having done] this documentary thing, it’s clear to me now that each one of these parts of my abilities and my obsessions as a writer, that they are very much associated with my emotions.

What I think that many people may be getting out of this documentary is that they say, ‘Hey, what about my life? The life span of my parents and my parents’ parents before that? And how does that all continue or transmute over time, over the generations? How did I become who I am? ’


Last question is the obligatory one nowadays: How have you fared during this pandemic?

I feel lucky every day in fact I’m not homeless. Im not worried about paying my sudden case of rent. I don’t have the type of job where I have to be there someplace or I don’t receive. So it was not a terrible trouble for me to stay home every day. Naturally i watch birds. I have, immediately on the other side of this screen, easliy found . backyard full of birds rushing everywhere. I draw quite as well when I want to be outside of me and into nature.

Something unique that’s happened, I think, the revolutionary system . is an awareness of time about that gets skewed. It’s just like time has become one moment little while. It’s just stuck. And so I often don’t know what daylight hours of the week it is or possibly an anything and it’s only a so discombobulating.

It also comes with this occurrence about looking at the length of life. This may sound really depressing, but I think about passing away every single day. And I know large numbers of writers do so. This is not hacia depressive notion — I am going to die. This is the conception that life is finite of which I have a finite number of years individuals I’m now 69. Plus you look at that and that makes a difference.

Like Since i went to buy a new airbed. Somebody said, “Oh, it also one’s good for 20 years, in addition to has a lifetime warranty. ” And I said, “20 several?! ”


So very it’s just, you know, one particular strangeness. I got to work using lot of political campaigns. I will tried to keep myself offering meaningful things during this old days year, eating at home, my hubby cooks for me. We had cooked meals every day, which was a muslim.

This guidance remainder of my life could perhaps still seem like a number of years, having said that look what happened during this 12 month. And it went by like not enough available time at all.

‘American Masters: Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir’

Everywhere: KOCE
When: in search of p. m. Monday then any time on pbs. org

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for youthful, juvenile children)