Critically acclaimed author Amy Tan charmed a crowd of hundreds of people at BBC last week for the Creative Writing Program‘s fifth annual Lawrence A. Sanders Award for Fiction.
The author of The Joy Luck Club and other bestsellers opened her talk with the journeys of the grandmother she never met and her mother with which she shared a lifelong tumultuous relationship. Though her writings are largely fiction, Tan draws from her own family’s experiences, where life was often stranger than fiction.
“I’m often asked where my creativity comes from,” Tan said. “I wrote something down about my family history thinking that was the origin of my creative experiences. But I think it has more to do with observation. It’s a journey of documenting thoughts.”
Tan was born in the United States a few years after her parents immigrated from China. Her father was an electrical engineer and a Baptist minister. Her mother, Daisy, left behind a secret past, including three daughters in China and the ghost of her mother, who had killed herself when Daisy was 9. The Tan family belonged to a small social group called the Joy Luck Club, whose families enacted the immigrant version of the American Dream by playing the stock market.
When Tan was 15, her father and older brother died of brain tumors six months apart. Her mother moved the remaining family to Europe to see the world before a curse killed them all, she said. They settled in Switzerland where Tan spent several years angry and confused.
Eventually, she returned to the United States to attend college. Tan rejected her parent’s expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist and after an eclectic career of professional jobs, Tan shifted her focus to writing fiction. The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989. She has since written six more best-selling novels, two children’s books and several works of non-fiction. Tan’s much-loved novels have been translated into 35 languages.
“I write to understand who I am and how I came to be me,” Tan said. “What I observe becomes part of my writing and my writing becomes part of what I observe.”
As she recounted her own insecurities, realities, ideas about beauty and her journey of creativity, Tan made one personal confession to the audience.
“I’ve never listened to any of the audiobooks I’ve recorded for my books,” she said. “I don’t like the sound of my voice. It creeps me out.”
Tan is the fifth recipient of the Lawrence Sanders Award. This award, made possible by an endowment from the Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation of Boca Raton, recognizes fiction writers whose work combines literary excellence with popular appeal. Past recipients are bestselling writers Scott Turow, Pat Conroy, Isabel Allende and Richard Ford.