The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writer’s Life, by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s mother believed in ghosts and curses and lived her life expecting bad luck. A typical maternal warning:

“Don’t ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can’t stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.”

Her father was a Baptist minister who was guided by his Christian faith. His approach:

“Faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us even though we still cannot see it ahead of us.”

So Tan lived her life amid contradictions, in a home full of invited and uninvited ghosts, holy and otherwise.

After reading this compilation of essays about her life, it’s easy to believe that the connection between other worlds is far more tenuous than most pragmatic Americans like to believe. Tan has used bits and pieces of her life in her fiction, especially her relationship with her mother, But she was holding back some of the most bizarre elements of her story:

Her friend and classmate Pete was brutally murdered when they were in graduate school. Amy communicated with him in dreams so vivid she learned the names of his killers. And he told her to leave school and start a career in writing that ultimately led to her novels, which include The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and The Kitchen God’s Wife.

Tan’s mother spent three years in a Chinese jail for having an affair while she was married. When she got out, a chance meeting reunited her with the man with whom she had an affair, and the two got married and became Tan’s parents. Her father died young, of a brain tumor, only months after losing his son and Tan’s brother, also to a brain tumor.

Tan’s mother’s morbid obsession with death no doubt stemmed from watching her mother kill herself by eating raw opium.

Because the book was built out of existing work—magazine articles, speeches, introductions to other books, even long emails—it is a bit disjointed, with repetition of several stories and too little details on others. It came out a year after Tan was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which weakened her physically and mentally. Perhaps she felt she would not recover well enough to write a formal memoir.

She recently published Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, another series of essays, although she’s not comfortable with being a memoirist. In an interview with The New York Times, she said:

“It’s like taking the mask off, taking your clothes off, and having people say, oh my God. It’s nonfiction, and people can make fun of the way you think or say, oh that was trivial.”

Clearly, her life has been remarkable and far from trivial, but it’s possible she might be accused of being unbelievable. As she notes in The Opposite of Fate, her truth is far stranger than fiction.

—Pat Prijatel

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