By: PP Wong
hroughout her career, Amy Tan has faced criticism from the Asian community. Even today people write blogs and articles about how her books reinforce negative stereotypes about Asians. Some new Asian writers have taken to “Amy Tan bashing” as a fun past time. Others take great offence when their novel is compared to Amy Tan’s. Still others blame her for not getting a publisher because their book is “NOT like Amy Tan.” Amy Tan is often cited as the reason why western readers can’t see Asian authors beyond the wrong stereotypes of the “Asian” literary genre.
Yet, is the small-mindedness of many western editors the fault of Amy Tan? Is she culpable for many reviewers comparing black authors with other black authors, Indian authors with other Indian authors and all East Asian authors with Amy Tan? Most importantly, should an author like Amy Tan be burnt at the literary stake for simply writing from experience and what is on her heart?
I remember the first time I read The Joy Luck Club. I was a young, nerdy, Chinese girl whose favorite hangout spot was the local library. The Joy Luck Club was the first book I read with Chinese people in it. At last! A book I could truly feel at home with. Just like me, Amy Tan’s protagonists struggled with identity problems and were lippy to their shouty Chinese-accented mothers. For the first time in my life, bedtime reading involved being taken away to a familiar land where young girls ate Chinese food, were forced to play the piano and often felt like a disappointment to their mothers.
The years passed by and I read all of Amy Tan’s books:
The Hundred Secret Senses (my favorite)
The Kitchen God’s Wife (was good but not as good as The Joy Luck Club)
The Bonesetter’s Daughter (loved it)
Saving Fish From Drowning (was slightly disappointing)
After Saving Fish From Drowning, I questioned whether Amy Tan had lost her magic. Was she an author whose best work was behind her? I waited for her next book to prove me wrong. But the wait turned out to be longer than I thought.
Eight years to be exact.
In those long eight years, my literary repertoire grew. I read everything from Karl Marx to Ben Okri to Mark Haddon averaging two to three books per week. I particularly enjoyed discovering books by Asian authors such as Kasuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Tan Twan Eng and Kyung-Sook Shin. With all the wonderful books out there, Amy Tan was becoming an author that was part of my past. Yet just like many Chinese readers, she held the exclusive place in my heart for being the first Asian author I ever knew.
When I was asked to review Amy Tan’s latest book The Valley of Amazement I said “Yes” but inside me, there was a nervous hesitance in my spirit. I had heard rumors that Ms Tan’s new book was about concubines and exotic sexual acts. It was touted as the exact sort of book that “Amy Tan bashers” would be quick to pounce on and say things like, “Here we go again, Ms Tan is once again eroticizing Chinese women in a negative way. Quick let’s start a hunger strike in protest.”
As an editor, I had to be completely honest with the readers of Banana Writers. I admired Amy Tan for giving countless young Chinese girls the hope that when they grew up, they could become authors too. However, if her new book was not up to scratch and if the Amy Tan bashers were right I would have to say why.
I decided the only way to write a fair review was to read The Valley of Amazement as if it were a book by a brand new Asian author I had never heard about. I would have to erase the noise of the Amy Tan bashers along with the pleading voice from my childhood self who imagined herself as part of The Joy Luck Club.
So, here it is, an honest review about a new book by an author that you may have heard of.
Review: The Valley of Amazement
The Valley of Amazement follows the twisted and tortured turns of Violent Minturn’s extraordinary life. Spanning 50 years and two continents, the reader is drawn into the world of Shanghainese courtesans, their love lives and sexual secrets.
The book starts off in 1905. We are introduced to Violet, a strong-willed seven year old whose mother is the American mistress of the city’s most successful courtesan house. In a cruel twist of fate, Violet is separated from her mother and forced to become a “virgin courtesan”. The reader is drawn into intimate aspects of Violet’s life from losing her virginity to falling in love and later facing heartbreak. With her trusty motherly companion Magic Gourd at her side, we see Violet develop from a naïve teenager to a shrewd and strong businesswoman. We meet the key men in her life - a Chinese playboy, a kind-hearted American and a truly twisted poet. As Violet tries to come to terms with her abandonment issues, we witness the psychological challenges of the mother-daughter relationship. In the latter half of the book, the narrative switches to Violet’s mother, Lucia and the reader finally discovers the truth about Violet’s parents and their tormented love story.
It had been eight years since I had read an Amy Tan book. Yet from the first paragraph, I was once again drawn into her compelling narrative. I finished the 589-paged book in three late night sittings. Even though I found the protagonist annoyingly stubborn at times, I could not help gunning for her. I found myself immersed in the story and strangely looked forward to discovering what horrific atrocity would plague the life of Violet. Tan’s sound storytelling abilities sucked me into the heartbreak and cruelty of Violet’s life. I started to secretly hope that Violet would have a happy ending.
There were some beautifully written paragraphs that stayed with me long after the book was finished. My favorite paragraph was in Chapter 10, when Violet speaks about a relationship that has become irreparably broken, “He didn’t love me, I didn’t love him, and never had. But now I was like a bird, my wings once carried on a wind of lies. I would beat those wings to stay aloft, and when the wind suddenly died or buffeted me around, I would keep beating those strong wings and fly in my own slice of wind.”
Books about Chinese courtesans have never been at the top of my reading list, nor have sweeping epic love stories. Yet, despite the subject matter, I did enjoy The Valley of Amazement. The way in which Tan writes has an easy flow and accessibility that people from all backgrounds and cultures can appreciate. To the critical literary eye, Amy Tan’s prose is not as lyrical as many prize-winning books. But to be honest, many prize-winning books can be more hard work than a pleasure. I know which type of book I’d prefer. What is the point of writing books that only a niche audience will like? The Valley of Amazement is the perfect kind of novel to curl up to in icy cold weather. You don’t need to agonise too much about the subtext or whether paragraphs have six different meanings, you just let the story take you and have fun with it.
All in all, I cannot dispute that Amy Tan definitely writes a terribly good yarn - a hugely enjoyable one at that. BW
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT by Amy Tan is published by 4th Estate, price £18.99
Click HERE To read our interview with Amy Tan