When Amy Tan’s Mother Held a Meat Cleaver to Her Neck

The American writer’s candid conversation with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is the only highlight of the JLF so far.


Jaipur: For 25 years, Amy Tan, author of the iconic Joy Luck Club, forgot about the time her mother held a meat cleaver to her neck, pressed Tan against the door and, with a glint in her eyes, told her that she planned to kill Tan, her brother and then herself. To quote Joan Didion (because if you don’t name drop at the JLF, you’re doing it wrong), “It was gold.”

She recalled the incident at a writing workshop in response to the question, “When did you think you were going to die?” Shockingly (actually, predictably) it’s rare to get such revelatory moments at Jaipur Literature Festival. But Tan’s conversation with author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is the only highlight of the festival so far.

Over the course of an hour, Shanghvi and Tan managed to chat candidly about her relationship with her mother (complicated) and her opinions of representative fiction (no, don’t do it).

The Joy Luck Club was written 33 years ago and amongst other things chronicled the generational differences between immigrant mothers and their Americanised daughters. Tan’s anecdotes about her mother were revealing, yet entertaining, touching on profoundly captured the frustration and love that most of us are familiar with.

When Tan received a call saying her mother was in the ICU after a heart attack, she thought she’d missed her chance to know her mother’s stories, there would be no chance for a goodbye even. Turns out the pain in her mother’s chest was the result of a bruised rib. But it was too late. An emotional Tan had promised to take her mother to China to visit her step-sisters (that her mother had abandoned to move to the US with her lover, a baptist minister. No, you really can’t make this up).

The two travelled together for three weeks, sleeping in the same bed, inseparable for the entire time. Watching the 66-year-old Tan recall the frustrations of being bossed around by her mother – ‘eat this, it’s nutritious’ – got a chuckle from the older members of the audience and a quiet shudder from the younger ones in the audience. Maybe distance and an iconic novel makes it better.

Tan’s candour seems to stem from her self-awareness as a writer. Having shared these anecdotes about her mother, she told Shanghvi, “This is good – having damages, having problems is good for me as a writer.” Imagine if that therapist she visited all those decades ago had actually managed to help her. (Her words not mine.) Her writing process then, is not about the act of completion, but more like sculpting. While writing, Tan asks herself, “What do I recognise as a pattern in my life? What do I recognise as me?”

This interiority may be a huge part of her process and yet the novel doesn’t centre on a singular, “representative” experience. Identity-based perspective is the hottest currency in story-telling right now, but Tan seems to abhor representative fiction, “If you try to do that you might as well be writing propaganda.” According to Tan, the literary community can sometimes “become territorial about authenticity” but it’s clear that the pedestal she’s been on for three decades has given her a perspective that’s different from the predominant narrative right now. It’s hard to settle on a single ‘hot take’ from the session, but let’s go with these words, “I cannot carry the burden of three million people. There are plenty of races out there, we need to hear from them.”

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