Best-selling author Amy Tan’s latest novel was partly inspired by a photo of her grandmother. After looking through old pictures of Chinese courtesans, she was struck by the fact that their clothes were similar to those worn by her grandmother. The story behind her grandmother’s clothing remains a mystery, but led Tan to her latest project, “The Valley of Amazement.” In it, Tan uncovers the hidden lives of high-class courtesans in 20th century Shanghai. She joins us in the studio.

Some of the Photos That Inspired Tan's Latest Novel

Amy Tan's Grandmother

The Ten Beauties of Shanghai (five shown)

Amy Tan’s Grandmother

Amy Tan, author of "The Valley of Amazement," "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife"

  • thucy

    Sex sells! There’s a lot to like about Tan’s first book, but I’ve always been puzzled by the rapturous reception to Amy Tan books, and her enthronement as white Americans’ must-read Chinese-American author. My skepticism isn’t so much about Tan, but about the somewhat limited imagination of white readers (and US publishers) when it comes to Chinese-American women writers.

    Maxine Hong Kingston is by far a more ambitious, thoughtful, though less commercial writer, who has spent many decades now coaching U.S. military veterans to write. Of course, Kingston doesn’t endlessly market herself, and writes about issues considerably more challenging than courtesans and clothing choices. Her work has always struck me as more authentically American (Whitman) and more authentically Chinese (Lu Xun).

    Gish Jen’s work is also stronger than Tan’s but is given far less attention. Heaven forbid we allow ourselves to imagine Chinese-American women writers to fall into categories that so boldly challenge the status quo.

    • thucy

      Thank you to Krasny for reading this comment on-air. I thought Tan had a generally good response, but I disagree that the question I raised is based on “jealousy” or that I or anyone else require or expect writers to be “role models”. (Philip Roth is among my favorite writers, and he is hardly a role model.)
      Rather, the issue is the quality and ambition of the work. Amy Tan’s work is limited, but it sells. That’s (again) not so much a knock on Tan as on the commercial book market.
      For the record, since Krasny brought up Frank Chin, I never thought much of his rabid attacks on Tan and Kingston. OTOH, it is a little unnerving how “kid-glove” the treatment of best-selling authors can be on this show? I can well understand how Krasny doesn’t want to alienate anyone (SF is a small town) but maybe it’s okay to challenge the guests, and he shouldn’t have to ask the guest whether she can take a critical comment – she’s making money, she can take

  • Cecile Lusby

    The chapter called Etiquette is an amazing monologue from Magic Gourd introducing Violet and 21st century readers of all ethnicities to the rules of the Courtesan world. Did you consider any other devices which could have done the job ?

  • Shauley Cheng

    I heard the interview yesterday when I was on my way to a book presentation in Los Gatos.
    I think someone called and asked if there were any books written about China/Chinese by American (White) authors.

    I have two titles for you: “My Half of the Sky” by Jana McBurney-Lin and “The Distant Land of My Father” by Bo Caldwell.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor