The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musingsby Amy Tan
These are musings on my life, including the metaphors I used as an eight-year-old child, sensing books as windows opening and illuminating my room, and the thoughts I had as I wrote my mother's obituary, trying to sum up who she was and what legacy she had bequeathed to me... They are musings linked by my fascination with fate, both blind and blessed, and its many… See more details below
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These are musings on my life, including the metaphors I used as an eight-year-old child, sensing books as windows opening and illuminating my room, and the thoughts I had as I wrote my mother's obituary, trying to sum up who she was and what legacy she had bequeathed to me... They are musings linked by my fascination with fate, both blind and blessed, and its many alternatives: choice, chance, luck, faith, forgiveness, forgetting, freedom of expression, the pursuit of happiness, the balm of love, a sturdy attitude, a strong will, a bevy of good-luck charms, adherence to rituals, appeasement through prayer, trolling for miracles, a plea to others to throw a lifeline, and the generous provision of that by strangers and loved ones.
Born into a family who believed in fate, Amy Tan has always looked for alternative ways to make sense of the world. And now, in The Opposite of Fate, her first book of nonfiction, she shares her thoughts on how she escaped the expectations and curses of her past, and created her own destiny. Amy Tan tells of her family, of the ghosts that inhabit her computer, of specters of illness, ski trips, the pliability of memory, rock and roll, and the twinned mysteries of faith and fate. Whether she is remembering arguments with her mother in suburban California, recounting trips to an outdoor market in Shanghai, or describing her love-hate relationship with the CliffsNotes edition of her first book, The Joy Luck Club, her recollections offer an intimate glimpse of a best-selling writer whose own life story is as magical and hopeful as her fiction. With the same spirit and humor that characterize her beloved novels, Amy Tan presents a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we face today, contemplating how things happen -- in her life and beyond -- but always returning to the question of fate and its opposites: the choices, charms, influences, attitudes, and lucky accidents that shape us all.
In her bestselling novels of the Chinese-American experience, Amy Tan has examined the vagaries of luck, a two-sided coin that spins from superstition to serendipity and from choice to destiny in the blink of an eye. Now, in The Opposite of Fate, a dazzling kaleidoscope of short nonfiction pieces, she ponders the role of luck in her own charmed life.
Presented thematically, these entertaining meditations delve into a wealth of experience, with Tan's beautiful, diminutive mother holding center stage in several pieces. Here we come to meet a tragicomic figure who elevated pessimism to an art form, communed with ancestral spirits through a Oujia board (and occasionally the computer!), and wholeheartedly believed her unhappy life was cursed. (In many ways, it was.) In other pieces, Tan recalls a murdered friend who appeared to her in puzzling dreams that provided uncanny clues to the future; describes the deliciously liberating experience of jamming with Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and other publishing titans in a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders; recounts her adventures in Hollywood filming The Joy Luck Club; and corrects several Internet bios that have erroneously endowed her with a doctorate, multiple husbands, nonexistent children, and a Pulitzer Prize!
As witty as Tan herself, this delightful "book of musings" explores the yin and yang of a literary life blessed with happy accidents and destined (perhaps?) for even greater success. Anne Markowski
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Read an Excerpt
The Opposite of FateA Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
Large Print PressCopyright © 2004 Amy Tan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFATE AND FAITH
My mother believed in God's will for many years. It was as if she had turned on a celestial faucet and goodness kept pouring out. She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way, only I thought she said "fate," because she couldn't pronounce that "th" sound in "faith."
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you're in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever you are, here's where the odds should be placed. The Joy Luck Club
the cliffsnotes version of my life
Soon after my first book was published, I found myself often confronted with the subject of my mortality. I remember being asked by a young woman what I did for a living. "I'm an author," I said with proud new authority.
"A contemporary author?" she wanted to know.
And being newly published at the time, I had to think for a moment before I realized that if I were not contemporary I would be the alternative, which is, of course, dead.
Since then I have preferred to call myself a writer. A writer writes-she writes in thepresent progressive tense. Whereas an author, unless she is clearly said to be "contemporary," is in the past tense, someone who once wrote, someone who no longer has to sharpen her pencil, so to speak. To me, the word author is as chilling as rigor mortis, and I shudder when I hear myself introduced as such when I lecture at universities. This is probably due to the fact that when I was an English major at a university, all the authors I read were, sad to say, not contemporary.
What compels ardent readers of my work to ask me questions concerning my time-limited authorhood? In lecture halls and on live radio shows, I have been stunned by questions as deadly as these: "What would you like written on your tombstone?" "Which book would you like people to remember you by?" "Does it make you feel honored that your books probably will be in circulation at the library long after you're gone?"
I don't find those questions nearly as appalling as this one: "Are you loaded?" which is what a nine-year-old girl in Nashville once asked me at a book signing. I wondered whether the child might have just come from a school program on crime prevention or substance abuse and was now worried that all adults carried loaded weapons or were loaded on drugs. I said to her gently, "What kind of loaded are you worried about?"
"You know," the girl snapped, "loaded like filthy rich." I glanced over to her mother, expecting that she would reprimand her daughter. And the mother looked right at me and said, "Well, are you?"
I've grown accustomed to public scrutiny. Yet nothing prepared me for what I consider the ultimate reminder of an author's mortality. It happened when I was at yet another bookstore, about to give yet another reading. I was waiting in the wings, as the store manager delivered a long introduction on my credentials as an author. Glancing to my side, I saw a wire book rack crammed with cheap and familiar booklets. They were CliffsNotes, self-proclaimed as "your key to the classics."
As we all know, CliffsNotes have served as the midnight salvation of many a literature student, and if the sad truth be known, this former honors English major used them to write incisive papers on-are I say it?-Ulysses, Lord Jim, and Hamlet.
Imagine: There I was, in a bookstore, recalling these past sins, about to read from my own published work. I gave a silent apology to my fellow authors Jim Joyce, Joe Conrad, and Bill Shakespeare, may they rest in peace. And then my eyes landed on another familiar title: The Joy Luck Club. I stared at those CliffsNotes, thinking to myself, But I'm not dead yet.
I flipped through the pages and found an obituary-like biography of the author, me, Amy Tan. I was shocked to learn that I once had carried on "a relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime."
Could this possibly be describing my Franz? True, he was older than I was, twenty-two years to my sixteen when we met. And yes, he was friends with a couple of Canadian hippies who sold hashish, but I don't remember them being that organized about it. Whatever the case, does my personal history of having once dated a loser constitute the sort of information needed by "serious students," as Cliff refers to them? Will this make them "secure in the knowledge that they have a basic understanding of the work"?
In page after chilling page, I saw that my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blow-by-blows: plot summaries, genealogy charts, and-ai-ya!-even Chinese horoscopes. Further in, I was impressed to learn of all the clever nuances I'd apparently embedded into the phrase "invisible strength," which is what a mother in the book taught her chess-playing daughter, Waverly. According to Cliff, I meant for "invisible strength" to refer to the "human will," as well as to represent "female power" and "the power of foreigners." It was amazing what I had accomplished.
The truth is, I borrowed that phrase from my mother, who used to say something like it to me whenever I was whining out loud. She'd say, "Fang pi bu-cho, cho pi bu-fang," which is commonly uttered by Chinese parents, and which translates approximately to: "There's more power in silence."
What my mother intended that I understand, however, was precisely this: "No one wants to hear you make a big stink over nothing, so shut up." The strict linguist might want to note that the literal translation of that Chinese phrase runs along these noble lines: "Loud farts don't smell, the really smelly ones are deadly silent."
Anyway, that's the sort of literary symbolism I use with phrases like "invisible strength"-not the sort of analysis you find in CliffsNotes, I might add.
At the end of the booklet was a list of questions. I read one: "Which daughter in the book is most like Amy Tan? Why?" What luck. This very question was often asked of me in interviews, and I had never known what to say. Here in my quaking hands, just one page turn away, was the definitive answer. But one page later, I discovered these were just discussion questions, no answers were given, and thus I was left to ponder my existential angst in the usual fashion.
In spite of my initial shock, I admit that I am perversely honored to be in CliffsNotes. Look at me: I'm sitting in the $4.95 bookstore bleachers along with Shakespeare, Conrad, and Joyce. Now, I'm not saying that I've reached their same literary status. I acknowledge there is a fundamental difference that separates us. I am a contemporary author and they are not. And since I'm not dead yet, I can talk back.
One of the problems of being a contemporary author is that you are confronted with frequent opportunities to see what people have written about you in the way of reviews, profiles, or student theses. It's all rather appalling. Good, bad, or ugly, there before your very eyes is an analysis of you, your intentions, and the deeper, more subterranean meanings of your books-say, the dichotomy between two cultures and two generations, or the sociopolitical concerns of immigration and assimilation-the subject matter that makes you sound high-minded when, really, your reasons for writing were more haphazard and personal.
The truth is, when I write, I begin with a simple question: How do things happen? Early in life, what I thought about that affected what I should hope. And in my family, there were two pillars of beliefs: Christian faith on my father's side, Chinese fate on my mother's. Picture these two ideologies as you might the goalposts of a soccer field, faith at one end, fate at the other, and me running between them trying to duck whatever dangerous missile had been launched in the air.
My father's faith had been nurtured by his family. He was born in 1913, the oldest of twelve children, to a mother who was a Chinese traditional healer and a father who was a Presbyterian minister. My grandfather Hugh Tan had been converted by missionaries in Canton and educated in their English-speaking schools. His education was so thoroughly Western that he could read and write English before he could his native tongue of Cantonese. He wrote me a letter once, shortly before he died of a stroke in Shanghai. His English was impeccable, and he prefaced his remarks with Christian feeling: "We thank the good Lord we are still in good health."
The Christian influence ran so deep and strong in the Tan family that all twelve children became evangelists of one sort or another. My father was a latecomer to the ministry, but at the age of thirty-four, he suffered a crisis of morals. A few years earlier, he had fallen in love with a beautiful woman who was unhappily married and had three young children. They started an affair, which led to the woman's being thrown in jail for adultery. Shortly afterward, my father left China for the United States, where he had been offered a scholarship to study at MIT.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, he lived at a YMCA and joined the First Chinese Baptist Church on Waverly Street. At night, he wrote in a black leather diary, and sometimes he pondered his sins and weaknesses. He and the woman had committed adultery. Now the woman was being punished in jail, while he was in San Francisco taking square-dancing lessons. Oh, the terrible inequity of it all. He berated himself until God answered with an epiphany that he should devote himself to saving others. He gave up his scholarship to MIT, and joined the ministry by enrolling in the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School.
For the rest of his life, my father would place his faith in God to provide the right answers. His faith was absolute. Among most people I know, a bit of wiggle room is expected in how your prayers might be answered. You might pray, for instance, for the love of your life, and God will land you a volunteer position at the local animal shelter, where saving animals becomes the love of your life. God, like your parents, Santa Claus, and perhaps your psychiatrist or editor, knows best how to funnel your desires into more likely and beneficial outcomes.
But my father's faith, as I said, was absolute. Through God's prayer he could be granted exactly what he wanted. He prayed that his sweetheart be freed, and sure enough, she was released from prison. Then she cabled my father and asked whether he wanted her to come to America. Shanghai would soon be taken over by the Communists, and his answer had to be now or never.
According to family lore, he immediately cabled her back, saying, "Yes, come!" Yet I imagine he must have taken a few minutes or even hours to weigh his obligation to her and his future obligations to the ministry. Could he marry the woman with whom he had committed adultery? Could he, a moral example to his flock, bear to be reminded of their sin for the rest of his life? And what would his parishioners think if his wife was a divorced woman? And how could she, his pampered beloved, who was accustomed to servants, to a sable coat, to smoking cigarettes, take on the austere existence of a poor minister's wife? I imagine him praying for God to "shine Your answer upon my face."
He may have turned to God also for guidance on how to break the news of his impending marriage to the young women friends he escorted to church picnics and on private outings. Lucky for me, he documented those friendships well. He was an amateur photographer who prized his Rollei and spent hours in the darkroom. He liked to pose his subjects, telling them to lean against a wall and tilt their head up toward the sunlight, to drape an arm over a wooden rail and cross their ankles and point their toes-the same directions he would give me when I was a child. The photos were meticulously pasted into an album, which I would later peruse. Some of the pages, however, had no photos inserted in the black corner tabs. The photos had been removed and discreetly placed in a shoe box, which I also found-such as the close-up of a young woman lying in the grass, another one artfully running her fingers along her feet, encased in small embroidered shoes. There was nothing lewd about these poses, nothing to suggest that this outing was more than a simple photography shoot. Yet the expression in their eyes is pure adoration. I sense them holding their breath in anticipation as my father looks at them through the viewfinder.
What do they see? He is handsome, a snazzy dresser. He knows exactly what words to say to put them at ease. He is more than your basic nice guy. Despite the fact that he is a an impoverished student at the divinity school, he is a good catch: a superb dancer, a witty conversationalist, a man given to romantic gestures and eternal pledges, plus he is about to become a minister, a man who will be certifiably of the highest morals, greatly respected, a leader. In the summer of 1949, when the minister of his church announced to the congregation that John Tan's bride-to-be was coming from China, several young women gasped and fled the church hall in tears.
From time to time, I have wondered how I might have turned out had my father married one of these other women. They were single, had unencumbered pasts-no sociopathic husbands or wailing abandoned daughters in the background. They were also college-educated and spoke English as well as any other American. I must have met them among the various aunties who attended the same church for more than fifty years: accomplished, kind, levelheaded women now in their seventies and eighties.
My father sent the cable saying, "Yes, come!" to the woman who would be my mother, the Shanghai divorcie who had just been released from prison. And that was how my mother came to the United States and married my father. It was God's will and some other woman's bad luck.
According to my mother, though, God had less to do with it than fate. Consider how she and my father met, she would remind me. It was around 1941, during the war. She was on a boat, making her way to the city where her husband, a Kuomintang army pilot, was based. My father and his brother were on that same boat. She and my father chatted in a friendly way. They were attracted to each other, although they did not acknowledge this. The boat docked a few days later, and they went their separate ways.
That right there could have been the end of the egg and the sperm that would have made me. Instead four years passed. The war ended.
Excerpted from The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan Copyright © 2004 by Amy Tan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, which has now been adapted as a PBS production. Tan was also a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.
- San Francisco, California and New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- February 19, 1952
- Place of Birth:
- Oakland, California
- B.A., San Jose State University, 1973; M.A., 1974
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In'The Opposite of Fate', Amy Tan muses on a variety of subjects, including the real facts of her life,the background of her novels,and also describes a wild trip she made with a rock band, 'The Rock Bottom Remainders', lip synching with other writers including Stephen King. But most interesting to me are her insights on writing. She draws on her status of an ousider caused by eleven moves during her childhood, saying, 'A sense of alienation is useful as an impetus for writing', as it sharpened her skills of observation. In her essays, she lists five writing tips, among them,' avoid cliches,and ' avoid generalizations. Specifics', she says, 'are the longhand versions of a story in which it takes 400 pages to answer a single question.' 'Never have characters either good or evil. Do not reduce people to such terms', she continues. 'Find your own voice', she urges. 'Your own experiences form your own personal truth, one that others might find true as well.' 'Show compassion', she says. 'Imagine living in another country or having another religion'. Finally, she advises ,'Ask the important questions. What is love? What is loss? What is hope? These questions lead to personal answers creating stories that interest others' Amy Tan's novels deal with mother and daughter relationships, but she is careful to observe that her stories are fiction, although the inspiration for them has come from life.She also insists that she is an American writer, not and 'Asian-American writer'. Her novels, she believes, appeal to people of many backgrounds, carried out by the fact that they have been translated into 30 languages. As for the 'Opposite of Fate', hope,' she says, 'has always allowed for all things. Hope 'has enabled her to escape the expectations and curses of the past.' Tan's musings fascinate the reader who hopes Tan will publish more of her writings soon.
Not a perfect memoir since it almost seems some of the chapters are in the wrong sequence. Having said that I'm fortunate to have - ironically - found this on the 'remainder table' and am now recommending it for my book club who might even pay full price for it. It is as sad as it is funny at times and always educational and informative. I think that's enough for any book. Thanks Ms. Tan
This is such a fast read, Tan's writing is so fluid, you can't even stop between chapters. All of the short 'musings', or stories are heartfelt and real and give such insight into the author. I love all her books, but I loved getting to know her and her wit all the more. This is a great read!
I have always been interested in writing, and after reading this book, I feel even more inspired to do so. In fact I read this book even before reading any of her other books. I enjoyed the Joy Luck Club probably more than I would have reading it before The Opposite Of Fate.
Amy Tan writes a bundle of essays and memoirs in this non-fiction collection. There is the question of Fate, the relationship between her and her mother, the process of writing, the marriage of an individual to the societal norms and ethnic expectations, the subject of death and the existence of ghosts/spirits. All of these writings are combined in such a way that they could be read independently, or better yet as a tapestry of people, places & events that shape this influential author's life.
With lilting voice and understanding heart noted author Amy Tan reads her first work of non-fiction. Listening to her is very much like having a private audience with someone we have come to admire and respect. As one who was born into a family that believed in fate Ms. Tan now both challenges and accepts that destiny. She expounds on the meanings of our choices in life, the effects of accidents and the choices we make. As she reflects upon life in both this world and the next listeners will find themselves reexamining their own lives - perhaps making new choices or changing paths. There is much food for thought in this series of candid revelations from Ms. Tan. 'The Opposite of Fate' is an intriguing and highly listenable audio book.
This book was a book club selection and all the women in our group really enjoyed it. Amy Tan is, as always, funny and insightful...giving the reader something to think about on every page. Her real-life stories are so incredible that it is hard to believe they are not ficiton! She has had a very interesting life and also shares with the reader a glimpse into the lives of her family members and friends. Readers learn about the 'real' Amy Tan as opposed to the often false stories that sometimes circulate in books, schools and on the internet. Also, Tan offers enlightenment on where many of her ideas for writings came from. This book was well done and I am glad I had a chance to read these autobiographical accounts by one of my favorite writers.
amy tan has a very great sense of humor that takes the reader in completely. opposite of fate, is an excellent window into the thoughts of amy tan. she has lived an exciting and her story is well told. also, she clarifies many misinformation found on the internet etc.