The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

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by Amy Tan

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Delve into the stories from Amy Tan's life that inspired bestselling novels like The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement

Amy Tan has touched millions of readers with haunting and sympathetic novels of cultural complexity and profound empathy. With the same spirit and humor that characterize her acclaimed novels, she now shares her


Delve into the stories from Amy Tan's life that inspired bestselling novels like The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement

Amy Tan has touched millions of readers with haunting and sympathetic novels of cultural complexity and profound empathy. With the same spirit and humor that characterize her acclaimed novels, she now shares her insight into her own life and how she escaped the curses of her past to make a future of her own. She takes us on a journey from her childhood of tragedy and comedy to the present day and her arrival as one of the world's best-loved novelists. Whether recalling arguments with her mother in suburban California or introducing us to the ghosts that inhabit her computer, The Opposite of Fate offers vivid portraits of choices, attitudes, charms, and luck in action--a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we all face today.

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
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

Novelist Amy Tan began her musings by asking how hope changes according to life's circumstances. "And what," she continues, "of the circumstances themselves: Do we believe they are simply a matter of fate? Or do we view them as the Chinese concept of luck, the Christian concept of God's will, the American concept of choice? And depending on what we believe, how can we then find balance in our lives? What do we accept? What do we feel we can still change? In these ruminations, the author of Joy Luck Club finds answers and lessons in everyday actions and attitudes.
The Washington Post
In this volume, for the first time, I felt uneasy about my reactions to this woman, as if I were laughing at my Chinese waitress for the way she speaks or at the eccentricities of someone who was extremely depressed. That kind of ambivalence is at the heart of Tan's work, which is comic and heart-wrenching at the same time. And depression runs through the female side of this family, seems to afflict Chinese women disproportionately. Tan reports the astonishing statistic that one-third of deaths among rural women in China are suicides. — David Guy
Seattle Times
...her fans should consider themselves fortunate to receive such a funny, insightful and frequently strange literary self-portrait.
Washington Post Book World
The Opposite of Fate is a collection of occasional pieces,'s as entertaining as a memoir.
The New York Times
The cunning willfulness of memory is a powerful refrain in this book. Tan considers how she, like her mother, became frozen in one frame of time, a slave to her own punishing recollections. In ''Scent,'' she relates how one whiff of a gardenia would plunge her into the ''unbearable grief'' of the year in her midteens when the living room was twice filled with funeral sprays after both her father and brother died of brain tumors. Now, she says, she is submerging those black memories into others of ''an earlier time, of happy expectations,'' when the scent of a gardenia meant ''prom nights and first kisses.'' —Deborah Mason
New York Times
Tan's novels swim with memories transfigured by the pulse of her imagination.
Publishers Weekly
In her first collection of essays, Tan explains that she writes stories to understand "how things happen." These musings, as wide-ranging as a graduation speech at Simmons College and a childhood contest entry, offer insight into how her family history has shaped the questions she chooses to ask. Tan herself reads the essays, which suits the intimate, self-congratulatory tone of the collection. Several of the pieces focus on Tan's tragedies-her father and brother died from brain tumors, her mother suffered violent bouts of depression and her best friend was murdered-but her successes also receive a fair amount of space. One can almost hear the pride in Tan's voice as she talks of her associations with other famous writers, how her name has been used as a question on Jeopardy and how The Joy Luck Club appears alongside "Bill" (Shakespeare) and "Jim" (Conrad) in Cliff's Notes, a fact that Tan uses to launch into a tirade about current perceptions of multicultural and Asian-American literature. The essays work best when Tan is telling a story, as when she relays her battle with Lyme disease or describes her mother's final days. Still, there's no denying that Tan has every right to be proud, having led a peripatetic and extraordinary life. Simultaneous release with the Putnam hardcover (Forecasts, Sept. 15). (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The subtitle of this collection captures the flavor of Tan's writing here: musings on topics as varied as rock'n'roll, the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, her reactions to the Cliff Notes' analysis of her work and life, her recent health problems, and other autobiographical observations. The selections are culled from essays, speeches, interviews, and a commencement address and include a piece she wrote as an eight-year-old on the value of libraries. As such there is some redundancy, but this is an invaluable personal resource from a contemporary writer that is filled with wit, bemusement, and honesty; Tan even addresses errors about her life that are perpetuated across the web. Her reading captures the veracity and vulnerability of her public appearances and is flawed only by quick leaps from the end of one piece into the next. Highly recommended.-Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Tan (The Bonesetter's Daughter, 2001, etc.) offers a wry but bracing take on life and writing in this collection of her nonfiction, some previously published. Although the author recalls some painful subjects-a friend's murder, her mother's dementia, her own battle with long-undiagnosed Lyme disease-her prose is thoughtful, never maudlin or self-pitying. Tan writes as easily and unpretentiously about herself as about others. She is equally balanced in her treatment of such contentious subjects as multiculturalism-she believes in an inclusive, truly American literature-and human rights in China, which are more complicated, she argues, than it seems from a US perspective. (She cites as an example her own banning from the country after a misunderstanding about fundraising for orphans in need of surgery.) The author also offers pertinent advice, originally delivered at a commencement address, on how to write; on the perils of translation, particularly in conveying social context; and on the challenge of writing a second novel after a bestselling first. But the heart of this collection concerns Tan's mother, who left the children of her first marriage in China and immigrated to the US to marry Amy's father, whom she had met and fallen in love with in China. Tu Ching Tan taught her daughter about the permutations of fate, but equally defended the strength of hope. The author suspects that her mother's many threats to kill herself reflected underlying depression: at nine Tu Ching had seen her own mother commit suicide; she endured an abusive first marriage and then saw her second husband and elder son die, within months, of brain tumors, deaths that led her to flee with Amy and heryounger son to Europe. Tan writes lovingly and perceptively of this woman who could exasperate with constant advice and criticism, but who was also her daughter's strongest defender, bragging that she always knew Amy would be a writer, though she had as adamantly believed Tan would be a doctor. An examined life recalled with wisdom and grace. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

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Read an Excerpt

The Opposite of Fate

A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan

Large Print Press

Copyright © 2004 Amy Tan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1594130337

Chapter One


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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Marie Claire
A must-read memoir... Even the most cynical people will reconsider the idea of fate.

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, Saving Fish from Drowning, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cat, which has been adapted as Sagwa, a PBS series for children. Tan was also the 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 more than twenty-five languages. Tan, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose University, has worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

Brief Biography

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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The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found myself laughing out loud while reading some of Tan's writing. I love that she gives very clear and personal details. I imagine the situations as I read them. I have a Korean mom and Tan's writing makes me think about my mom :) And the humorous clashes between my Eastern and Western culture and upbringing. I love this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I will be completely honest--I missed a book club meeting and was disappointed when I was told this was the next selection. I even thought of skipping it. I had never read Amy Tan so my reluctance had nothing to do with her, I am just not a big fan of memoirs. I decided to give it a try and I have to say I am so glad I did. I had trouble putting it down. It is not written in the 'typical' memoir format--chronological order, but instead is told in a series of shorter passages. This book also changed me in a way. It opened my eyes to several things, including the way people who don't speak 'perfect English' are treated in America. I will make an effort to be more patient the next time I am interacting with someone who speaks 'broken English'. This is a book that stays with you after you finish reading it. I look forward to reading all of her books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would highly recommend this book to anyone, and not just writers, women, North Americans with Asian heritage or people with any such specific demographics. A charming and well-written book that is true to the memoir genre where you get to know the author rather than the events of his/her life. There are enough interesting stories from Ms Tan's past, especially the cultural and cross-cultural ones - the former involving her Chinese ancestry and the latter involving her American and Chinese heritage. The reader knows plenty about the events of her life, but only the ones which matter to her, which, ultimately, are the ones that really matter in getting to know someone. However, Ms Tan's goal and focus was to set the record straight on Amy Tan, what she's like and where she stands on many issues, and that she did. There are many enlightening essays with Ms Tan's views and questions on a variety of interesting topics, with notes on how they've impacted her life. The writing style, vocabulary and organization of stories are very typical and symbolic of Ms Tan's ways. I feel like I partly know her now, as in having a feel of the gist of what she is like, how she thinks and sees the world, and that I would find her very amiable if I met her. I only wish every memoir could tell me as much about the writer. PS If you are writing essays on Ms Tan's books and/or her, take her adviace and avoid using Cliff's Notes. Cliff never met her. Net sources are even worse!
je917 More than 1 year ago
This is a great book, especially if you want to know about writing and the difficulties. You really understand how many forces are pulling on a writer. I consider this one of her best. Truly great.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a typical memoir.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If you love Amy Tan, read this. If you don't know Amy Tan, read her books! This review is brief, because the others are so long. All I can say is, start reading Amy Tan and read her memoirs--you'll be delighted.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago