Amy Tan began writing fiction as a distraction from her work as a technical writer. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Tan wanted to find a way to relax. She soon discovered that not only did she enjoy writing fiction as a hobby, she liked that it provided a way for her to think about and understand her life.
Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Her first-generation, Chinese-American parents, John and Daisy Tan, settled in Santa Clara, California. As an adolescent, Tan had difficulty accepting her Chinese heritage. She wanted to look like an American-to be an American. At one point, she even slept with a clothespin on her nose, hoping to change its shape. She deliberately chose American over Chinese whenever she had the opportunity and asserted her independence in any way that she could. She dreamed of being a writer, while her parents saw her as a neurosurgeon and concert pianist.
The Tans lived in Santa Clara until first her father, then her brother, died of brain tumors. Mrs. Tan took Amy and her other brother to live in Switzerland. Amy became even more rebellious, dating a German who was associated with drug dealers and had serious mental problems. Her mother then took the children back to the United States, where Amy enrolled in a Baptist college in Oregon, majoring in pre-med. After just two semesters there, Amy went with her boyfriend back to California where she attended San Jose City College as an English and linguistics major. Amy’s mother did not speak to her for six months after this final act of rebellion.
The Joy Luck Club contains many autobiographical elements from Tan’s life. Tan did not learn until she was fourteen that she had half-sisters from her mother’s previous marriage. This sense of loss and her father’s and brother’s deaths are reflected in The Joy Luck Club in Suyuan Woo’s loss of her twin daughters and her death. In addition, Tan has always felt that she disappointed her mother by not becoming a doctor. Like Tan, the novel’s Jing-Mei cannot compare to Waverly Jong, the highly successful daughter of a friend of Jing-Mei’s mother. These and other examples from Tan’s personal life lend a sensibility and sensitivity to her novel that allow the reader to experience vicariously death and solace, loss and reconciliation, disillusionment and hope.