Amy Tan was born in 1952 to first-generation Chinese-American parents. At her birth, Tan was given the Chinese name An-Mai, meaning “Blessing of America.” Her father, John, was an electrical engineer and a volunteer Baptist minister who came to America in 1947. Her mother, Daisy, was a medical technician who had fled China in 1949 to escape an unhappy arranged marriage, leaving three daughters behind. In 1967 Tan’s older brother, Peter, died of brain cancer, and, within a year, her father died of the same illness. After consulting a Chinese fortune teller, Daisy left the “evil” house and took her surviving children, Amy and John, to Europe.
The Tans settled in Switzerland, where Amy completed high school. It was an unhappy time for her; she felt like an outsider and was still grieving and angry over the losses in her family. Because being upright had not saved her brother and father, Tan decided to be rebellious and wild. Her friends were drug dealers, and she almost eloped to Australia with a mental patient who claimed to be a German army deserter.
When the Tans moved to Oregon, Daisy chose a college for her daughter and planned her pre-med curriculum. She was deeply disappointed when her daughter changed her major to English. In 1970 Tan moved to California to be closer to her boyfriend, Lou DiMattei. She transferred to San Jose State University and graduated in 1973. The next year, she and DiMattei married, and she received her Master’s degree in English and linguistics.
As a freelance technical writer, Tan was highly successful, but she routinely worked 90-hour weeks. Seeking to cure her compulsive working, she took up jazz piano and joined a writers’ group. She took a trip to China with her mother in 1987 to connect with her Chinese heritage, an element that was lacking in her childhood. She soon realized that her best writing came from her Chinese-American perspective. Her short stories were published, and a planned collection of short fiction soon became the enormously popular The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. The novel stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for nine months and received the 1989 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Best Fiction and the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adult Readers Award. The novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
When The Kitchen God’s Wife was published in 1991, critics and readers praised the novel as being at least as good as the first one. Her first two novels established Tan as a serious writer whose unique perspective and storytelling ability captivate readers and impress critics. Although both novels center on mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational conflicts, Tan is resistant to being dubbed an expert on family relationships. Further, she does not want to be categorized as an ethnic writer because she seeks to portray universal themes and wants critics to evaluate her work on its merits, rather than as subgenre writing.