Books · Film & Television

‘Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir,’
The Story Behind The Gifted Storyteller

“I didn’t seek to be a politician. I didn’t seek to be a representative for a whole community. I was just writing stories.”

As humble as that may sound, it’s a little disingenuous to use the word “just” in connection with Chinese-American author Amy Tan. When she published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, in 1989 at age 37, it broke the record for the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list. It remained on the list for nine months, was made into an acclaimed (and much loved) film in 1993 (which Tan cowrote and briefly appears in), and has been translated into 36 languages.

Whether she set out to do so or not, Tan made a lasting imprint on the world of literature. She shattered a glass ceiling for Asian-American, as well as other immigrant group storytellers; she helped Hollywood expand its depictions of Asian women beyond stereotypes; and she influenced and empowered a younger generation of writers, including Kevin Kwan, the author of Crazy Rich Asians.

Tan went on to write novels, including The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter; children’s books: The Moon Lady and Sagwa The Chinese Siamese Cat (which became a popular animated series on PBS); and non-fiction: The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings and Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. It’s this last 2017 title that inspired the late filmmaker James Redford (son of actor/director Robert) to produce the marvelous documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, which debuted at Sundance this year. 

As the author explains, she was at first hesitant to make the film. “I was trying to wind down my public life and become a private person and not do things anymore, let alone a whole documentary, but it’s testament to how persuasive Jamie is without appearing to be persuasive. It was a lot about trust  . . . the more we talked I realized that this was an amazing opportunity already to talk to somebody about very deeply personal matters and I don’t think I could have done that with very many other people, certainly not other filmmakers.” The partnership between Tan and her director, as well as seamless integration of film scenes, poetic animated sequences, photographs, home movies, and interviews with friends, family, and celebrated authors Kwan and Chilean bestseller Isabel Allende, create a rich tapestry as lush and eloquent as any of Tan’s work.

Many people who read The Joy Luck Club assume that it’s Tan’s autobiography, and indeed the story of four Chinese women and their four American daughters does draw upon elements of Tan’s life. She wrote the book after visiting China with her mother, Daisy, a bargain she had made with God when she thought her mother might be dying. She promised she would listen (“really listen”) to her stories and take her home to find the three daughters she had left behind when she fled her marriage to “that bad man” and followed Tan’s father to the U.S. (These kernels of Tan’s real-life history will be familiar to Joy Luck Club fans.)

Tan’s relationship with her mother was fraught with fear, grief, and unfulfilled expectations. Daisy suffered from mental illness and often threatened to commit suicide. Tan’s eldest brother and father died of brain tumors within weeks of each other. And although a (misguided) child psychologist told the Tans that their daughter could someday be a doctor, she never felt she measured up. The painfully awkward scene of young June’s piano recital in The Joy Luck Club movie is based on young Amy’s disappointingly short-lived career as a musical prodigy.

Tan was a working business writer and marketing copywriter before she published her first novel. (She jokes that her first bestseller was actually a manual for IBM.) In fact, she expected to return to that career, finding it hard to believe she could actually make a living as a full-time author. “Often,” she muses, “I think I’m dreaming my life.”

Although Tan’s literary success was as spectacular as it was sudden, she faced criticism from some Asian-American groups that felt she was reinforcing stereotypes — from tales of concubines and opium to the pidgin English spoken by June’s “aunties.” Redford addresses this with the author briefly, but prefers to focus on her success and popularity.


The documentary, like Tan’s work, blends happiness with sadness; it includes many surprises and moments of joy. One antidote to the author’s grueling schedule and contractual obligations was her participation, along with celebrated authors Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Matt Groening, and others, in the charity band “The Rock Bottom Remainders.” In archival footage, Tan struts onstage and belts out a punk-influenced cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Bruce Springsteen (who, sadly, does not appear in Redford’s film) once told the Remainders, “Your band’s not too bad. It’s not too good either. Don’t let it get any better, otherwise you’ll just be another lousy band.” Regardless, Tan clearly benefited from the sheer joy (and utter lack of pressure).

Other outlets include drawing; Tan is particularly fond of natural subjects like birds, and her sketches are exquisite. She goes out of her way to conquer fears (overcoming her anxiety about the water, for example, by swimming with sharks). She is an incredibly chic and elegant sixty-something, eloquent and friendly, happily married since 1974, and living in a stunning contemporary home in San Francisco.

However, the film doesn’t shy away from the author’s struggles. She takes seizure medication to combat the effects of Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for years. And she decided early on not to have children because she feared what she might do to them psychologically — that she might become her own damaged and damaging mother. 

But, what stays with you most are not the nightmarish scenes from Tan’s childhood. Instead, the film, which is often as much about Daisy Tan as it is about Amy, feels like a long overdue reconciliation. “I’m able to see now with a great deal of understanding that everything that had happened between my mother and me, despite how terrible it was at times — this is what made me a writer. This is what shaped me and my values.

“My childhood, with its topsy-turvy emotions, has in fact been a reason to write. I can lay it out squarely on the page and see what it was. I can understand what it was and see the patterns … but the mess will always be there.”

How lucky we are that Tan is willing to share that mess with all of us.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is available as part of PBS’s American Masters series. You can also stream it on Netflix.  The Joy Luck Club is available to stream on Roku or to rent on Amazon Prime.


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