The Valley of Amazement begins in 1905, at the Hidden Jade Path, Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house. The book’s main narrator, Violet, is the daughter of the brothel’s American madam. In this latest book, Tan chronicles this fraught mother-daughter relationship through 40 years of conflict and renewal.
In her interview for this series, Tan discussed a section from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that reminds us we travel along a private road, a shifting path we continually seek. The poem touches on the themes Tan tries to embody through her work: openness, lack of judgment, scrutiny, surprise. Tan’s most famous book, The Joy Luck Club, has been translated into 35 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in California.
Amy Tan: In my current novel, The Valley of Amazement, a character named Edward Ivory recites the following lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
Not I, nor any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
I discovered this passage when I was writing the book, wondering how Edward, the son of a Western merchant, came to be in China. As I was working, I randomly took a book of poems off my shelf and found this passage facing me. The words just stared up at me from the page. And I realized: This is what the character is about. No, more than that: This is what my writing is about. This is what my whole life is about.
No one can travel your own road for you; you must travel it for yourself. My faith in this stems from my childhood. I grew up in a family with a system of religious beliefs handed down to me. In addition to being an engineer, my father was a Baptist minister. I attended church every Sunday. Sometimes, during the summer, I went to church every day—attended Bible study, choir practice, constant church activities. I tried so hard to be good. I tried so hard to hear Jesus. I tried so hard to get guidance from God. But I never could. I did my best to be a good Baptist, but I felt like a fraud.
Then, there was a year that I really tried to believe. My brother became ill with a brain tumor. The religious amperage was turned up in our house, and in the church: If we believed hard enough, he would be saved. But he didn’t get better. Instead, my father also became ill. He, too, was discovered to have a brain tumor. So the amperage turned up even higher. And they both died.
That year, as I tried to be especially good, I was sent to a church counselor for reading a banned book. And while my father was dying—while I was being told that I was disappointing God, as well as my father—that person from the church molested me. It was the combination of these experiences, ultimately, that made me reject the beliefs that had been handed to me. I decided to set out on my own, to find a way of viewing the world that was distinctly my own.