Amy Tan Warms Southwestern in a Cold Front

— Carl Robertson, Assistant Professor of Modern Languages

Amy Tan came on campus during a welcome cold front. Sweaters, jackets and scarfs appeared at receptions and waiting lines that night. But there was a certain warmth of heart I felt stealing over the campus before she came, reinforced and expanded by her visit. I felt it as a member of a panel of colleagues who discussed Tan’s works in a faculty forum luncheon a few weeks before. The panel opened up to more personal views than usual, even, it seemed to me, more eloquent and heartfelt than one expects at a forum for colleagues. At a book reading at the Asian American Cultural Center, the participants discussed thoughts, feelings and reactions, one of whom was quite moved by the shared experience of Tan’s words. For the first time, The Writer’s Voice (the eighth of such events sponsored by the A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library) could spare no tickets for the general public. Similar enthusiasm occurred in courses and classrooms across campus—Paideia® groups discussed her work, several courses featured her texts (including a German Studies course noted by Tan in her talk) and the bookstore sold copies of her books. What was it? Something of her visit gives a clue.

At her feature presentation, she stood beside—not behind—the podium and directly addressed the audience. She spoke with courage, clarity of context and a genuine regard for her audience. With a copy of the CliffsNotes version of The Joy Luck Club, she made us laugh at the irony of finding oneself—a living, breathing and working writer—analyzed into neat, sophisticated patterns of literary criticism— the kind made for dead authors. She took us into her family, recounting life with a mother whose mental imbalance took the family across Europe and nearly took Tan’s life, who Tan accompanied for three years of dementia, night and day (“It was awful, so awful” she said in a way that made us all laugh), and shared with us a sharp impression of her mother’s voice (“Amy-ah” she said on the phone, “you worried!?” about a faked heart attack). And deep in that presentation, poised and impromptu, filled with humor and alive to us, she discussed something of what moves her in her fiction: a respect for voices. There was more then about what she means by “voice,” but it is that commitment to and love for a mother that shone through in her visit, the willingness and talent to share her discovery of that voice and that vision of another with all of us, and take it all with a touch of humor.

The following day, Tan visited two classes and shared a lunch with students. As a witness to one class and the lunch, I felt her complete engagement wherever she went. The students in Chinese III were completely focused, somewhat in awe. (She spoke, modestly, of her Chinese ability, but I know it’s no small thing to pick it up again.) At the lunch, the noise and hubbub ended with a great circle of students with Amy Tan at the center discoursing on life and dogs. She showed her little terrier, carried in a bag with a mesh cover under her arm, as she named breeds and discussed proper treatment. But there at the lunch she revealed the most about what makes her writing work, the thing that enlivened her visit and warmed us up. Fiction, she said, and I both paraphrase and brutally abridge, is not just the telling of stories, but of engaging in the lives of others. It is compassion. Amy Tan shares her family with all of us and then suddenly, we’re family.