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Of Morals and Mysticism

Amy Tan talks politics, artistic responsibility, and the issues beneath the surface of her new novel, Saving Fish from Drowning

This is an extended version of Elizabeth Schwyzer’s interview with Amy Tan, which ran in the April 12 issue of the Independent.

amy-tan.jpgIn Burma, so the story goes, a fisherman faces a moral dilemma. As a Buddhist, the fisherman is forbidden to kill another living being. Yet his very livelihood depends on just that action. In order to justify his transgression, he claims he is, in fact, “saving fish from drowning.” Childishly charming as this argument is, it’s also farcical-so transparent, and so willfully fallacious, it’s funny-and yet it allows the fisherman to go continue cheerfully, day after day, with a behavior his religion considers a moral crime.

From the beginning, novelist Amy Tan has explored the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and fabrication. In The Joy Luck Club, Tan focused on the interplay between the Chinese and Chinese-American experience, and on relationships between women of different generations. The Hundred Secret Senses tackled issues of belief between cultures and eras, and explored the spirit world. In her newest book, Saving Fish From Drowning, Tan dives more deeply than ever before into questions of morality, probing the uncomfortable nether regions between belief and action, intention and outcome, responsibility, and the willful blindness we use to hide from it.

There’s an obvious irony in the title of the book, and a satirical tone that’s carried throughout the novel. Where did the satire come from?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a very long time in my life-about what we choose to do, and what we believe, and where our intentions are. In the many areas of our lives that are ambiguous, we often come up with some sort of justification, some moral compromise. It was a very uncomfortable subject for me, so I thought I would write about it. In part, I was perturbed by things that were happening around me-by the political policies that affected people, and by the intentions that were stated.

Are you talking about the Bush administration?

In part, but I think it’s more than that-pinning it all on the Bush administration is painting too simple a picture. I think a number of people in the country were talking about the justification for going into Afghanistan, and the actions taken after 911. I think everyone’s beliefs headed in different directions. It would be too easy to simply bash one person, because I think we all went through some degree of questioning, or perhaps not questioning enough. People are just now coming out admitting they made mistakes. This all hearkened back to a period in my life when I blindly believed certain ideas that were handed to me, and on the basis of those ideas I set my intentions toward other people. It really has to do with myself, and my inner ambiguity.

Saving Fish from Drowning differs from your other novels in its departure from a focus on mother-daughter relationships, and in its Burmese setting, for example. Would you say those differences reflect an internal shift?

fishdrowning.jpgI do. Let’s hope that all of us have questions that enter into different realms-I don’t write only on a single theme. My work stems from personal questions. I’ll always be interested in the influences my mother inculcated in me. She died in 1999-it’s not a coincidence that this book started around that time. And the voice of the narrator is really my mother’s voice. After she died, I imagined her saying that she’d help me tell stories-that she’d be not so much like a mother, but like a tour guide. I thought that was great; her role in life was like a tour guide, telling me what to see and what to eat and where to go, so on some level this book is very personal to me.

The story you tell in the new novel’s opening notes at first seems extraordinary but plausible, and becomes increasingly farcical. In that same preface, you talk about writing in a way that clouds “the line between what is dramatically fictional and what is horrifyingly true.” Tell me about toeing that line.

It was surprising to me-you throw in just one ‘note to the reader,’ and right there, people cast away any questions as to whether this is a fiction, and just believe whatever they read is true. I wanted to start off this way, showing that kind of blind acceptance. I was thinking about how a lot of the time we’re more interested in fiction and things that are illusory than in hard facts. I cast myself right in the middle of that group of people who would prefer to read the two-headed calf story rather than what is happening in Myanmar.

What made you choose Burma as the setting for this novel?

A lot of people forgot about it after it was renamed. Like them, I lost any interest or knowledge of what was happening there. It was only after being asked to join an art tour to Myanmar that I became aware of what was going on. People said, “You shouldn’t go there, you’re saying you support an illegal regime,” and at first I thought, “Right, I shouldn’t go there.” Then I had to really question myself as to the basis of my decision making. I decided I should at least look into what was going on there, rather than just going with the liberal party line-the politically correct thing to do-just because someone told me.

Speaking of doing your own thing, you’re a member of the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders with Dave Barry and Stephen King. How did that come about?

Kathy Goldmark, this media escort in San Francisco, had this harebrained idea that she would ask a number of writers if they wanted to play in a band for one night at the American Booksellers Association, and amazingly quite a number of people said yes. Those who said no are kicking themselves. It was supposed to be a one night gig, and it has continued for 15, 16 years. It’s been way too long, and yet I can’t see how we’d ever stop. When I go places, there is always someone who asks about the band. There’s Dave Barry, who is even more hilarious in person, Mitch Albom, who plays keyboard, and Greg Iles, who is probably one of the more talented members of the band. We have some ringers on sax and drums, ’cause you have to have someone keeping the rhythm together.

Back to the question of that line between fact and fiction-how have your readers responded to the book’s preface?

When the book first came out, I was amazed at how many people assumed without question that the first part was completely true. I thought they would at least look up some of the references on the internet. I was surprised at how many people did not do that, including the early reviewers. There are, in fact, things in the novel that are absolutely true, like facts about Burma. The narrator Bibi Chen and the tourists were complete fabrications, but they took on a strange kind of reality after the book came out. People ‘remembered’ Bibi Chen when she never even existed. They’d tell me about their ‘memories’ of her. People have done psychological studies on how you can alter a person’s memory based on the stories you tell them. Everything I’d written became truth. When I questioned these people about what had happened to Bibi, they couldn’t always ‘remember,’ so they’d make guesses. “I think she was murdered,” they’d say.

How much responsibility do you take for all of it?

When I was writing this, I was thinking about my responsibility. Where do you draw the lines in terms of what you do and what you feel. At all levels, whether it’s the note to the reader or the rest of the book, I was thinking about my intention. Of course people misinterpret things, and I could not have predicted all the ways people would respond to this book. There were unexpected ways in which people questioned where the truth was-the very question that I’m thinking about.

It seems like a new question for you.

group_shot_great.jpgYes and no. I have not been able to clarify it as much in previous works as in this one, but all my life I’ve been wrestling with some aspects of this question. I had parents who had very different beliefs about how things worked in the world. My father was a Baptist minister and thought your responsibility was to bring people to the grace of God and save them. My mother had other ideas and was not an evangelist; she was more someone who looked at things pragmatically and individually, and had an innate sense of truth, and what was right and wrong. So in think I became fascinated with the idea of a moral authority.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Well, first of all I hope they enjoy the story. When I read a book, I also start to observe a few things differently. Perhaps there’s a question in my mind that comes out of reading it. And it enlarges my life by helping me to see farther. I certainly wouldn’t want to evangelize and tell people what they should do. There are an outlandish number of things that happen at the end of the book that say this is what would need to happen for this situation to change-miracles from God, spirits, TV programs.

Is that what you think it’s going to take to turn things around-a miracle?

It going to take a combination of factors that we cannot predict, and so when we say, ‘this is what it will take and this is what will happen,’ it is, I think, walking on that line of sort of magical thinking and psychic phenomena, where we think we can predict the course of the world. All sorts of things can happen; things can intervene, accidents can happen, and we cannot predict all of that, and so the outcomes of what will improve a situation are also unpredictable. Sometimes I do think it would be something outlandish or accidental that would provide the answer.

What do you mean by “the answer”?

There is no complete answer-but to actually make improvements might take any number of things that we can’t control. I don’t think, for example, there’s an answer to making Iraq ‘alright’-I think it will remain a great tragedy in history. And there will be those who believe it was morally the right thing to do. When you think of morality as individually based, they’re absolutely right. My beliefs take me in the direction that what is happening is a great tragedy. How do we ever make amends to those people who have been terribly hurt?

411: Amy Tan will speak with Pico Iyer at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Sunday April 15 at 4pm. Tickets are $27 or $15 for UCSB students. $125 includes VIP seating and a private dinner with Ms. Tan. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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