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Book Review: Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan

This review first appeared on the BookReporter but at the end I’ve added a little something I didn’t put in that review.

Where the Past Begins | leahdecesare.com
Master storyteller Amy Tan’s new memoir, WHERE THE PAST BEGINS, is a gift to readers and writers alike. She brings us along as she riffles through bins of stuff saved and collected, the stuff that holds pieces of us, that guards bits of our history. Through memories and reflections, journal entries, photographs, and correspondence, through segments called “Quirks” and “Interludes,” Tan takes us into her mind, her heart — into her past.

Tan takes her history and unravels it, examines it and weaves it back together into a meaningful understanding of herself and, more broadly, of humanity.

From the first words of the introduction, we are reminded of Tan’s command of story, the poetry of her writing, the joy in her use of metaphor. WHERE THE PAST BEGINS is generous, honest and raw, Tan lays herself out revealing vulnerabilities and traumas, insecurities and self-doubt and a wide-open view into her creative spirit and view of the world.

This memoir feels like we are joining Tan in digging into old family archives, unfurling documents, photos, and clues into her family history. The words are confessions and reflections on her upbringing, her relationships, her formative years, with the perspective of time. Musings and observations from Tan in her twenties, forties, fifties, are beautifully juxtaposed displaying the growth of a woman and the shifts that come with age.

Throughout the book, Tan uses the lens of a woman in her sixties as she analyzes what makes her who she is. In the collection of family artifacts she uncovers mistruths, secrets and twists in the family lore. Tan grew up with a critical mother and her constant threats of suicide leading her to be vigilant and unsettled. Tan writes, “I am intolerant of people who dangle threats and uncertainty as power. … And yet much of my writing, I realize, is about uncertainty —the heartbreaking moments when something is not clear, when the situation is changing, when a truth turns into a half-truth and then a lie.”

Tans gives us a glimpse into her creative understandings, impressions, and discoveries. She shares the kernels of her life that developed into fiction, her insights into human nature that became the rich cast of characters in her treasured, bestselling stories. She says, “My characters are witness to what I went through.”

As a fan and reader of Tan’s novels, it was a privilege to be invited inside the exploration of her past, her life and the journey of her own continued self-discovery. As a writer, I marveled at how she digs deep and deeper into her mind, excavating long buried memories. She takes the reader with her into her study of brain function and using emotions to uncover things not remembered.

In reading as in life, we search for meaning and commonality. Tan talks about a recurring dream she has of finding an extra room in her house, the details vary, but I have an eerily similar dream that visits me regularly and has for decades. I’ve heard of this same dream from an unusual number of people. Another thread that touched me was from her journal, aged twenty-five, in which she shares a quirk that I could completely understand. She talks about observing a sliver of someone’s life and then extrapolating and inventing things around it. I do this and make myself dizzy with the notion that I’ve witnessed a moment in a stranger’s life, a moment they would assume had gone unnoticed and would never know I shared it, even for a second.

WHERE THE PAST BEGINS is a must-read for Amy Tan admirers. You’ll feel like you’re with a dear old friend sharing her stories with you in the most personal way. Your heart will touch hers. You’ll see the undeniable strength she’s drawn from her traumatic childhood and how she’s extracted her nuanced grasp of human motivation.

So here’s the new part, not included in the BookReporter review. I was disappointed in what was revealed in a few paragraphs in the middle of the book.

No matter what one’s politics, I was saddened to see her attitude toward people who disagreed with her in the election. I have a litany of friends who hold different viewpoints on all sorts of things and I don’t want to limit my friends to only people who agree with my perspectives. Diversity is the very thing that makes life rich and interesting, including diversity of thought. Yet, Amy Tan actually wrote: “I wanted to know who among my friends and family had supported directly or indirectly that party’s antiimmigrant position. I could no longer respect those people. I was thankful that everyone in my family … had supported my candidate.” I was floored and found that to be a closed-minded, intolerant, divisive attitude coming from someone I admire as a deep thinker and as someone tuned in to human nature. I believe we must be able to communicate and respectfully disagree and I value thoughtful conversation sharing individuals points of view.

© Copyright Leah DeCesare 2017

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