Recorded Saturday, November 16 at the St. Louis County Library.
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and other novels centered on the mother-daughter relationship, visited St. Louis as part of a tour for her new book, The Valley of Amazement.
In front of an audience of several hundred fans, she spoke with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh about the novel, her writing, her life, and her belief in ghosts.
The Valley of Amazement is set in a Shanghai courtesan house in 1913. It was inspired by a 1910 photograph of Tan’s grandmother that has long sat on her desk. She used to think it was a photograph of her grandmother’s wedding or some other special occasion, but she discovered while doing research for the book that the clothing was a style popular for Shanghai courtesans of the day.
“I was stunned,” said Tan. “I started reading everything I could about these courtesans. And I found out the clothes were very particular…and you could see, if you compared those outfits—headband to headband, jacket to jacket, it’s the same. The question then, was why was she wearing this outfit?”
Tan consulted academic specialists, and they confirmed that the details of her grandmother’s photograph matched the details of the courtesan photographs.
“But we all agreed, we would not be able to say that she had been a courtesan any more than…a photo of me in my dominatrix outfit would prove that I had been a dominatrix,” said Tan. (While performing in the celebrity author band Rock Bottom Remainders , Tan dresses as a dominatrix and sings “These Boots are Made for Walking.”)
Although Tan’s grandmother served as an inspiration for The Valley of Amazement, the novel is not directly about her family.
“The storyline is certainly not about our family in any way,” said Tan. “For one thing, I didn’t live in the early part of the 20th century… but the thematic notions that are in there, for example abandonment, are part of it.”
St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Aaron Doerr, and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.