‘The Lady Gagas of their time’: Amy Tan on ‘Woman’s Hour’

Amy Tan’s latest novel,  The Valley of Amazement, is the perfect kind of paperback for a holiday in the sun – an epic of love, heartbreak and betrayal told over three generations. In November last year Amy was invited to speak on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, to talk about the inspirations behind the book. The following is a transcript of that interview.

Jenni Murray: Amy Tan made her name as a novelist in 1989 when she published The Joy Luck Club. It was followed by the Kitchen God’s Wife and three more novels. Then there was a gap of eight years, until now. The Valley of Amazement spans nearly fifty years from the end of the nineteenth century through to the start of the Second World War. It moves between America and Shanghai in the early twentieth century, told through the voice of Violet Minturn. She’s the daughter of the American mistress of Shanghai’s most exclusive Courtesan House.

[Here Amy reads an extract from the novel as the character of Magic Gourd, who advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love and suicide.]

JM: Amy Tan, why has it been such a long time before this novel was published?

Amy Tan: I actually wrote two novels during that time, spent five years on the first one. And then I found a photo during research. The photo was in a book and it showed ten women, and five of them were wearing an outfit identical to what my grandmother was wearing in a photo that is my favourite, sat on my desk and was my inspiration. These women were courtesans and I scanned back and forth. It was identical. The headband that formed a ‘v’ at the top of the forehead, the pearls in the band, the high neck collar, you know, the shorter, tighter sleeves. Everything about it. And also taken in a photo studio – a western photo studio.

JM: So what does that tell you about your grandmother? Was your grandmother a courtesan?

AT: Well, it tells me my grandmother was not the myth of being an old-fashioned woman. I went back and forth trying to determine what would be the other reasons why she would be wearing this costume. And the evidence points more toward her being a courtesan, but I never would be able to say with complete confidence that – yes. I think I wouldn’t say that unless she was standing here, you know, signing a document saying ‘yes, it’s true. I was a courtesan’. I have photos of myself playing in a band wearing a dominatrix outfit and I would think, well, in a hundred years from now if somebody looked at those and said ‘yes, we have successive years of you wearing…’ and said, concluded, I had been a dominatrix that would be – that’d be wrong!

JM: But how much of your grandmother is in your character Violet? I’m sure I remember you telling me what a strong character she was.

AT: My mother was very strong, and I assume that she got that from her mother. My mother told me that she complained, her mother complained of being bored. That her mother negotiated to have a house in Shanghai on the basis of her giving the husband a son, a first son. And she was the fourth wife. I found out later, recently, she was the favourite wife and that she had very strong opinions and if people didn’t listen to her they would be sorry later. So she was obviously a very strong woman.

JM: So what was life like for a woman in a Shanghai courtesan house?

AT: The first class courtesan houses were quite different from your ordinary brothel. It had western furnishings – they were very influential in bringing western culture to Shanghai. They had suitors and they would court the courtesans. And it was the courtesan who got to decide which of the men would have their intimate favours in the boudoir.   So they had to offer gifts, money and all of that. And if they were smart, if the courtesan was smart, she was a good businesswoman and strategically chose her patrons.

JM: So what status did they have? Compared to wives, concubines and prostitutes?

AT: They occupied a place that was quite different. They were like the pop stars of their times. The Lady Gagas of their time. They innovated fashion; they had more freedom and a more enviable life than say, concubines. Concubines were also known as secondary wives or third wives, fourth wives of men and they had fewer freedoms. But the life of a courtesan was very short. Her career was very short, say, from the age of fourteen, fifteen until her early twenties – and after that her future was very insecure.  They were not looked upon as an acceptable part of society. They were at the same level as opera singers. Opera singers were popular – icons – and yet they were also looked down upon in society.

JM: Now we heard that very tough advice that Magic Gourd gives to Violet about how hard-headed she has to be as a courtesan. What research did you rely on to understand that kind of advice, you know that ‘You must have a good pension,’ for instance?

AT: Yes, I read probably six or seven books specifically about courtesan culture in Shanghai – Shanghai very specifically during the early twentieth century. And I also talked to three academics whose speciality was that area, including photo studios. And so the information that I had came from exactly that. The whole idea about love came from reading letters courtesans had sent to their lovers – very poignant letters. You know, ‘my darling, my eyes are as big as melons, I’ve been crying, and if you have any sympathy you would return and fulfil your promise to marry me’. Men who would take off with the courtesans’ money or had not paid their bills, the courtesans would be stuck with that bill and basically their future was over.

JM How unusual was it for an American woman to run such a house?

AT: That would be very unusual. I don’t think – I did not come across any woman who did that, although there were madams who ran brothels in Shanghai. They had them out on boats in the harbour. But American women at that time – I would imagine American women would be privy to some information… and it was really the idea that this woman was running a courtesan house but also the social club for western men. There’s a combination of the information she was gathering from these businessmen, putting them together, that would enable them to start new businesses, foreign trade being such a huge thing in Shanghai during that time.

JM: Now why does Violet have such difficulty accepting her heritage? Her mother, who is American, has had an affair with a Chinese man in America, come over, and he of course can’t, because of his family connections, have a connection with her. And Violet cannot deal with being American and Chinese. Why not?

AT: Well she starts the book saying ‘when I was seven I knew exactly who I was, I was an American’. An American in the international settlement at Shanghai had a very different position than the Chinese who lived there. Basically they had no social interaction and the Americans looked down on the Chinese. You could not assume as a Chinese person that you could marry who you wanted. You could not have the notion you could change your future, secure your future. They were looked down upon by the Americans.  And for her to go from being an American to the kind of person she would look down upon before she discovered she was partly that, that was a huge conflict for her.  I think at age seven we do become aware of our differences to one another and the qualities of status. I remember when that happened to me. And thus she would really react to the notion that she was going to lose her place.

JM: What was your recollection of status?

AT: There were children who called me ‘Jap’ or ‘Chink’. The ‘Jap’ was because I was born in 1952 so it was after the war but still it was fresh enough in the memories of these kids, probably heard from their parents, their prejudices. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m different, I’m looked down upon’ and I wondered why I was different and how that came to be. I thought that maybe eating Chinese food made me different. And I’d look at my leg and say ‘is that a Chinese leg?’. All these questions.

JM: Amy Tan, thank you very much indeed for being with us.

Transcript of interview with Amy Tan featured on ‘Woman’s Hour’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28 November 2013.

The Valley of Amazement











Out now in paperback and ebook.


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