The Bonesetters’ Daughter – Amy Tan

The Bonesetters’ Daughter is a complex story.

I may be wrong in assuming that as South Africans, we understand very little about the Chinese or their lifestyle, beliefs and their thinking patterns. Perhaps we need to learn more about them, as according to popular folk lore, theirs will be the next global super power and we will need to have at least a working knowledge of their culture if we are going to fit into their world. However this is probably more important for our children and grandchildren than it is for us, but it doesn’t hurt to know a little.

Reading the works of Amy Tan, who is an American-Chinese writer, is a small step in this direction, and although she has never lived in China, she has an intimate knowledge of their thinking patterns and their lifestyle; a knowledge  which she gained from her mother, who was Chinese born and raised, and who only came to live in America after the second world war.

Amy Tan acknowledges that although the work, The Bonesetter’s Daughter  has some parallels with her own life, and that the information therein was in part gathered from dealing with her mother’s dementia, the bulk of the novel  is purely that of her imagination. (They do say that every author puts a little of himself/herself into each book.)

But to give you some of the background of Amy Tan, and here, although it may not seem like it, I have had to be very selective.  There are many, many thousands of entries on the internet which proclaim to be factual regarding her life, and because she is so successful she has caused a lot of speculation and interest. But the best way to learn about Amy Tan is to go straight to the horse’s mouth as it were, and let her  speak for herself.

No doubt you know that Amy Tan is the author of numerous books, including The Joy Luck Club, The Hundred Secret Senses, the Kitchen God’s Wife, Saving Fish from Drowning and two children’s books.

She, too, appears to have developed the skill or tool that most successful writers use: that of writing to a theme. She may be criticised for this, but by the same token, her readers seem to want more. Her books are invariably best-sellers that are turned into movies, stage plays, and in the case of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, into an Opera (the composer being Stewart Wallace). You may perhaps know that Stewart Wallace is considered to be one of the top composers in contemporary America with five operas to his credit, and many other critically acclaimed works, including ballets and film scores. Perhaps you may even have heard the work, Alas I have not.

(Bespreek deur Margie Wilson)

Amy Tan must therefore have quite a story to tell if a major composer saw fit to put her story to music.

However, because of this, and, because of her success with her books, there is much written about her that is incorrect. In an attempt to put the record straight, she had this to say  about some of the misinformation that surrounds her. I must say, I find a writer’s background is always very interesting because invariably has a bearing on what and how they write.  So, for the record:

1: Tan’s works do not include The Year of No Flood, published in 1995. That was a chapter in her novel The Hundred Secret Senses. At one time, she  thought she might write a book with that title that would include the flood and then the drought that preceded the Boxer Uprising, but because she blabbed about that book so much before it was written, it ejected itself from her imagination. It is apparent that someone to whom she blabbed assumed she finished the novel and published it.

2: Tan did not attend eight different colleges. It was five, she says, and that number was excessive enough, particularly when the fundraising season rolls around each year and she is asked to contribute to the coffers of her alma maters.

(She has a  bachelor’s and master’s degree in English and  Linguistics, which she obtained from San José State University, and later she did doctoral linguistics studies at University California Santa Cruz and University California  Berkeley )

(I am not sure what other institutions have played a part in her education to make up the five).

What is true however is that, she has a very long list of the awards that she has received for her books, namely

Joy Luck Club (8)
– finalist National Book Award
– finalist National Book Critics Circle Award
– finalist Los Angeles Time Fiction Prize
– Bay Area Book Reviewers Award
– Commonwealth Gold Award
– American Library Associations’ Notable Books
– American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults
– selected for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read

Kitchen God’s Wife (3)
– New York Times Notable Book
– American Library Association Notable Book
– Booklist Editors Choice

Hundred Secret Senses (1)
– finalist for the Orange Prize

Opposite of Fate (3)
– New York Times Notable Book
– Audie Award: Best Non-fiction, Abridged
– Booklist Editors Choice

Saving Fish from Drowning (2)
– nominated for IMPAC Dublin Award
– Booklist Editors’ Choice

Sagwa animated series for PBS (2)
– Emmy Award
– Parents Choice, Best Television Program for Children

Film: Joy Luck Club (2)
– shortlisted BAFTA Film award, best screenplay adaptation
– shortlisted WGA Award, best screenplay adaptation

Bonesetter’s Daughter (3)
– nominated for the Orange Prize
– New York Times Notable Book
– nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Award (It might be interesting to note that the IMPAC award is an Irish one where libraries worldwide are asked to submit nominations on books that have had a wide reading appeal)

As you can see many of these awards for which she was nominated are for serious literary prizes so her work must have merit.

But to get back to the misconceptions around her:

3: Tan did not teach poetry at a university in West Virginia. She has no idea where that came from, because she has never been to West Virginia and she has never taught. But the idea is rather flattering as she has always wished she could write poetry, let alone teach it. Along those same lines, she has never been a workshop leader of a writers’ group, and as to those who claim to her agent and editor that she led their group, she says that was Molly Giles, an acquaintance of hers. Tan says she does not have red hair. She  has red hair only when she performs in a literary garage band called the ‘Rock Bottom Remainders’. While playing in the band, however, she has never both worn the red wig and led a writers’ workshop.

(This band, by the way,  includes members like Barbara Kingsolver of  (The Poisonwood Bible) fame  and also well-known Stephen King –  so, who said writers were one dimensional? )

4: Tan never worked in a factory alongside a certain person who was your best friend, not in this life nor in a past life that she can remember. Among her early jobs, she worked as a switchboard operator at her high school, as a carhop for A&W Root Beer company , and at Round Table Pizza place, slinging pizzas.

5: She has never lived in a mansion in the multi-millionaired  hills of Hillborough, California. She went to a fundraiser there once where guests were asked to shell out $25,000 to help a political candidate, but somehow they let her in for free and the political candidate ultimately lost. She actually lives in  a more modest condominium in San Francisco, a town which has some pretty nice hills itself and a mix of billionaires and poor.

6: Her condominium is not the top floor of a former mansion. The building  where she lives was constructed in 1916 as apartments. Her unit, is on the third and fourth floor, with  the fourth being a former attic. As Tan is no spring chicken having been born in 1952 (which makes her 57), she now wishes she had an elevator in her building.

7: Tan has never had a fight with her publisher in a bookstore, nor did she scream and fling books around, causing other patrons to run for their lives. She claims she and her publisher have always had an amicable relationship, and the only time they fight is over the bill at a restaurant, but only as an ostentatious show of politeness. Most times, Tan lets her publishers win, and they pay the bill.

8: With the exception of restaurant bills, she has never had a fight with her agent, Sandra Dijkstra, either, or switched to a new agent. Sandra Dijkstra was the one who encouraged her to write fiction early on. Tan says Sandra is like a Jewish mother who badgers her week after week to keep writing. Tan says she  owes her life to her agent for giving her the lifestyle of a writer. And for that reason, Tan probably also owes her lunch, but Sandy usually pays anyway.

9: Lou De Mattei is indeed Tan’s first husband. He is also her current husband. In addition, he is her only husband. They have been together since 1970, married since 1974. That is, (39 years together and 35 years married)

10: Tan does not have two children, unless you consider, as she does, that her dogs are her children. In any articles about her written after 1997, her cat, Sagwa, should not be referred to as her ‘pet’ but as her ‘late and dearly beloved kitty’. Tan acknowledges that she has included children in most of her books, except the one about the cat. Predictably, these children from her books have grown older with each subsequent book.

Though they are imaginary, she is terribly fond of them. But she has never done homework with them every night, she has never taken them to soccer and swim meets, she has never cried in an emergency room when it turned out they had only stuck beans in their ears, nor has she gone through the cycle of being angry, then worried, then hysterical when they drove off to a forbidden place and went missing for six hours. Thus, Tan cannot say with any real conviction that her dogs are her children.

11: Tan does not have yellow skin as depicted in a cartoon version of Amy Tan in The Simpsons. It is yellow skin depictions make Tan slightly uncomfortable in being called a ‘Writer of Color’. Also, Tan did not really berate Lisa Simpson and humiliate her mercilessly in front of a TV audience. Those words were put in Tan’s mouth by another cartoon character, created by Matt Groening. Other than the skin color thing, she thinks Matt Groening is a sweetheart and pretty nice guy. She once argued with him in public over the lunch bill, but he pushed her credit card aside and paid. It seems she never gets to pay restaurant bills.

Born in the US to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan failed her mother’s expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. (Interesting that she worked with Stewart Wallace in creating the opera and that she is a band member, so she must have some musicality which is not mentioned in any of the biographies except for the connection to the band).

However, she settled on writing fiction, which is not considered having a ‘proper’ job! Despite this all her books are New York Times bestsellers so she must be doing something right, and she has probably earned more from her writing than she would have at either of the other two professions chosen for her by her mother.

And in addition to her fiction she is the author of a memoir, The Opposite of Fate. I thought I would just read the following to you as it explains some of her thoughts on The Bonesetter’s Daughter as well:

In the Ms Bookish Review of this memoirl, which I may say is a very good review site for books,  it says : ‘I didn’t feel in the mood for fiction (this is whilst tidying the house for guests) so I decided to dip into The Opposite of Fate and I’m very glad I did. It’s wonderful so far, and since it’s been a while since I’ve read an Amy Tan it feels good to luxuriate in her words again’

Whilst Amy says of this book : ‘In gathering these pieces for the book  (It is made up of four essays) I made a new realization, so obvious that I was stunned I had not seen the pattern a hundred times before. In all of my writings, both fiction and nonfiction, directly or obliquely but always obsessively, I return to questions of fate and its alternatives. I saw that these musings about fate express my idiosyncratic and evolving philosophy, and this in turn is my ‘voice’ the one that determines the kinds of stories I want to tell, the characters I choose, the details I decide are relevant. In my fictional stories I have chosen characters who question what they should believe at different moments in their lives, often in times of loss. And while I never intended for the pieces in this current non-fiction book to explain my fiction, they do. ‘(This explains both the Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetters Daughter )

Her other books include two children’s books, viz.  The Moon Lady and Sagwa, and she has written numerous articles for magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic . You can’t get much higher than that in the magazine world. In addition, her work has been translated into 35 languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.

She says : ‘Between writing my first book and today, the Internet did the equivalent of the Big Bang, and the World Wide Web expanded into the Ubiquitous Uncontrollable Universe. As a result, certain factual errors about me began to circulate and became part of my unofficial biography now often used by students, interviewers, and university public relations staff before I come to give a talk.

‘At first, there were only minor mistakes, for example, that I had received my Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, which is a fine school and one that I did attend while studying for my doctorate. But the only doctorates I have today are honorary ones, and according to one university president who handed me one, this entitles me to a free parking space in the faculty lot but only when I come to give a free talk. To set the record straight, I never finished my doctoral program, and my B.A. and M.A. degrees came from San Jose State University.

As the Internet became more widespread so did the errors. They are not quite urban legend strength, but they have definitely been magnified. I remember the day I saw it announced on a live on-line interview: Amy Tan is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It then occurred to me that one could actually conduct several lives of different realities, even better ones, certainly with more prestigious prizes. But as the online interview began, I typed in my greeting: “Hi, Amy Tan here, only I never did win that Nobel Prize. Wish I had. Thanks for the vote of confidence.” ‘

And that is not so briefly what and who Amy Tan is. Suffice it to say Amy Tan is a much acclaimed writer and has both her critics and her admirers. I found the Bonesetters’ Daughter a fascinating tale.

With her Chinese American background, it is not surprising that she chooses to write about things Chinese and to my mind with a great deal of insight. Although she has not lived in China she understands the culture and has an understanding of its topography.

Perhaps this would be a good time to talk about the geography of China where The Bonesetters’ Daughter is located. China is such a vast country that it covers a variety of geographical features, from deserts to lakes, mountains to widespread open plain. The book, The Bonesetters’ Daughter is set in the mountainous forested region of China, with its deep valleys and gorges, frequent landslides and mighty rivers. They are relatively close to Inner Mongolia though which is made up of wide open plains and grassland. This may explain why they felt as though they lived close to the ‘end of the world’. It is here that it is thought that the fossilized bones of Peking Man were found in about 1921, but which were subsequently lost in 1937, despite the theory that they were sunk with the Japanese Ship Awa Maru in 1945.

But to get back to our book: I am sorry I have to make so many digressions, but to sort it out in my own mind had to make many digressions. Amy Tan creates magic as she does a magnificent job of weaving fact with fiction to this interesting tale.

The bones of Peking Man represented pre-historic man, and were possibly the type of  bones referred to as the “Oracle” bones in the book. It had been believed that the Shang dynasty from which they came did not exist, that is until the discovery of these particular  bones. Chinese history is traced according to the various dynasties, such as the Ming, the Quong, the Zhong  and many  others.

The Chinese belief system of oracles, soothsaying and ghosts is very similar to that of most other primitive peoples. It seems that no matter where we are or who we are, we need to have a belief system in place to be able to make sense of our world, even if our thinking is sometimes flawed.

Many cultures throughout the world have used bones of this type as divination tools, (including our own San and Khoi people.) The Chinese are still resentful of the Americans for taking these bones away from them, especially after assurances that the bones would remain in China. (It was the Americans who  did all the excavating of these bones after they were first discovered,as the Chinese did not have the expertise to classify and study them). Although the Chinese had a very evolved culture prior to the fifteen hundreds, they seem to have become stuck in this and have not evolved as much as other cultures did during the renaissance and later.

The Oracle bones that were to form the background to The Bonesetter’s Daughter were bones taken from either the plastrons of tortoises or the shoulder blades of  oxen or boars, horses and deer. Sometimes, even skulls of oxen, deer or even humans were used.

Diviners to the kings would inscribe the bones which had been thoroughly cleaned of meat, polished, sawn and scraped to a flat surface. Pits or hollows were then drilled or chiseled partway through in organized patterns, The bones or shells were placed in the intense heat of a fire so that they would split. From these splits the diviner would be able to interpret whether the king should proceed in one way or another to achieve the best possible outcome in any given situation. Sometimes the words were written on the surface of the bone with brush strokes and were only carved in workshops at a later date.

Until recent times the Chinese ground these bones up into powder to be used as medicines, so that these oracle bones are quite a rarity today and considered very valuable.  Tan, through Luling, one of her main characters, explains some of this to us, in some detail. (Page 167)

When trawling through the thousands of entries I came across many, many reviews. Not all reviews of this book were flattering to say the least.  Many people did not appreciate her interpretation of these events. It seems that if you are successful then there is always someone out there who gets vicarious pleasure out of their need to drag you down.

In one review that I found that the reviewer is not at all enchanted with Amy Tan’s book: and I quote:

The Bonesetter’s Daughter tells the intertwined stories of a mother-daughter pair. Ruth Young, a middle-aged Chinese-American, has trouble relating to her elderly China-born mother, LuLing Young. LuLing is suffering from memory loss: a symptom of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, perhaps.

But when LuLing tells Ruth the story of her past through her detailed memoir in Chinese, Ruth finds the power to understand and forgive her mother. LuLing recalls her life in the village called Immortal Heart, brought up by her Precious Auntie, who is more than a nursemaid to her. Precious Auntie, the daughter of a famous bonesetter, found herself plagued by misfortune and ghosts from the past. LuLing fears the effect of such bad luck will filter down through many generations. This was why Ruth’s mother burdened her with insecurities and paranoia all through her childhood.

Once again, Amy Tan plumbs her fascination with the supernatural, while capturing the idiosyncratic dynamics within a Chinese family. All the same, Tan affirms the role of the mother in preserving the continuity of tradition. “A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.”

But the mother-daughter relationship has been explored repeatedly in Amy Tan’s previous novels. In fact, it was done with more flair in The Joy Luck Club, crafted in the form of a mahjong game.

The way the dialogue moves back and forth between two female narrators is yet another technique that Tan has employed before. Tan has done better in The Hundred Secret Senses, moving convincingly between two disjointed narratives, welding the world of humans and of ghosts into one in a macabre twist.

In comparison, there’s little that’s fresh and innovative about The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Is Tan attempting to recreate her previous successes?

Still Amy Tan succeeds in capturing what it means to be Chinese in America. Few can write about the Asian-American experience with as much conviction or dynamism. Of course, she grapples with issues of authenticity: there are a number of factual lapses in her novels. But hers are works of American fiction, not Chinese fiction; they are her interpretations of reality filtered through her unique Asian-American experience. Her strong commitment to creating a credible Asian-American literary canon is admirable.

In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan reaffirms this commitment, telling the story of the prominent female figures in her life. “The heart of this story belongs to my grandmother, its voice to my mother,” she writes.

One suspects, however, that Amy Tan is more successful with made-up plots like those in The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses. When she tells the true-life stories of her mother in The Kitchen God’s Wife, and of her grandmother in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, she fails.

It’s commendable that Tan has decided to record and document the experiences of her family in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, but her tale is too fictionalized to be authentic, too real to be interesting.

Would you believe that this strange review came from a site entitled ‘Curled up with a good book?’

On the other hand, another reviewer had this to say :

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club has become a modern classic, and Tan draws from same wellspring for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Here again she weaves a tale with a familiar warp: women in early twentieth-century China, the deep differences between generations in immigrant families, and the heartbreakingly complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Dragon bones play as much a part as World War II in this novel split between the “then” of 1930s and 40s China and the “now” of 1990s San Francisco.

Ruth Young is a middle-aged Chinese-American ghostwriter of self-help books. Her relationship with the divorced father of two with whom she lives with is stagnating, and her periodic bouts of speechlessness testify to an inability to communicate honestly with him and his daughters. Ruth’s mother doesn’t make life any easier – a reverse-psychology style of parenting, not to mention regular suicide threats, have left her daughter exhausted and uptight. It is the subtle onset of Alzheimer’s in LuLing that initiates a transformation in Ruth’s understanding of her mother.

While trying to deal with LuLing’s increasingly erratic behavior, Ruth has her mother’s calligraphed diary translated. In it, she discovers the significance of the ghosts of LuLing’s past, especially that of Precious Auntie, the maimed and mute woman who raised LuLing in the village where the bones of Peking Man were discovered. The secrets of LuLing’s life unfold in pained beauty as Ruth tries to put her own past in a perspective she can live with. From the consummate acts of murder and suicide to the attenuated small sins between mother and daughter, Tan lays bare the myriad ways we inflict pain on each other. She goes the necessary step farther, though, in illustrating the possibilities for healing even after wounds have become scars.

(As a matter of interest I have just read a book called The Oracle Bones where-in Chinese calligraphy is explained fully, and where it shows that just a small brush stroke difference in two pictograms can completely change the meaning of the word, which is why their written language is so complex) But back to the review. :

Tradition and defiance, legend and brute reality enrich The Bonesetter’s Daughter much as they did The Joy Luck Club. Tan is at the top of her game here, and her ride on the bestseller fiction lists will attest to it. Apparently partly autobiographical, this novel will generate lively book group discussions. More importantly, it will gently nudge readers into reconsideration of their own filial relationships. A beautiful, beautiful book.”

My own opinion?  Well, I was drawn into the story from the beginning although I found it very complex and I think a little beyond me. You may say that I am totally unqualified to giving this review, and very naïve to even try. I know there are some of you who did not relate to this book at all, much like our earlier reviewer.

However, I liked the way the heroine Ruth was a complex being trying to balance her life with her partner and his children with that of the needs of her mother and in addition trying to give of her best in her career as a ghost writer, which I should imagine is a difficult form of writing. Putting your own thoughts in order in a book is difficult enough without having to compete with another ego.  And Ruth finds ways to cope with all these demands on her, especially with her mother. Ruth was so typical of the average woman today who tries to please everyone, leaving herself for last.

Dementia is a debilitating disease which leaves the carer extremely frustrated and the afflicted confused and afraid. I found the portrayal of Ruth’s denial of her mother’s dementia very real. We often can’t see things that are so obvious to outsiders.

Ruth finds that her relationship with her partner, Art, deteriorates because of the amount of time that her mother takes up. His two daughters, who are close to her during their childhood, become more withdrawn as they become teenagers and she misses this nearness. Ruth ‘s way of dealing with problems of life are to become ‘mute’ for a week each year, a time when she becomes self-analytical and self-indulgent, and giving her body chance to recharge.  However, what she loses on one hand gives her much greater clarity into understanding her mother with whom she has always had a tortuous relationship.

Finding her mother’s diaries and the reference to the letter by her grandmother Ruth suddenly opens up their relationship but is burdened by the regrets that we so often have because this knowledge comes too late. Here Amy Tan has delved into her own personal experiences to bring her character to life as she too had a mother with dementia.

Written in two separate parts, one from Ruth’s point of view and the other telling the story of Luling’s formative years, and Precious Auntie’s influence on her life, this is essentially a story of mothers and daughters and their interactions. It is also very true of life in that as you say in Afrikaans, ‘Spyt is ‘n goeie ding, dit is jammer dit kom altyd te laat.’

What a shock it must have been for Luling to discover that the woman she regarded as her nursemaid was actually her mother, and how awful it must have been to read the letter from her after her suicide, when she was living in the orphanage, ( page 246), and to continue  live with the guilt  that, had she only read the letter earlier, she could possibly have prevented  Precious Auntie’s death.

As an aside I found the way’s of addressing and referring to family members very odd. They talk about ‘Precious Auntie, Big Uncle and Little Uncle’ without attaching names as we would like Tannie Griet or Oom Jan.

But it was no wonder that Luling was plagued by the ghost of Precious Auntie, after her suicide. And this was a situation that Ruth exploited to the full, with some surprising results.  When the ghosts come to haunt the family, in the burning of the shop, and when the  exorcist is called in, it  is as if Luling goes from being the favoured daughter to an unwanted presence in the house. Yet she maintains a bond with her ‘sister’ Gaoling throughout her life. I felt that Gaoling was not really a strong presence in the story, although necessary to relate Luling’s life and to give it credence. The way in which Luling was sent to the orphanage was very cruel. (page 234) Her whole world crumbles at that moment.

Yet it is here that Gaoling comes to the fore, especially when she defies her family and keeps contact with Luling. And Gaoling’s rejection of her addicted husband, Fu Nan, and her subsequent marriage to the American, Edmund Young, shows that she is quite strong in her own right.  But Luling is the one made of stronger stuff and able to arise above the worst that life can throw at her.

When she finds herself in Hong Kong she never gives up hope, despite her desperate circumstances. Her brushes with Gaoling’s husband who harasses her for money, and the awful jobs she has, until she eventually realises her dreams and moves to America never see her give up hope.

However the ghosts never leave Luling throughout her life, and the feeling of guilt haunts her to the full. Unbeknowingly Ruth fans this paranoia. Yet as Ruth later discovers, some of the information that she fed to Luling by ‘communing with Precious Auntie’ was actually used in the successful buying and selling of shares, making Luling a fairly wealthy woman.

And the final revelation that gives Ruth’s Grandmother a family name, is very telling – it explains Precious Auntie’s background so beautifully, but for those who haven’t read it, I will not spoil the story by the telling of it.

Possibly my favourite character in the book was Mr. Tang, the translator. Even though he only occupies a small part of the story, he is a very likeable character. He falls in love with Luling before he even meets her, and despite her dementia he takes her on outings and cares for her in a very special way. Having translated her diaries he loves everything about her as he knows the real Luling. (Page 312)

There is so much I have not shared with you, but as I said, this is a complex book. I honestly feel that I cannot do this book justice, I was foolhardy to try. I just hope I have given you enough impetus to read it again if you have read it before, and to pick it up and delve into it if you have not done so to date.

(Bespreek deur Margie Wilson)

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