It all started with a single photo. Amy Tan was flipping through an old family photo album when she came across a picture of her grandmother she hadn’t noticed before. “She was wearing a tight jacket, pants and a headband,” Tan remembers. Having read a book about Shanghai in the early 1900s, Tan recognized the garb as the uniform for courtesans, prostitutes with high-society clients. “Of course I was taken back by what this meant about my grandmother, and I became very obsessed with the notion that she might have been a courtesan,” Tan says.
The book is not based on Tan’s grandmother, but it did set the stage for her latest novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” a story about an American woman and her daughter, who becomes a courtesan during the overthrow of the Ching dynasty.
Similar to Tan’s book, “The Joy Luck Club,” the mother-daughter relationship is a strong theme in her new novel. In the book, the mother betrays her daughter, Violet, by leaving her behind. This abandonment leaves her mark on Violet, who thirsts for an enduring type of love and is not able to fully forgive her mother. “I know what [this feels like] because it happened to my sisters,” Tan says. “They were left behind by my mother when she came to the U.S., and although they longed for her and loved her, they never quite forgave her.”
Violet’s coming-of-age story is made more complicated when she discovers that she’s half American and half Chinese. The book takes place in the international settlement in Shanghai, which is where wealthy Westerners were housed. “During this time period, Chinese people were invisible. Nobody would ever consider making friends with a Chinese person,” Tan says. For Violet to learn she is biracial alienates her from both American privilege and Chinese community. For this part of the story, Tan again was inspired by her ancestors. “Both on my mother’s side and my father’s side there were family members who engaged with English-speaking translators,” she says.
“The Valley of Amazement” is Tan’s raciest book yet – she had never written a sex scene until penning this book. “I avoided including it, but my editor told me, ‘This takes place in a courtesan house. You have to have sex.’" Tan put a lot of research into her sex scene, scouring academic books about courtesan houses during this time period. “Wives actually used to visit courtesan houses and pay money to learn what courtesans did with their husbands, so you knew something special was happening there,” she says.
But more than sex, family and self-identity, the book is about betrayal and the age-old question of whether love can really conquer all. “Enduring love can come from a mother, lover, husband or child, but it’s about the search for that type of love and what it means,” Tan says.