Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir

Image of Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir
Release Date: 
October 16, 2017
Reviewed by: 

“a gift that feeds those who wish to sing and long to write.”

This is a book one keeps nearby after reading. It’s a guidebook for anyone interested in writing a memoir as well as a “literary atlas” for readers who follow and admire the work of Amy Tan and would like a map that charts her imagination.

The bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club (published in 1989) has divided her new book into six sections. In each she reveals things about herself as well as her family that can at times be compared to small cuts on human flesh. Tan opens her family bins filled with memorabilia, letters and photos and shares them with the reader. She is aware that many of these items are only as accurate as one might remember them. Many of the things she examine provides a context and explanation into her fiction. 

Where the Past Begins touches the heart’s core when Tan writes about her brother and father who died several months apart from brain tumors. Her relationship with her suicidal mother is at time almost too sad to read.

Tan’s memoir examines Chinese history and culture when she writes about her parents. She mentions how “the process of writing is the painful recovery of things that are lost.” What is not lost however is how Tan can explain how she writes, how she listens to music, and how her mind works. Once diagnosed with epilepsy, Tan’s willingness to share this personal information and so much more results in a memoir that is emotionally moving as well as beautiful.

How does one return to one’s origins? This is the question asked by Tan. As she pieces together pieces of memory she is aware that the writer can become an “unreliable narrator” when trying to speak for the dead. She concludes that the past is connected to the present and is a continuous evolution of who people become.

Tan’s search for meaning and to show compassion led to her writing stories. This memoir Where the Past Begins is a book that will further push her career into starlight. Her desire to shed light on her life insures our own ability to see.

The only thing that might temporarily blind the reader is Tan’s decision to include correspondence with her editor Daniel Halpern between 2011 and 2013. These pages in Chapter 10 are as chatty as someone talking in movie theater while the lights are still on. Tan is correct in one note to Halpern when she writes:

“Books are never done. They’re merely jerked out of your hands by the publisher.”

Where the Past Begins ends with hummingbirds flying past Tan’s office window, a reminder that she, too, is the author of a wonderful birdsong. This book is a gift that feeds those who wish to sing and long to write.