Amy Tan had fervidly hoped to publish her fifth novel this fall, but fate would not allow it. Tan, who exploded onto the world literary stage with The Joy Luck Club in 1989, had just returned from a four-month worldwide tour in June 2001 promoting her fourth best-selling novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, when she knew something was very, very wrong. She was plagued by insomnia and an overwhelming sense of dread. Her body shook from an internal vibration she came to refer to as "Dolby Digital Syndrome." She could not read, write or follow the thread of dinner conversations.
Doctors ultimately diagnosed and removed a tumor on her adrenal gland. Her Dolby buzz subsided, only to be replaced by full-blown hallucinations, once a week at first, eventually every day. Some days, she couldn’t remember her own phone number or even her name.
That’s when fate, or something like it, took an unlikely form: Madonna.
In November 2002, Tan was scheduled to debut a new musical number, "Material Girl," with The Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-author rock band that includes Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Barry, among others. The Remainders previously had used Tan’s limited vocal abilities to comedic effect on the Nancy Sinatra chestnut, "These Boots Were Made for Walkin’," with the diminutive Tan decked out in full dominatrix garb. In her new spotlight turn, she planned to one-up Madonna in the guise of a money-grubbing Enron wife.
After 13 hours of study, she could not remember even the first line of the song. Her band mates downplayed it—hey, everybody has their "half-heimers" episodes—and she eventually read her way through the number onstage.
"That was a really scary moment," she admits by phone from her San Francisco home. "I knew there was something desperately wrong with my brain right then, that realization that you know it’s Alzheimer’s or you’re losing your mind or you’re going to be a dimwit."
In fact, Tan had unknowingly contracted Lyme disease, the degenerative tick-born illness, three years earlier, shortly before her mother’s death.
Its effects have been devastating on Tan’s ability to distill her life experiences into the funny, moving portraits of mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese-American experience for which she is known worldwide. She has learned how to move her story ahead on the good days and resist tinkering with every sentence the way she still loves to do.
"What I feel I have to do now, when my mind is clear, is just get the story out, the continuity, because that’s what I find very, very difficult on days when my brain is clogged, which comes from brain inflammation," she says. "I have a hard time with continuity, with segues and keeping pieces together. It feels like I have 12 pieces of fruit and vegetables being thrown in the air and trying to juggle them all. It’s overwhelming."
When it was clear that no novel would be forthcoming this year, Tan’s editor suggested publishing a collection of pieces she’d already written. To the author’s surprise, a search turned up numerous essays, speeches and the like.
The problem was, Tan has a strong distaste for "hodge-podge collections" that have no unifying theme. But as fate would have it, she had just recently recognized the common thread running through her own work.
"It has to do with my upbringing with a father who very strongly believed in faith as a Baptist minister, and my mother, who very strongly believed in fate, and I’m trying to find things that work for me."
She proposed a collection based upon her lifelong search for a philosophical middle ground between faith and fate, to be called The Opposite of Fate. When her puzzled editor asked her what the opposite of fate might be, Tan cryptically replied, "Exactly!"
The Opposite of Fate captures a life fully lived in 32 chapters, from Tan’s award-winning essay at age 8 to her unlikely adolescence in Switzerland (her first day on skis, she almost collided with the Queen of Sweden) to the ghost in her San Francisco condo who whistles the theme to Jeopardy to the filming of The Joy Luck Club and Tan’s amusement at encountering the Cliff Notes edition of her first novel.
Pivotal in Tan’s life and career were her mother, a complex, neurotic pessimist who believed in ghosts and spirits; her father and brother, who died within months of each other from brain tumors; the death of a close friend whose voice spoke to her for months after his murder, and the Remainders, who showed her how to boogie.
Tan calls The Opposite of Fate "a book of musings" rather than an actual memoir. That designation is a fair compromise to describe this loose and rambling autobiography that is weighted heavily toward the things that matter most to Tan.
"I’ve only had one life and these are the aspects of my life that I continue to dwell upon," she explains. "We as writers, when we talk about what our oeuvre is, we go back to the same questions and the same pivotal moments in our lives and they become the themes in our writing."
Tan doesn’t blame her illness on fate, despite her mother’s daily warnings of a curse on the family, but she does allow that such a curse did exist "because my mother strongly believed in it and she passed it on to my brother and me."
An equally strong belief in free will and self-determinism that she inherited from her father helped Tan "take that attitude of a curse into one of extreme good luck. I have been so incredibly lucky in life, beyond what I ever would have wished."
These days, Tan is wishing for more clear days. They will find her racing ahead with her uplifting stories of family foibles and the precarious yin-yang of the Chinese-American experience, or perhaps skiing down the gentle slopes of Squaw Valley and Vail.
This month, she plans to be back on stage with the Remainders in Austin, Texas, knee-high boots and leather whip at the ready, to show that Texas Book Fair crowd just what this literary dominatrix is made of.
Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Mississippi.