I was aware of Amy Tan through her books like The Joy Luck Club, but I had never seen her or heard her speak before. I was impressed with this twenty-two-minute presentation for TED, in which she spoke about her life history and how her experiences prepared her for a career in creativity. She was articulate, wryly funny and thought-provoking.
Tan’s humor is vividly on display in the following biographical essay from her website:
Main Entry: my·thol·o·gy
Inflected Form(s): plural -gies
Etymology: French or Late Latin; French mythologie, from Late Latin mythologia interpretation of myths, from Greek, legend, myth, from mythologein to relate myths, from mythos + logos
1 : an allegorical narrative
2 : a body of myths : as a : the myths dealing with the gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people b : MYTHOS 2 3 : a branch of knowledge that deals with myth
4 : a popular belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something
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 online 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.”
Most often I am aware of the mistakes when I am receiving other honors having to do with being Asian American or a writer or Chinese or an alumna of one of the colleges I attended. There I learn of all the other prizes I have supposedly won, among them, the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Time Book Prize, and the Pulitzer. I was indeed nominated for the first two, so a little exaggeration there is understandable, but the Pulitzer reference is a fluke from the web, and one that keeps replicating like a virus. It’s embarrassing to start my acceptance speeches with a list of errata, which then seems to only show how truly unworthy I am to be standing before the podium holding the engraved crystal statue.
Some of the mistakes are maddening, like the Los Angeles Times piece that came out in 2000, which I did not read, but which a friend felt it his duty to read aloud to me for my own edification; it described me as having a big smile that displayed teeth discolored by my nicotine habit. Obviously, the reporter must have looked up that old Salon interview in which I was surreptitiously smoking on my terrace and asked the reporter to please not mention this. Whatever the source, I never realized my teeth looked that bad, and if they are indeed discolored enough to be worth mentioning, I must make it known that it is not due to cigarettes. I am proud of the fact that I gave up smoking for good in 1995, and since then I have actually brushed my teeth from time to time and have gone for routine professional teeth cleaning every six months.
Inaccuracy, I fear, has become epidemic among publications whose writers rely upon the Internet for research. For there, all past interviews and articles survive and even thrive, as if they were fresh off the press, perpetually part of today’s news. Thus, an interview that had been done in 1989 said I had been married for fifteen years. A reporter, who obviously used this interview as background, reported in 1996 that I had been married for fifteen years. Some reporters in wishing to differentiate between the first fifteen years and the last have referred to Lou as my “current husband.”
Having a twenty-year-old photograph run with the articles also causes me consternation. I have had p.r. people at events refuse to take me to the green room before my event, as I requested, only to have them later rush up to me and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were the Amy Tan. I was looking for someone else.” Read between the lines.
I did a bit of sleuthing the other day to see who exactly is this Amy Tan who looks perpetually the same as in 1989, has been married to multiple husbands but for the same number of years, and has won all the literary prizes on earth. I found her lurking in at least one den of iniquity. This website opened with the following come-on:
“Do you need a quality paper on Amy Tan today, tomorrow, next week, or next month?
Since 1997, our experts on Amy Tan have helped students worldwide by providing the best, lowest-priced writing service on the Internet. If you’ve waited too long to start your paper on Amy Tan, or have more writing than you can handle, we can help. Our staff of over 200 professional writers located around the world has produced thousands of college term papers, essays, research papers, dissertations, theses, and book reports on all topics involving Amy Tan. These excellent papers are available to you instantly for only $25.99 each.”
How dismal to think I can be instantly summed up for only $25.99. They could not possibly be correct. After all, I did pay one psychiatrist $200 for fifty minutes sessions for six months, and he never offered a clue. Actually, he fell asleep during three sessions, so I quit, perhaps too soon.
For years, I have felt stymied by my alternative reality. It created a new kind of existential angst. Who was I really if not what all these articles say I am? If the Internet and its share of misinformation went on in perpetuity, then I, too, would live on in immortal muddle. The real me would become lost to misstatements of fact.
Then I realized I could use the same methods by which the errata grew to quash them, all 48,291 hits. I decided to write this piece, the one right before your very eyes. This piece would then become part of the Internet Archives Used by Reporters, and thus I would at least have recorded my rebuttal for posterity.
So herewith are the facts, as put forth by the ultimate expert, Amy Tan, and you don’t have to pay $25.95 to get the scoop on what in her life is only a mistake.
Erratum 1: Tan’s works do not include The Year of No Flood, 1995. That was a chapter in her novel The Hundred Secret Senses. At one time, Tan 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.
Erratum 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.
Erratum 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 and she has always wished she could write poetry let alone teach it. Along those same lines, Tan 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, that was Molly Giles who was the leader. She has red hair. Tan 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.
Erratum 4: Tan never worked in a factory alongside a certain person who was your best friend, not in this life or in a past life that she can remember. Among Tan’s early jobs, she worked as a switchboard operator at her high school, as a carhop for A&W Root Beer, and at Round Table Pizza, slinging pizzas.
Erratum 5: Tan has never lived in a mansion in the multimillionaired hills of Hillsborough, 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 Tan in for free; the political candidate lost. As to where Tan lives, that would be a more modest condominium in San Francisco, a town which has some pretty nice hills itself and a mix of billionaires and poor, both of whom the political candidates profess to have in their camp.
Erratum 6: Tan’s condominium is not the top floor of a former mansion. Her building was constructed in 1916 as apartments. Her unit, is on the third and fourth floor, the fourth being a former attic. Tan, no spring chicken having been born in 1952 (to determine accurate age, take today’s year and subtract 1952), now wishes she had an elevator.
Erratum 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. Tan claims her publisher and she 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. But most times, Tan lets her publishers win. They pay the bill.
Erratum 8: With the exception of restaurant bills, Tan has never had a fight with her agent, Sandra Dijkstra, and switched to a new agent. Tan’s agent was the one who encouraged her to write fiction early on. She is like a Jewish mother who badgered Tan week after to week to keep writing. Tan owes her life to her agent for giving her the life of a writer. For that reason, Tan probably also owes her lunch, but Sandy usually pays anyway.
Erratum 9: Lou DeMattei 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. To discover how many total years that is, take today’s year and subtract from it 1970 for togetherness or 1974 for marriage.
Erratum 10: Tan does not have two children, unless you consider, as she does, that her dogs have been her children. In articles about Tan written after 1997, Tan’s cat, Sagwa, should not be referred to as her pet but as her late and dearly beloved kitty. Tan acknowledges she has included children in most of her books, except the one about the cat. Predictably, these children 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, taken them to soccer and swim meets, cried in an emergency room when it turned out they had only stuck beans in their ears, or gone through the cycle of being angry, then worried, then hysterical when they drove off to a forbidden place and then went missing for six hours. Thus, Tan cannot say with real conviction that her dogs are her children.
Erratum 11: Tan does not have yellow skin as depicted in a cartoon version of Amy Tan in The Simpsons. At one time, Tan complained that it was yellow skin depictions like these that make Tan slightly uncomfortable in being called a Writer of Color. Then she noticed nearly all the Simpsons ‘characters are yellow. 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, namely Matt Groening, who is a sweetheart. She once argued with him in public over the lunch bill, but he pushed her credit card aside and said, “Please, let me.”
Erratum 12: Contrary to what is reported in Wikipedia, Tan is no longer the literary editor for West, the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday magazine. The magazine has been defunct for some time. Unlike what is reported in Wikipedia and imbd, among other sources, Tan did not do “an uncredited rewrite on The Replacement Killers at the request of Mira Sorvino.” She has never seen that movie and has never met Mira Sorvino. She also did not win a Grammy, although she did win Most Improved as a member of the garage band The Rock Bottom Remainders.
That’s it for now. I will be adding to this regularly, as needed. Look for installments in 137,000 websites and growing listed by Google for “Amy Tan Joy Luck Club.”
This piece is published in The Opposite of Fate under the title “Persona Errata.” Copyright Amy Tan.
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