Amy Tan's latest novel, Saving Fish from Drowning (Putnam, hardcover, $26.95), pulls a fast one on readers. It begins with a story about how Tan was inspired by a real-life San Francisco socialite named Bibi Chen. Then it asks us to believe her latest novel is narrated by Chen from beyond the grave. Only gradually will readers realize that there was no Bibi Chen.
Tan remains unapologetic about this gambit. It was, after all, invented by one of the novel's founding fathers—Daniel Defoe, in Robinson Crusoe.
"Why would anyone believe me," asks the 53-year-old novelist. "I'm a fiction writer! I make things up."
Indeed she does. Since debuting in 1989 with The Joy Luck Club, Tan has published three additional novels, two children's books and a collection of essays, and advised on a hit children's series, Sagwa the Siamese Chinese Cat.
Recently, Tan began to question how faithfully people trust what is presented as true. "I was interested in what happened when you looked at something that had the appearance of authority," says the author. "Like a note to the reader, you automatically assume it's the truth."
In this sense, to read Saving Fish from Drowning is like entering a funhouse filled with mirrors where everything is upside down and backwards, where what's true is false, and what's false is true. Or maybe not.
Unfolding in Bibi's cranky, if amused register, the book describes that misbegotten holiday taken by 12 wealthy, art-loving San Franciscan friends to the country of Burma, or Myanmar, as the military dictatorship that took over in 1990 calls it.
A careful reader won't have to look hard to find a nod to Geoffrey Chaucer here, and they'd be right to find it. "I started outlining the story an hour after I finished writing The Bonesetter's Daughter," says Tan, "and imagined a Canterbury Tales goes to Burma."
But the similarities end there, for Chaucer's travelers did not find themselves quite as lost in translation as do Tan's Americans. Mostly rich, mostly white and entirely unfamiliar with the culture into which they have dunked themselves headfirst, they make a number of errors. The whopper of them all involves a celebrity dog trainer urinating on a sacred shrine.
Bibi Chen looks down on this debacle with a bemused and often lashing humor. She critiques the décor of their hotel and ridicules her friends for being so tacky as to have a Christmas lunch in a Buddhist country.
"She is definitely the voice of my mother," says Tan, whose mother died in 1999 from Alzheimer's, after figuring prominently in Tan's previous novels, such as The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter's Daughter.
It was the beginning of a very hard time for Tan. That same year she came down with Lyme disease. First it attacked her body, and then it attacked her brain—leading to hallucinations and trances.
It was a big setback for a writer who came to penning fiction almost as a form of therapy. Tan had been working 90 hours a week as a technical writer for IBM in the '80s when an agent encouraged her to turn what was one story into a book. That book became The Joy Luck Club.
The novel spent nine months on the bestseller list, sold over 4 million copies, inspired a critically acclaimed movie by Wayne Wang and kicked off a career that would be any writer's dream. Until Tan became ill.
Saving Fish from Drowning was begun in the aftermath of getting better, when Tan was "just happy to be able to write at all," she says. "I knew from the beginning it would be a comedy."
Humor and the topic of Burma do not often go together, but Tan felt an obligation to slip readers in the backdoor. "The wonderful thing about fiction is it's subversive: You can get people into a very repugnant situation through fiction—and comedy is one way to get people to let their defenses down.
"The sad thing about Burma is that some of the most absurd things are the real stuff. You have a military regime which is called SLORC. Doesn't that sound James Bondian? It's State Law Order and Restoration Council. I think someone finally said, 'You know, it's not a very good name.' So they hired a Washington, DC-based PR firm, and revamped their image, renamed them. It was ludicrous."
Tan captures some of this absurdity in her book by having her merry travelers get kidnapped by a group of Burmese tribesmen who believe that one of the tourists—a teenager who reads Stephen King and performs card tricks—is the Young White Brother, a man fabled to save them.
Harry, the aforementioned urinating dog trainer, is left behind and helps ignite a media frenzy to rescue the kidnapped Americans. Little does he know he is actually helping the military regime spread propaganda, via a global news network called the GNN.
"I wanted to play with the idea that the news makes it happen," says Tan, explaining why she felt compelled to have her trip of innocents abroad evolve into a media circus.
As a powerful Chinese-American with an enormous audience, Tan is frequently asked to speak about issues, to use her platform in the media as a way to call attention to injustices in Asia. "During the time after Tiananmen Square, people thought I should go to China, stand on the square and denounce the Chinese government. And I just wasn't sure that would be effective. That would be me asserting my American rights to say anything, but does it really help people who are suffering?
"So my bottom line now is: How would it help people if I do something, and how would it hurt them."
Tan became intimately acquainted with this equation when she went to China several years ago after BBC aired a documentary called "The Dying Room," which showed secret footage of babies dying in orphanages. In response, the Chinese government shut the orphanages to Western observers, stopped doing cleft-palate surgeries and refused money given to them.
"And I thought to myself," says Tan now, "did that save any lives?"
In the novel, the kidnapped travelers, who Tan depicts as bumbling but basically good people, experience this dilemma firsthand when they witness some of the repression of the Myanmar government.
Naturally, they become convinced they must speak out. Doing so, however, means risking tipping off the government to the exact location of the tribesman. Tan sees this dilemma as part of everyone's lives, not just Westerners. For instance, the title refers to how Buddhists allow themselves to catch and kill fish.
"They scoop up the fish and bring them to shore," explains a man in the novel to one of the tourists. "They say they are saving the fish from drowning. Unfortunately, they do not recover."
Tan hopes her new novel might help put this unfortunate country on people's radar again. "This is a country that has been largely forgotten by people since the name was changed, and it would be nice for people to remember it. Burma has some of the worst cases of human rights abuse."
In the meantime, Tan is going to keep writing and entertaining. She's going to finish the opera she is working on. Of course, she also wants to continue to help out with charities where she has some hope of making a difference.
For instance, she recently helped Dave Eggers by lending her name to an event at his 826 writing lab in San Francisco. In return for canceling her plans one night to attend a gala event, Eggers sent her a list of what he would do, from cut her grass to fetch her coffee. Tan simply asked for his first born.
"I said, if it's a boy, I don't care, if it's a girl, I want her to be Amy Tan Vida Eggers."
Tan cackles for a bit, and only then does it become clear she's joking.