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Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination


Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination

Master storyteller Amy Tan’s new memoir, WHERE THE PAST BEGINS, is a gift to readers and writers alike. She brings us along as she riffles through bins of stuff saved and collected, the stuff that holds pieces of us, that guards bits of our history. Through memories and reflections, journal entries, photographs and correspondence, through segments called “Quirks” and “Interludes,” Tan takes us into her mind, her heart --- into her past.

Tan takes her history and unravels it, examines it and weaves it back together into a meaningful understanding of herself and, more broadly, of humanity.

From the first words of the introduction, we are reminded of Tan’s command of story, the poetry of her writing, the joy in her use of metaphor. WHERE THE PAST BEGINS is generous, honest and raw. Tan lays herself out, revealing vulnerabilities and traumas, insecurities and self-doubt, and a wide-open view into her creative spirit and view of the world.

"WHERE THE PAST BEGINS is a must-read for Amy Tan admirers. You’ll feel like you’re with a dear old friend sharing her stories with you in the most personal way. Your heart will touch hers."

This memoir feels like we are joining Tan in digging into old family archives, unfurling documents, photos and clues into her family history. The words are confessions and reflections on her upbringing, relationships and formative years, with the perspective of time. Musings and observations from Tan in her 20s, 40s and 50s are beautifully juxtaposed, displaying the growth of a woman and the shifts that come with age.

Throughout the book, Tan uses the lens of a woman in her 60s as she analyzes what makes her who she is. In the collection of family artifacts, she uncovers mistruths, secrets and twists in the family lore. Tan grew up with a critical mother, and her constant threats of suicide lead her to be vigilant and unsettled. Tan writes, “I am intolerant of people who dangle threats and uncertainty as power…. And yet much of my writing, I realize, is about uncertainty --- the heartbreaking moments when something is not clear, when the situation is changing, when a truth turns into a half-truth and then a lie.”

Tans gives us a glimpse into her creative understandings, impressions and discoveries. She shares the kernels of her life that developed into fiction, her insights into human nature that became the rich cast of characters in her treasured, bestselling stories. She says, “My characters are witness to what I went through.”

As a fan and reader of Tan’s novels, it was a privilege to be invited inside the exploration of her past, her life and the journey of her own continued self-discovery. As a writer, I marveled at how she digs deeper and deeper into her mind, excavating long-buried memories. She takes the reader with her into her study of brain function and using emotions to uncover things not remembered.

In reading, as in life, we search for meaning and commonality. Tan talks about a recurring dream she has of finding an extra room in her house. The details vary, but I have an eerily similar dream that visits me regularly and has for decades. I’ve heard of this same dream from an unusual number of people. Another thread that touched me was from her journal, aged 25, in which she shares a quirk that I could completely understand. She talks about observing a sliver of someone’s life and then extrapolating and inventing things around it. I do this and make myself dizzy with the notion that I’ve witnessed a moment in a stranger’s life, a moment they would assume had gone unnoticed and would never know I shared it, even for a second.

WHERE THE PAST BEGINS is a must-read for Amy Tan admirers. You’ll feel like you’re with a dear old friend sharing her stories with you in the most personal way. Your heart will touch hers. You’ll see the undeniable strength she’s drawn from her traumatic childhood and how she’s extracted her nuanced grasp of human motivation.

Reviewed by Leah DeCesare ( on October 19, 2017

Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination
by Amy Tan

  • Publication Date: October 30, 2018
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062319310
  • ISBN-13: 9780062319319