Memoir Monday: The Brain in Amy Tan’s Memoir

Photo from

In her memoir, Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan tells of brain trauma and its affect on her writing and her life.

Fans of Tan’s fiction will love how she reveals some of the dramatic family stories behind “The Joy Luck Club” and Tan’s other best-selling novels, but the biggest revelation here is what Tan calls her “pinball mind” in all its quirks and reveries. “I hit a pinball it goes off in angles, then I hit it again. It is endless,” she writes.

 Tan is fascinated with the human mind. The brain becomes a focus throughout the book, as it has been throughout her life. When she was 6, her parents launched their campaign for her to become a brain surgeon because “the brain was the most important part of the body, and that’s why brain surgeons were the smartest and the most respected.” When she was 15, Tan’s older brother and father died of brain cancer within five months of each other, throwing her family into chaos.

Her brain has encountered its own chaos, as well — Tan had to relearn how to use language after a car accident left her with a brain injury while she was working toward a doctorate in linguistics (in a program that had already come close to killing her love of words); more recently, Tan has faced seizures and visual hallucinations from brain lesions caused by Lyme disease.

These experiences serve to draw her all the more deeply into research about the brain and creativity, the brain and emotion. As much as she loves this research, however, Tan’s primary guide to understanding how her own writing brain works is her intuition.

Excerpt from SFGate