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Amy Tan reflects on her new nonfiction book. ‘Birds were fun ... fiction writing is torment.’

The ‘Joy Luck Club’ author talks about her obsession with birds in her backyard and what it means to write a book that isn’t about Chinese culture.

Amy Tan, pictured here in a park near Harvard Square, was recently in Cambridge on a book tour for her latest work, "The Backyard Bird Chronicles."Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

For Chinese Americans of a certain generation, Amy Tan’s debut novel “The Joy Luck Club” in 1989 was revelatory.

I was about 18 years old when I first read Tan’s intricate intergenerational storytelling of Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. I felt seen for the first time as an ABC (American-born Chinese) growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, where my immigrant parents decided to settle. Like the characters in Tan’s books, my parents and their friends would play mahjong and trade stories of their lives before they came to America.

Tan went on to write many other novels about her Chinese heritage, but her latest book marks a departure in topic and format. Reading “The Backyard Bird Chronicles” — No. 1 this week on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list — is like peering into Tan’s private journal and sketchbook about the birds she has observed from her home outside of San Francisco.


While on a book tour in Cambridge, Tan recorded an episode of my Globe Opinion podcast, “Say More.” Listen at globe.com/saymore and wherever you find your podcasts.

We talked about her obsession with birds, how nature journaling is different from fiction writing, and whether she considers herself an Asian American author or just a writer.

Here is a condensed transcript of our conversation.

Leung: This book came about after you took a nature journaling class. What inspired you to take that class?

Tan: It was around 2016 during the election campaigns, and there was a lot of racism that was now becoming more overt. I felt it was also directed more to Asians. It started making me feel the world was full of hatred. I needed to find a place of beauty again. I would go back to nature, and I would fulfill a promise I made to myself a while ago that I would take up drawing when I was retired. So it was around that time I could just do nature journaling, which is a combination of observing, taking notes, and drawing what you see.


Leung: Through this class, you realized that watching and writing birds is about being curious, right?

Tan: The whole intent of being a nature journalist is to be curious and to ask questions and wonder, and be stunned by what you’re seeing, and then want to know more.

The teacher I had, he said, “When you look at a bird, don’t just start drawing what you think the bird looks like because that’s probably not how it looks like. Imagine yourself feeling the bird, feel the life force of the bird.”

The first time that [a bird] looked me directly in the eye and just stayed there, I felt that I’d been acknowledged as being part of the habitat. That was a thrilling experience.

Leung: Did you find nature journaling different from fiction writing?

Tan: It was just fun. As you said, it was like reading my diary or my journal.

Leung: Wait, fiction writing isn’t fun for you?

Tan: Fiction writing is torment! But fiction writing is so deeply satisfying. You throw pages away, you’re muddled, something finally clears, and you write something that is so true. It’s the greatest high I could ever feel.

Birds were fun. I discovered later that the things that I was discovering about them and writing about them was very similar to writing fiction, because you get to this point where you see the pattern, you see what’s unfolding, and you write it down.


Amy Tan's "The Backyard Book Chronicles" is a nature journal containing observations and sketches of the birds in her Sausalito backyard.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Leung: I just remember that was a really powerful moment for me to have the “Joy Luck Club” come out. It was the first time I felt seen. You were a true trailblazer, and there are a lot of us now — many Asian American writers and creatives. This bird book – it’s your first book that’s not about Chinese culture.

Tan: I never think of my books as being about Chinese culture. It’s just about life — what I think about and what I know, and happens to be the culture I grew up in, but it’s also American culture. [People] say it’s about mother-daughter relationships, or immigrants or about Chinese culture versus American. I’m just simply writing a story. Like everybody, you take details, images that reflect what you’ve gone through in your past.

Leung: Do you think of yourself as an Asian American author or just a writer?

Tan: Both in a way. The Asian American umbrella term reflects often the things that I do collectively with groups of Asians. The Asians could be Japanese, Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Filipino. Specifically my race is Chinese, so I have to make these distinctions. Who am I in terms of a writer? I’m an American writer.


I always like to stress that point because in the beginning they did put me in a section called ethnic writing or Asian American writing, as if I don’t quite belong. You’re not part of the overall canon of literature. You’re always going to be segregated.

It’s very important — just like when we talk about people who come from other countries who have their citizenship or they were born in this country, but their race may be different — they’re still Americans. To keep referring to somebody as ”Chinese American” or ”Lebanese American” — it creates a barrier of some kind. I definitely would say I am Chinese in my race. I’m Chinese American in my cultural upbringing. And then when I work on community activities, I’m Asian American.

Globe columnist and "Say More" podcast host Shirley Leung, right, takes a selfie with Amy Tan in Cambridge. The "Joy Luck Club" author has a new nonfiction book featuring her writing and drawings of birds in her backyard. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Leung: You still feel very connected to your mom. So what would she think of your bird project, and where you are now since first publishing “The Joy Luck Club”?

Tan: She would be very happy that I’m finding a lot of peace within myself. That I can go into a place that’s beautiful and peaceful because she had a hard time finding peace. She could have really appreciated something like that. [My parents] worked, both of them, seven days a week. The only vacations we had were to go to Disneyland — both times, when I was 6 and when I was 12. So for her to have been able to enjoy being outdoors, I think she would have loved it. She was obsessive. She could have really gotten into it.


Anna Kusmer of the Globe staff contributed to this article.

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.