Born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. At age 15, she lost her older brother and father to brain tumors. After this tragedy, her mother, fearing a curse, impulsively took Amy and her younger brother to Europe to see the world. After several missteps, the three wanderers settled in Montreux, Switzerland, where Amy fell in love, nearly eloped, played an unwitting role in the drug bust of friends, and still managed to graduate from high school one year early.
She attended Linfield College, San Jose City College, San Jose State University, University of California at Santa Cruz, and University of California at Berkeley. She received a B.A. with a double major in English and Linguistics, followed by an M.A. in Linguistics. She worked as a language development specialist for county-wide programs serving developmentally disabled children, birth to five, and later became director for a demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to mainstream multicultural children with developmental disabilities into early childhood programs. In 1983, she became a freelance business writer, working with telecommunications companies, including IBM and AT&T.
In 1985, Amy Tan began writing fiction as an incentive to cut back on her heavy freelance workload. She attended her first workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and then joined a writers group led by writer and creative writing teacher Molly Giles. Her first story was published in 1986 in a small literary magazine, FM Five; it was reprinted in Seventeen and Grazia. In 1987, she went to China for the first time, accompanied by her mother. When she returned home, she learned that she had received three offers for a book of short stories, of which only three had been written. The resulting book, The Joy Luck Club (1989), was hailed as a novel and became a surprise bestseller, spending over forty weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Her other novels are The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), Saving Fish from Drowning (2005), and The Valley of Amazement (2013), all New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of two memoirs, The Opposite of Fate (2003) and Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination (2017), and two children’s books, The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994) as well as numerous articles for magazines. Her work has been translated into 35 languages. She is currently at work on a novel, “The Memory of Desire.”
Amy Tan served as co-producer and co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, for which they received WGA and BAFTA nominations. She was the Creative Consultant for Sagwa, an Emmy-winning PBS television series for children, which aired worldwide. Amy Tan also wrote the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which had its world premiere with the San Francisco Opera in September 2008. She appeared as herself in the animated series The Simpsons and on Sesame Street, and narrated the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of the original score for Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat by composer Nathan Wang.
She was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the International Orange Prize (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and has won many awards including the Commonwealth Gold Award.
Tan has served as lead rhythm “dominatrix,” backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. Their gigs have raised over a million dollars for literacy programs. To honor her support of zoological field research, her name was given to a newly discovered species of terrestrial leeches, Chtonobdela tanae, the first soft-bodied microscopic organism to be identified using a new method of computed tomography. In keeping with her love of science and childhood love of doodling, she recently took up nature journal sketching. Amy Tan lives with her husband and their two dogs in California and New York.