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A Must-See at Buffalo's Babel Series

(photo by Michael Childers)

Novelist Amy Tan comes to Kleinhans this Friday

On Friday, November 22, Amy Tan will come to Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s BABEL series. Tan has been all over the news recently, popping up everywhere from CBS This Morning and NPR’s On Point to reviews in nearly every major newspaper for her new book, The Valley of Amazement.

This evocative novel offers an intriguing glimpse into the history of courtesan culture in pre-World War I Shanghai China. The protagonist, Violet Minturn, is a “Eurasian” girl—half-Chinese and half-American—whose privileged upbringing crumbles with the end of the Ching dynasty. A sexier tale than any of Tan’s previous novels, The Valley of Amazement still fits properly in Tan’s canon with its emblematic themes: mother/daughter drama; cultural identity; family history; and the tensions between tradition and modernity. These themes formed the backbone of Tan’s first novel and the book that BABEL readers have been returning to in anticipation of Tan’s visit, The Joy Luck Club (1989).

Rediscovering this book more than twenty years after my initial reading, I was shocked to realize not only how timeless it remains but also how moving I found the interwoven tales. As much as I vaguely remembered the various plot lines of the four mothers and four daughters, it is stunning to see how vividly the voices of these eight women emerge as distinct portraits of love and loss. Each with her own secrets and sorrow. Each one finding the strength to survive.

This time, I notice seemingly trivial details and realize their thematic significance. Take, for example, that the very first mother’s story begins while she is unraveling an unwanted ski sweater to salvage the yarn for another project. This metaphorical storytelling or “yarn spinning,” this unraveling of the past in the hope of creating something new, encapsulates the mother’s hope for her daughter. “Can you see this?” the mother asks as she talks, “can you see it?” And, of course, this question is simultaneously posed to the reader.

The deeper I delved, the more I discovered that this question—can you see it—was crucial to the entire book; nearly every story revolves around something seen or not seen, the visible and the invisible. The chess champion who loses the ability to see her next move; the sister who watches her brother fall into the sea; the oppressed bride who sees her chance for escape; the mother haunted by the sight of the baby born with open eyes but no brain. One daughter’s story involves her seeing terrible things “with my Chinese eyes, the part of me I got from my mother.” More than 100 pages later, her mother’s voice recounts, “When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small old lady. That is because she sees only with her outside eyes.” In another chapter, a mother and daughter are staring at their reflections in a mirror, observing similarities as much as differences.

Perhaps this moment of revelation is what makes the novel so moving: just as each mother and daughter come to see each other in a new light or begin to view themselves differently, so too, as readers, we can’t help but glimpse our own lives, our own heartbreak and happiness, in each of these stories.

Whether you’re an avid fan or you’ve never read one page, Amy Tan’s presentation at BABEL will surely be something to see. For more information about Just Buffalo’s BABEL series or to reserve tickets, call 716-832-5400 or visit

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