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Interview Highlights: Author Amy Tan Explores Courtesan Culture & Her Grandmother's Past

Amy Tan

Human trafficking and the sex trades are modern-day tragedies, but writer Amy Tan finds tragedy, as well as hope and redemption, in the upscale brothels of early 20th Century Shanghai. 

Her recent novel, The Valley of Amazement, tells the stories of a mother Lulu and daughter Violet and their places in Shanghai's courtesan culture. Lulu, an American living in China, runs an exclusive courtesan house, catering to the elite of Shanghai society. But a hidden part of her past lures her back to the United States, and results in the betrayal of her daughter, who suddenly finds herself a courtesan herself.  Soon after, Violet's downhill spiral begins. But though her life becomes progressively bleak, Violet gains resilience as she tries to extricate herself from her difficult circumstances.
For Tan, the material strikes somewhat close to home, as she was inspired by a historical photo that got her to reconsider her grandmother's real life in Shanghai.

Author Amy Tan's latest book

Highlights from the Lake Effect interview:
On how women became courtesans:
"What happened to a lot of these courtesans, some of them came from very well-to-do families, and the families lost all their wealth. What could they do? (They) lost the husband, had no support. Or they were kidnapped, girls who were kidnapped. Or their mothers were always courtesans."

On how these women handled being courtesans:

"These are women who found themselves thrown into a different situation suddenly. Their circumstances have changed, their lives have turned, and how would they have to remake themselves? What parts of them would always remain themselves? What is their character? Who are they? That is the question I have of my grandmother."

On courtesans being at the intersection of Shanghai and Western culture:

"What I found out was they were very influential in bringing Western culture into Shanghai, making at least furniture and food and things like that acceptable, and I could only imagine that they would possibly bridge the gap in other ways in business."

On the difference between a courtesan and being in the sex trade:

"They were courtesans who had freedoms after a while. They could get up when they wanted, design their own clothes, go out in public, ride in carriages, create themselves as seductresses and become businesswomen, negotiators. Whereas sex slaves, these little girls, nine-years-old, had to turn 20 tricks a day."

Amy Tan’s latest novel The Valley of Amazement was recently included on the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2013.  She was in Milwaukee recently for an event at Alverno College, and to visit her sister, who lives just west of town.