A combination of photos, voiceovers of Tan’s writing, and recollections of the past, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir looks at the story behind the story: at the life of the writer who’s known as one of the founding members of a Chinese American literary canon.
“Writing was almost like letters to myself,” Tan starts, and it does seem that way even from the very beginning of her story. Fragments of Tan’s memoir, The Joy Luck Club, and her own reflections narratively blend into one another, sometimes leaving it unclear what’s truth and what’s not. While the viewer is always conscious that this is nonfiction, Tan’s literary voice is the strongest throughout.
At one moment, Tan reflects on how growing up, a teacher demeaned her for lacking creativity and imagination. It’s a sad reminder of the racialized associations that are attached to art-making, teachers perpetuating social constructs that imply the arts are a field not meant for Asian children or identity. For Tan, this was an incident in a larger pattern of external and internal insecurities, and she expresses that her mother told her she would only be average-looking in China.
Some parts of the documentary feel like they would be better suited for a short-form journalistic feature about Tan. There are moments that are drawn-out and could be better served as a lyrical op-ed. Transitions where pictures are combined with a precipitating story feel too overt, too put-together and formulaic. Similarly, the structure is a bit passively repetitive at times, moving from Tan’s speech at an event to a series of visual graphics depicting the story in a routine manner.
At the same time, it’s necessary to acknowledge that physical reenactments would feel tasteless given the subject matter that Tan speaks about such as generational trauma. The graphics strengthen the narrative, providing a more abstract way of conceptualizing Tan’s story. Yet the heaviness of the content doesn’t detract from Tan’s wittiness and character.
Unintended Memoir follows a predictable documentary pattern. Its strength, therefore, lies in the subliminal questions about identity that underlie Tan’s storytelling abilities and the response to her authorship. The nature of mother-daughter relationships is explored beautifully with Tan’s reflections on her own mother juxtaposed with film clips from The Joy Luck Club.
One of the most significant parts of Unintended Memoir is when Tan acknowledges the criticism of her work as Orientalist or exotifying Chinese American identity. Instead of merely dismissing Tan as perpetuating stereotypes of fragmented English or foreignness, it should be said that Tan’s writing inspired a whole new generation of Chinese Americans to recognize their own experiences in hers.
This section of Tan’s public reception shows that Tan isn’t meant to provide an all-encompassing definition of “authenticity,” but rather empathy. As evidenced by the group of young Asian girls at the end swooning over Tan at a meet-and-greet, this is especially true for young Asian American writers who are just starting out as storytellers and consciously or not, finding representation. As Tan implies, Chinese Americans should be given the freedom to tell their own stories as they see them. That might mean repeating the influence of certain ideas about Chinese American identity; these ideas should be respected just as much as subverting those ideas.
For decades, Amy Tan has become akin to a myth herself, just as the myth that begins The Joy Luck Club. Unintended Memoir unravels the myths surrounding Tan’s literary voice while giving her the space to express her personal voice. As Tan traverses through the spaces of her past, concretizing them as part of a larger narrative about what it means to be human, she negotiates with family history: the process of understanding who we are through our parents. Here Tan’s narrative becomes the most significant, and it’s where she allows us not only the freedom to dream of myths and legends, but also to write our own.