A chat with Amy

Amy Tan is known for her wicked humor and slashing wit, but there’s something deadly serious about her latest comedy, Saving Fish From Drowning. Imagine if Geoffrey Chaucer’s merry travelers went to Burma during the present day on an art-appreciation tour, and you’ll get an idea for why this novel’s humor has a bitter backwash.

Chaucer’s roving cast members each got to tell their own tale. Tan’s find themselves at the mercy of smart-mouthed socialite Bibi Chen, who dies mysteriously in the first few pages and then narrates from beyond the grave. Her absence is sorely felt on the tour. Being rich, white and entirely unfamiliar with the culture into which they have dunked themselves headfirst, Tan’s cast members make a number of errors. They insult the food, they take Christmas lunch in a Buddhist country, and a celebrity dog trainer in their numbers urinates on a sacred shrine.

Speaking from her Manhattan loft, where she was flanked by her two Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lily, Tan explained why she decided to turn this tale of innocents abroad into a surreal riff on modern media—and why humor is a novelist’s most powerful weapon.

John Freeman: This book begins with a news story about Bibi Chen—but she’s not real, right?

Amy Tan: No, but you’d be surprised how many people believed that part of the book. One of my friends was convinced he’d actually met her. Why would anyone believe me? I’m a fiction writer! I make things up.

So what’s the point of including the prologue about you having known Bibi in San Francisco?

I was interested in what happened when you looked at something that had the appearance of authority, like a note to the reader; you automatically assume it’s the truth.

In your novel, the American travelers are kidnapped in Burma by Karen tribesmen and begin to see some of the effects of this repressive regime. But helping the Karens is not so simple. Why?

Because what works in one country doesn’t always work in another. Shaming a nation into action doesn’t always work. During the time after Tiananmen Square, people thought I should go to China, stand on the square and denounce the Chinese government. And I just wasn’t sure that would be effective. That would be me asserting my American rights to say anything, but does it really help people who are suffering?

In Saving Fish from Drowning, the people who use the media to speak out inadvertently spread propaganda. Have you ever seen a similar backfire?

I went to China several years ago after the BBC aired a documentary called The Dying Rooms, which showed secret footage of babies dying in orphanages. Of course, in response to that show, the Chinese government shut the orphanages to Western observers, stopped doing cleft-palate surgeries and refused money given to them. And I thought to myself, “Did that save any lives?”

This book is narrated from beyond the grave by Bibi Chen, who is hilarious and mean and somehow familiar—was she inspired by anyone?

Bibi Chen is based on my mother’s voice. My mother passed away in 1999, and I was really sad not to have her there as my cohort in fiction.

She certainly carries it through—all the way to the bitter end. Did you ever expect to be laughing about this material?

The wonderful thing about fiction is it’s subversive: You can get people into a very repugnant situation through fiction—and comedy is one way to get people to let their defenses down.