Amy Tan is famous as the author of The Joy Luck Club and other best selling novels that explore the links between mothers and daughters, China and America, past events and present day consequences. Those same themes reemerge in her latest novel, Saving Fish from Drowning (G. P. Putnam's Sons), but the book takes Ms. Tan in new directions as well. Part ghost story, part mystery, and part travel adventure, the novel is set mostly in Burma, the country renamed Myanmar by its government.
Saving Fish from Drowning revolves around the mishaps of a group of American tourists who set out on what is supposed to be an art tour of China and Burma. Halfway through the story, 11 of the Americans are kidnapped by members of the ethnic Burmese tribe known as the Karen, who have fled the persecution of government soldiers and taken refuge in the jungle.
Amy Tan says the book was inspired by her own trip to Burma, where she too was invited to take an art tour. "I was faced with the difficult question of should I go, because it was a country some people say you should boycott because of the illegal military regime that has been there since 1990," she says. "And other people say you should engage in constructive ways of dealing with the country and be a guiding hand to improving the way they treat people. And other people say you should go there purely for the culture and history and art, and get to know the people of the country. And I had to look at those points of view and raise enough questions to ask the reader what is it we do when we see this kind of suffering."
The novel is narrated by the woman who was supposed to be the group's tour guide, a Chinese American art dealer named Bibi Chen. She dies under mysterious circumstances just before the tour begins, but her ghost goes along on the trip anyway, manipulating events with an invisible hand. Amy Tan says her unconventional narrator gave her another chance to write about her mother, who died in 1999, and who has inspired previous characters in her stories. "When I started thinking about what my next book should be, I was rather sad that I wouldn't be writing stories about my mother who had just passed away, but then --I don't know if it was really my mother -- but I heard this voice say, 'Well, I could be the dead narrator,' so I decided I would use her that way. My mother had such a wonderful, feisty way of looking at the world, an eye that included many different beliefs, a notion of fate and self determination, good luck and bad luck, accidents and bad people, and I got to throw all of that into this book and watch it collide, as it did in our lives when I was growing up."
A lot of humor is thrown into that mix as well. Amy Tan's fictitious tourists are well meaning and well-educated people, but their ignorance of local languages and customs leads to a series of blunders and misunderstandings. "I often feel it's hard to go into very dark, depressing areas, with human rights abuses, and keep a reader there," Ms. Tan says, "so my decision was to make this a comic novel, and let people through the portal of laughter open themselves up to experiencing something else, hopefully compassion, for what's going on in Burma."
One of the novel's greatest comic misunderstandings lies in the very reason for the kidnapping. Members of the Karen tribe mistake a teenaged boy in the tour group for their long awaited white religious leader, who will save them from their difficulties. Thrown together in the jungle, the tourists and tribes people watch Survivor style reality shows on satellite television, while engaging in their own real life struggle to survive. At the same time, the Burmese government, international human rights activists and a global media network all manipulate the story of the missing Americans for their own purposes.
Amy Tan says the plot's ironies and absurdities gave her a way to dramatize larger concerns. "In Burma, for example, journalists are not allowed to use the word 'Burma,' for fear they'll be jailed. They can't report on losing soccer scores. And then going into a jungle and meeting a bunch of people who are part of this Karen tribe, and hearing the story related by a grandmother of how she got to be in the jungle -- the story, by the way, is one of 105 people in a village, and I took it from real reports of what happened. There are parts of this book that are unfortunately all too true. And part of the challenge of the story is to get the reader to question what is truth in the world, what you hear and see and read, what of it is really truth, not just factual truth, but how you believe, what you believe, what it's based on -- a personal truth."
Amy Tan drew on both her own trip to Burma and her experiences in China to write the novel. Her narrator, Bibi Chen, notes in the book that tourists might think they're leaving China behind when they enter Burma, but they are mistaken, and Ms. Tan says China has always had a profound influence across geographic boundaries. "And so it is in Burma in my opinion. There is a notion of animism for example, the belief in spirits and nature, and that intersects with religion, and among this tribe, the Karen, the Baptist religion. About 20% of them were converted by missionaries over the years. So here we have something from China intersecting with other influences, and that makes for very interesting sets of beliefs."
Soon after they arrive in Burma, the American tourists in Saving Fish from Drowning wonder how rural people reconcile catching fish with their belief in the sanctity of all living things. Their guide explains that they believe catching fish saves them from drowning. Amy Tan expands on that image in the novel to explore larger questions about personal responsibility and good intentions, and whether those intentions can sometimes do more harm than good.