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Where the Past Begins Summary

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Where the Past Begins PDFWriter’s Memoir

We’ve shared with you the summaries of some fictional memoirs, as well as numerous heartbreaking memoirs of statesmen (from Joe Biden to Nelson Mandela).

Now, we have the memoir of a writer, Amy Tan.

She strips bare and tells us all about “Where the Past Begins.”

Who Should Read “Where the Past Begins”? And Why?

“Where the Past Begins” is a memoir – and that’s one genre that always gets us. We sincerely believe in John Donne’s motto that “no man is an island,” so, whenever we read someone else’s memoir, we feel as if that someone has written something about us.

So it’s difficult for us to answer the question “who should read ‘Where the Past Begins.'” Because on the face of it, aside from the obvious “Amy Tan fans,” and “memoir lovers” it hardly has any other obvious answer.

However, we feel that it should have: “everyone who wants to train his or her compassion.”

Amy TanAbout Amy Tan

Amy Tan is a Chinese-American writer whose books focus on the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States.

She has won numerous awards for her writing, which has also been criticized by many for perpetuating “racial stereotypes and misrepresentations as well as gross inaccuracies in recalling details of the Chinese cultural heritage.”

However, almost all of her books have achieved wide popular and critical acclaim, most famously “The Joy Luck Club,” a book which was also turned into a film in 1993 by Wayne Wang.

One of her two children’s books, “Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat” was also adapted as an animation series by the CBS.

“Where the Past Begins PDF Summary”

Picture this.

You’re at a writers’ workshop, and your teacher asks you to write something about a real-life event when you got the closest to dying – or, at least, thought that you would.

You plunge deep into your memory and, after some time, you start writing.

You are all but incapable of discerning reality from fiction – after all, you’ve watched so many movies in the meantime that it’s kind of difficult to know whether these things actually happened to you – but, for some reason, you also can’t start sobbing and crying while you try to get to the bottom of the life-threatening event which supposedly happened to you when you were 16.

And the event itself, the one you tell your classmates and teacher all about a few minutes later?

Something straight out of a horror movie:

You’re 16 years old, and you’re running around the house with your younger brother because your mother is chasing you both with a cleaver.

“We all go to heaven together,” she says, presumably plotting a suicide after the double murder – two things which most certainly question the “together” in the previous sentence.

“I want to live!” you shout, “I want to live!” – not because you’re a drama-queen, but because there’s a woman with a cleaver and fiery eyes running behind you.

No – we aren’t being hypothetical.

This is a scene straight out of Amy Tan’s memoir – meaning, it really happened to her.

Meaning: her autobiography sounds like something of a sequel to “The Glass Castle.”

Only much worse.

And that’s even before the most bizarre part of the story!

Namely, after the just described event, Amy Tan calls her mother to – wait for it – check if the event has really happened.

Her mother confirms it.

And “without any remorse in her voice.”

At least three obvious questions arise:

  1.      How has Amy forgotten such an event? Does that mean that there were many of a similar kind?
  2.      Why would you share something so traumatic with the world?
  3.      And, of course – what the hell is wrong with Amy’s mother?

“Where the Past Begins” both does and doesn’t try to answer any of these questions.

Because Amy Tan is a writer and she’s fully aware that reliable narrators exist only in fiction.

We don’t remember our lives the way they happened.

And, as Tan says it herself, “the process of writing is the painful recovery of things that are lost.”

That actually sums up the genesis of this book.

It started when her editor Daniel Halperin suggested Tan that she could shape a book out of the thousands and thousands of emails she had sent him while writing her 2013 novel “The Valley of Amazement”:

It started off as a record of emails about the process of writing between me and my editor, but that was an awful idea. It fell to pieces. Then it turned into something much more personal, about how I write and what inspires me. But once it was done I realized you shouldn’t explain the magic tricks. Writing shouldn’t be dissected and pulled apart. So I hate that this is out there. I told my editor how I felt but he persuaded me it was wonderful and I caved in. I found writing it exhilarating. But I wish it hadn’t been published.

Tan describes “Where the Past Begins” as an “unintended memoir.”

After digging through the emails between her and Halperin – some of which are included unedited in Chapter 10 – Tan moved to dig through the riches of her childhood memorabilia, uncovering herself as one usually uncovers someone else.

And there’s everything in this book: photos, school papers, address books, Tan’s father’s sermons…

And yes – death certificates as well.

Because this book is as heartrending read as any and a summary really doesn’t do justice to all the pain inside.

The pain functions as something of a guide for Tan’s memory, moving us back and forth between events, some of which would seem too much if we had seen them in the cinema.

The second of the three children to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan, Tan learns about pain very early in her life: when she’s 15, both her father – an electrical engineer and evangelical Christian preacher – and her older brother Peter die of brain tumors within six months.

Daisy moves Amy and her younger brother John Jr. to Switzerland, where Amy learns that she has another family back in China: her mother had four children and three abortions back in her home country.

The relationship between Amy and Daisy is almost too painful to read.

Daisy is suicidal and often threatens to kill herself in order to join her mother, a rich man’s concubine, who ended her life by committing suicide!

As we saw above, Daisy is also unstable enough to threaten to kill her children as well.

But, even so, there’s something strange – something which we are unable to describe with words other than “understanding” and even “love” – that Amy and Daisy share through it all.

As if they feel their pains (Amy herself is taking depressants and for a while would even suffer from epileptic seizures due to a misdiagnosed Lyme disease), as if they know that they will always be each other’s comfort zone – even if that results in something as teenage-like as a six-month-long ostracism or as violent as a knife attack.

In fact, Amy learned during the writing of this book that both she and her mother had saved all of each other’s letters – even the angry ones.

A proof of love’s resilience,” she adds.

And in a way, that’s a tender description of Amy Tan’s whole life as well.

Key Lessons from “Where the Past Begins”

1.      The Difference Between Writing a Memoir and a Novel
2.      Discovering the Meaning of Life
3.      Writing as a Way to Recover What Is Lost

The Difference Between Writing a Memoir and a Novel

It’s not as simple as it looks like.

Ask any writer.

Some of them even think that their memoirs are more fictional than their novels.

In fact, Amy Tan thinks that a memoir is a memoir only when it is unchronological; the more structured it is, the less true-to-the-memory:

Memoir is unvarnished. In fact, too much so in this case: I would have revised this book numerous more times. In fiction, I’m much more concerned about the sequence of sentences and the flow of the narrative from beginning to end. When it comes to my own life, the sequence in which I remember things is not necessarily going to be orderly for the reader. Events and memories are going to emerge according to their importance and how they shaped me.

Discovering the Meaning of Life

Amy Tan has had a very painful life.

A granddaughter of a rich man’s concubine who killed herself; a daughter of an idealized father who died when she was 15, and an unstable suicidal mother who had to go through two marriages, three abortions, and the deaths of two of her seven children – Tan lived to even witness the murder of her roommate while working on her Ph. D. at Berkeley!

And, still, she is able to find the strength to move on.


By writing.

Spontaneous epiphanies” – writes Tan – “always leave me convinced once again that there is no greater meaning to my life than what happens when I write.

Writing as a Way to Recover What Is Lost

“Where the Past Begins” is Amy Tan’s unintended attempt to recover the past we all necessarily lose with every passing year.

It’s a way to fight through some of the traumas her brain had blocked – just like Junot Díaz’s narrator does in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Telling your story may be the best way there is to fight your own demons.

It’s a cathartic experience.

In case you need one.

Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.

“Where the Past Begins Quotes”

Memory, in fact, gives you no choice over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. Click To Tweet

Memory is extraordinarily faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar. Click To Tweet

Writing is the witness to myself about myself. Whatever others say of me or how they interpret me is a simulacrum of their own devising. Click To Tweet

Perhaps the most moving discoveries were the letters to me from my mother and the letters to my mother from me. She had saved mine and I had saved hers, even the angry ones, which is a proof of love’s resilience. Click To Tweet

I never throw away photos, unless they are blurry. All of them, even the horrific ones, are an existential record of my life. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

“Where the Past Begins” is almost too intimate and honest for its own sake: sometimes you’ll find yourself leaving the book on its shelf because, if you’re like us, you may find the overflow of emotions just too unbearable.

Which is a compliment: not too many writers are capable (or ready) to strip their hearts before the world the way Amy Tan has done in “Where the Past Begins.”

Though, we feel, Chapter 10 may be an unnecessary chapter.

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