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The Bookworm's Bodice Ripper

Annie Tittiger | November 4, 2013 | Story Reviews

"I was tentative to write about sex,” says the perpetual bestselling author Amy Tan, who splits her time between Sausalito and New York. “So many people interpret everything I write as autobiographical, and they might think the same about the sex scenes.” Tan does have a knack for drawing on her personal and family history to create vivid stories packed with heart-wrenching details and distressingly relatable scenarios (see: The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife). And her newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, out November 5, is no exception. But this time, it’s not intergenerational mahjong clubs and relatively chaste family drama that Tan’s focusing on, but rather the glamorous, dramatic, and downright kinky world of courtesans in turn-of-the-19th century Shanghai.

Consider the courtesan as the equivalent of today's call girl. These women—who were usually between the ages of 15 and 22—lived in houses together with a madam, had their own boudoirs, and met their male guests at lavish dinner parties. “It was a profession,” Tan explains. “They were businesswomen in the way they were able to secure their money.”

While courtesan life wasn’t the worst job available to Chinese women at the time—it was held in higher esteem and paid better than maid work—these women were still sex workers, and their lives were “by and large tragic,” says Tan. The best outcomes consisted of a woman’s becoming a client’s first wife (an extreme rarity) or concubine. The worst—and most common—ended in unrequited love, financial ruin, and suicide. Though the profession was rich with the kinds of tension that Tan tends to favor—women striving to succeed in a man’s world, daughters inevitably following in their mothers’ footsteps— the author had never given the culture much thought as fodder for a novel until a few years ago. “It just seemed like one of those exotic parts of Asia, very cliché.”

Despite that initial hesitance, though, Tan was drawn to the topic for a familiar reason: family. Four years ago, while working on another novel, Tan made a visit to the Asian Art Museum. Intrigued by an image of courtesans in one gallery, Tan bought a book on the culture from the museum store. Within its pages, she stumbled upon a photo of several women wearing the same outfit—embroidered headband, fur-lined jacket, matching pants—that she had seen one of her grandmothers wearing in an old photograph. Tan later learned that the photo had been taken in a Western-style photography studio patronized solely by courtesans. “I can’t say for sure that my grandmother was a courtesan,” says Tan. “Just because she wore the clothes doesn’t mean that’s what she was. I wore a dominatrix outfit for Rock Bottom Remainders performances,” she adds, referring to the rock band of bestselling authors (including Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver) for which Tan provides vocals— and carries a whip. “But that doesn’t mean that’s who I am. Still, I couldn’t stop imagining that world she might have lived in.”

So Tan dove headfirst into researching courtesan culture. “I interviewed academics and read books and studies,” she says, “but I could not find anything about the bedroom techniques.” So she turned to alternative sources, including archival porn, poetry, and diaries. “There were guidelines for men visiting courtesan houses. One was don’t piss in front of [the courtesans], and another was don’t brag about the size of your penis.” She found names of exotic positions, like Tigress Meets the Dragon and Oysters in Turtle Shell. She came across references to pearl polishers, self-stimulation tools that men gave to courtesans as gifts, and learned that women would engage in threesomes, one taking the role of the man. “Ultimately, from everything I read,” she says, “courtesan life was about creating this illusion of love and nurturing of the man’s ego.”

But this is Amy Tan, not E.L. James, and while Amazement definitely contains some steamy sex scenes—the book’s press release makes cheeky reference to “Fifty Shades of Tan”—the novel takes on a much more complicated mission than pure titillation. Its protagonist is a half-American, half-Chinese girl whose social status changes from privileged foreigner to virgin courtesan to unofficial wife, then to unofficial widow, then again to courtesan, then to concubine, and finally to a woman free of sex work. “I wanted to capture how circumstances change, how our ancestry influences our own character and has this lasting impact on who we become,” Tan explains.

The pearl polishers, the sex positions, and the aphrodisiacs are enticing, but what’s most interesting—and impressive—about Amazement is Tan’s ability to intertwine those scenes with the story of one woman’s struggle to shape her identity in relation and contrast to her family, her culture, and her circumstances. In other words, it’s another Tan classic.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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