Mohawk Valley Library System
Home Calendar Catalog Databases Member Libraries

Home > Resources > It's All About Books! > Book Discussion Guides

BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: Saving Fish From Drowning
Author: Amy Tan

Summary: Tan brilliantly chooses as her narrator, Bibi Chen, a wealthy and autocratic Chinese American art dealer from San Francisco, to tell her politically shrewd tale. Although she isn’t sure how she died, Bibi adjusts to her new existence, which enables her to tune into the thoughts and feelings of others. Bibi follows her friends on the trip that she organized to China and Burma (Myanmar). As the travelers move along in their journey, Bibi irreverently interjects her feelings about their misadventures and naiveté. When the group is kidnapped by a renegade tribe who think one of the travelers is the Messiah, they become ugly Americans in search of their own comfort and peace of mind. Tan deftly considers the unintended consequences of our cultural assumptions and how justification is skewed to provide peace of mind.

Questions:
1. Tan mentions that the structure of the book was loosely taken from The Canterbury Tales, with each character telling a story along a journey. The archetype of "journey" stories is that a character who undergoes a journey changes in some fundamental way. Discuss how the following characters or relationships change:|

a. Rupert and Esme, the children, grow wiser and change their relationships (and vice versa) with their respective parents, Moff and Marlena.

b. The romantic couplings:
Roxanne and Dwight
Wendy and Wyatt
Harry and Marlena
Heidi and Moff

c. Vera and her feelings about aging

d. Bibi and her struggles with life, her death, and with love

e. How Bennie grows braver

f. How Heidi "outgrows" her fear of life

2. Tan says she wrote the book about the issue of intentions, and that even good intentions can produce bad results. Can you give examples from the book?

3. Another theme of the book is that of innocence and naivete. Talk about, for example, the irony played off the types of innocence and naivete found in the tourists' assumptions in a strange land-coming from a more "sophisticated" culture-and the Karen's "primitive" culture and belief in the White Younger Brother, yet their grimly realistic political views and savvy use of technology .

4. Some reviewers have commented that the mix of genres, of comic and serious, of political and personal is overly ambitious and that, finally the book doesn't come together in as satisfying a manner as could be wished. If you agree, what might you change about the book? If you disagree (or not), what were some of your favorite passages?

5. Tan talks about her discomfort with "the way the news was being interpreted." Give examples from the book about misinterpretations, from interactions between cultures, to between lovers, to the "spin"s put on the saga of the missing tourists, etc.

6. Tan also talks about the comic novel as "subversive, " seducing the reader to read about serious subjects he/she might not otherwise attempt. Name some of your favorite comic moments of the novel and how they speak to more "serious" themes. (My vote is for all the intentional mispellings of the liturgy and terms of Protestantism).

Related Information:
Amy Tan was born in Oakland, CA in 1952 to parents who had immigrated from China several years previously. She began winning literary prizes at the age of eight with an essay "What the Library means to me." Her father and brother died of brain tumors in 1967 and 1968, and the family journeyed through Europe, settling in Switzerland, where she graduated in her junior year in 1969.

Ms. Tan met her future husband at college in Oregon and followed him to San Jose, where she graduated from San Jose State with a double major in English and linguistics. She took a master's degree in linguistics there also, enrolled in a doctoral degree in linguistics at Berkeley, but dropped out after the murder of one of her closest friends on her birthday. For ten years she would be unable to speak on that anniversary.

She worked as a language development consultant and then a freelance business writer for many years, until she had a bad experience in therapy and decided to write fiction, instead! In 1986 her first short story was published in a now-defunct literary magazine, and her fIrst novel, which she still considers to be linked short stories, The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989. The Kitchen God's Wife followed in 1991, The Hundred Secret Senses in 1995, The Bonesetter's Daughter in 2001 and Saving Fish from Drowning in 2005.

In an interview on her web page, Ms. Tan revealed: at two in the morning, immediately after I finished the last book [Bonesetter], I started writing the outline for this book. I had been thinking about the subject of this book for a while-the disturbing questions about intentions. But up until then I had been writing about mothers and daughters because the beliefs I developed from my life with a difficult mother had occupied most of my thoughts. And I tend to write about the questions that continually haunt me. But my relationship with my mother toward the end of her life was wonderful, and usually writers write about what's not-so-wonderful. (amytan.net 2)

Tan mentions in the same interview that she took fictional devices from a number of genres. There are twelve travelers, and twelve or more genres here-murder mystery, romance, picaresque, comic novel, magical realism, fable, myth, police detective, political farce, and so forth. In romances, there are misunderstandings, and missed connections, but there's consummation at the end Another genre is mystery-the reader doesn't know how Bibi died, which is gruesomely described, leaving you with strong hints of murder and conflicting details that must be solved by the end. There's a travelogue aspect of being in an exotic country and getting insider tips. There is fiction masquerading as a guide to art and culture and wildlife. There's the adventure tale-twelve tourists lost in the jungle with perils galore. There's myth, a real one, in fact, among some of the Kren tribe. It's that of the White Younger Brother, in which a besieged people expect a white savior to restore their power. There's the scatological humor that teenagers and grown men find so funny. I took all these genres and made it a literary puzzle for myself, which kept me entertained and put my brain into all kinds of twists. (amytan.net 6)

Amy Tan's Site - Legends & Myths

Amy Tan's Blog

Questions and related information provided by Susan Oringel.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

Serving public libraries in Fulton, Montgomery, Schoharie, and Schenectady counties.
858 Duanesburg Road | Schenectady | New York 12306-1095
Phone: 518-355-2010 | Fax: 518-355-0674