BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Fish From Drowning
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.
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).
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.
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)
Tan's Site - Legends & Myths
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.