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Amy Tan Q&A: “I don’t think about doom – but I know what it feels like”

The author talks global warming, Donald Trump, and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”.

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952 to Chinese parents. Her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club”, was published in 1989 and later adapted into a major film. She has since published five other novels and two children’s books.

What’s your earliest memory?

The most vivid happened in the front yard of my first home in Fresno, California. My parents and older brother were on ladders picking fruit. One piece fell on my head, my brother laughed and I cried with indignation. I picked up the fruit and held it in my palm: a soft, fuzzy, golden ball.

Who are your heroes?

I admire many people for specific selfless deeds: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Peter Knights for founding nature organisation WildAid, Zheng Cao, a mezzo-soprano who healed others while struggling with cancer. Also, those who do compassionate work and stay anonymous. Many women fall into that category.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven. I became passionate about nature – noting changes over time and interactions with other elements in the ecosphere.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Looking up is a dangerous perspective to take when it comes to people who are by their nature political, and thus required to make imperfect compromises.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A timeless place on an island in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, surrounded by marine life, and the writers and composers of the 1930s.

Who would paint your portrait?

Dear God, spare me.

What’s your theme tune?

Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”. It surges with passion, victory, delusion and  annihilation – good for all occasions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. My mother told me that when I was young, and I absolutely follow it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The leader of the less free world, the US despot I refer to as “45”. I am venomous in my feelings towards him and his spineless, hand-wringing, salivating toadies.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having another president.

When were you happiest?

Despite my disgust with our current president, I am extremely happy now. Happiness is cumulative, not temporal.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Naturalist illustrator. I love wildlife and learning something new by noticing details and patterns. It is work that requires solitude. In all those ways, it is very much like writing.

Are we all doomed?

The greatest threat that could doom all of us is global warming. It is coming with certainty, unless changes are made. But I do not think about doom, and I do know what doom feels like. I was in the CNN newsroom in New York on 9/11 when the first tower was hit. The day before, my doctor called me about some peculiar test results and said I likely had brain or pancreatic cancer… 9/11 made me forget I had been told that. As it turned out, it was not World War Three, it was not cancer.

“Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” is published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist