When the dust settled on 2011, one thing became clear—it was the year of the parent. Or, more accurately, the year of “parenting,” that ubiquitous neologism that covers everything from heartwarming father-daughter wedding dance videos on YouTube to newspaper editorials that ask, “why do you let your daughter dress like a tramp?” Yet out of all the parenting stories that dominated such charts as Facebook’s “most shared links” list, none had the staying power of Amy Chua’s blockbuster memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Controversial does not begin to describe the reception accorded to this Yale Law School professor’s hilarious and scathingly candid account of her intensely focused and highly structured method of raising her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu. When the list of prohibited activities with which Chua began her first chapter—a list which included such contemporary childhood staples as sleepovers, playdates, television, video games, and school plays—hit the pages of the Wall Street Journal under the heading “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” all parenting hell broke loose. Even such ordinarily circumspect outlets as the popular New York Times parenting blog “the Motherlode” rushed to judgment, branding Chua as “downright mean” and her actions as “unforgivable.”
The ensuing media firestorm put both the tiger mother and her talented daughters under hot lights, and earned the author an undeserved reputation for “backpedaling” from a supposed message that she had never actually sent. On Saturday, January 14, Chua will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall to talk with an audience about her memoir on the occasion of its December 27 release in paperback.
Reading the paperback this December, I was struck by a few things. First, how did so many people manage to miss the humor? Chua is an extremely gifted comic writer, in a league with such bestselling peers as David Sedaris, and her exuberant and sidesplitting self-descriptions and quotations are a tour de force of self-satire. Second, the book’s sensitive side complements the comedy. Chua leads the reader through two close family encounters with cancer, one of which ends in the death of her mother-in-law. Both stories are told with subtlety, tenderness, and insight. Finally, the book indicates, with an unusual degree of fidelity, the debt which Chua and her daughters owe not only to their wonderful music teachers, but to the great classical repertoire that is the basis for their grand musical adventure. Her descriptions of legendary violin teachers Almita Vamos and Carl Shugart could only be the work of someone who cares deeply about the most important and personal aspects of education. The excitement of committing fully to realizing the timeless truths of great music comes through in many places, and puts the supposedly drab routine of long hours of practice in a heroic light.
Last week I spoke to Amy Chua by phone from her home in New Haven, where she was preparing for her daughter Lulu’s sixteenth birthday party.
What have you been doing? I’m just returning from California, where we celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Tomorrow in New Haven we will have a party for Lulu because she is now 16.
When I read the excerpt last year in the Wall Street Journal, I laughed a lot, both at the writing, and at the wild response, but then I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t get around to reading the rest of the book until the paperback arrived a few weeks ago. Reading the complete work was a revelation. You are one of the funniest, most daring and original writers around, and I really think you deserve a second chance to be understood. Thanks, it’s great to hear you say that. I was hoping that something like this would happen, because it’s true, I do feel that the book itself was neglected amid all the publicity of last year. People routinely responded only to the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal — which I did not title by the way — or even to articles quoting from that piece, exactly as though the rest of the book didn’t matter. It was taken as a parenting book, which was never my intention. I wrote it as a satiric memoir, and I love books with unreliable narrators. My inspirations were writers like Vladimir Nabokov, or David Sedaris and Dave Eggers, writers who really play with voice and narrative and who strive for humor, and when the book came out, I found that people wanted to compare me with Dr. Spock! Writing a parenting guide was never what I had in mind, and all the interview requests I got were from parenting experts who had already made up their mind about me, often without even bothering to read the book.
One of the things I liked most was the fascinating journey you and the girls have been on with classical music. Your descriptions of some of their teachers are beautiful — warm and true to the spirit of the music in a very striking way. Did you write it with this in mind? Yes I did, very much so. I do feel the book has so much of a music dimension. It raises lots of questions about music, such as the relation between talent and hard work. That’s something that has been of interest to me all along. It would be very coincidental if both my daughters just happened to have some genetic predisposition to be musically talented. And I don’t think you can romanticize creativity. That’s not what I get from reading about the composers. They weren’t exactly lazy. One thing I will say about Sophia and Lulu in regard to their musicality is that they are both very emotional girls, and I know that the music connects in some way to that aspect of their identities.
If it’s not a parenting guide, and music is only one part of it, what is the book about, in your view? From my perspective, the book is mainly about my own humbling, both by my daughters’ strength, and in the presence of the wonderful teachers I describe. I mean at first I felt really self-conscious around some of these teachers. I was thinking all the time, “Amy, you are a superficial moron compared to these people.” But I was also learning, and studying the music, and its history, and the lives of the great musicians and composers. The girls’ music became another way for me to go deeply into something, as I had previously done with the law.
Do you regret the way that the book appeared to pit Chinese mothers against the world? No, but I will say that I did not intend to draw such a line between Chinese and western parents. Several times in the book I make it clear that I don’t think this type of parenting is exclusively Chinese. There are lots of parents who think something like this.
Were all the emails you got from parents angry and hostile? No, not all of the parent response I got was negative. Actually, quite a few parents, especially those with younger children under 5, wrote to say positive things. It was more the parents of teens who were outraged, and who flamed me.
And what about the reviews? Were they difficult to accept? Yes, the initial reception of the hardcover was overwhelming. Interviewers were quite often openly hostile. Certain questions really began to bother me. For example, people would say, ‘Did you do this for your daughters, or for yourself?’ and the tone would be incredibly accusatory, so that it wasn’t really a question at all, but more of a judgment in the form of a question. So, what kind of answer do I give to that? I understand what you are saying, but as a question, this is meaningless.
You said that you like books with unreliable narrators. Is the tiger mother you or not? Oh yes. That voice that I created for the book is really the way I am, but I believe that we are all multiple personalities, and just because I am that way in one of my personalities doesn’t mean that I can’t also laugh about it in another. Oddly enough, I’m not a particularly judgmental person. I just don’t have a lot of filtering when I’m in tiger mother mode. I say what comes into my head. I’ve written two other books, both of them academic studies of global government and politics, and they were painful to write — every sentence was tough. Even now I have an assignment from Newsweek to write a piece about women billionaires in China, and it’s not easy for me to produce. I have to work at it. But this book just came out of me. I’d go running with my dogs, and when I got back, I’d have another chapter written in my head.
In the acknowledgments you write about the team that backed you in the publication of this book. Did they know what they had, or how intense the response would be?My agent Tina Bennett and my editor at Penguin, Ann Godoff, were both wonderfully supportive. The thing that Ann said was that she could tell that everything I did with my daughters was an act of love. Who knows? Maybe she’s right. But one thing I am sure of, and that I feel was a stroke of genius on her part, was that when I submitted the manuscript, she insisted that I not spend any time revising. She wanted to retain the raw voice of the tiger mother, and that was a brilliant move. It’s what makes the book special. When I first met with her, she started out by telling me all the reasons why she wouldn’t normally do my type of book. She said something like, “I don’t do memoirs, I don’t do parenting, and I don’t do women’s books, but your book, I want.” That was exciting.
And Tina Bennett, your agent — do you think she knew how crazy things would get? Tina must have sensed how provocative it would be — she has such an amazing feeling for the market. It’s funny — I nearly didn’t let her put it out for auction. My publisher for my academic books had a right of first refusal, and when they read it, they didn’t even bid! No interest. So I thought at that point that the book was dead. But Tina believed, and look what happened.