With her own life in turmoil, Amy Tan was invited by friends in 2000 to accompany them to Burma. "Why not?" she thought. "It's a beautiful country. Great art, great culture. But then I started reading about the military junta, the human rights problems, Aung San Suu Kyi, the boycott. I could cancel the trip, but what good would that do? I could go, but would that do any good either? That led to the question of how any of us can make a difference. And how do we decide?"
That led to Saving Fish from Drowning, the latest and most radically un-Tanlike of Tan's novels. Instead of examining personal relationships, this time she takes on two of the more pressing moral issues of the age: how to do good in the world and whether it matters. Her previous novels The Joy Luck Club (she also co-wrote director Wayne Wang's 1993 movie version), The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter's Daughter were all best sellers focusing on the bond between mothers and daughters, the latter often Chinese-American like Tan. Uncharacteristically, Saving Fish is mostly about politics, and it's set mostly in Burma, not China or Tan's native northern California. It's also unsettling, provocative and, at the same time, both her funniest and her most serious book.
Tan did go to Burma. And Saving Fish is about a group of American tourists who venture to the country, renamed Myanmar by the junta in 1989. While on a day trip into the jungle from their ritzy resort, the Americans are kidnapped by Karen tribesmen who believe that one of the travelers, a 15-year-old California boy, is a mythical figure who will rescue the tribe from persecution by the junta. "The Younger White Brother was here, and as he had promised during his last visit on earth, he would save them," Tan writes of the Karen perspective. "He could manifest weapons. He could make the tribe invisible. They would then … walk openly without being shot, until they reached a patch of land, the promised land."
The tribe is so hospitable that the Americans do not realize they have been kidnapped, thinking they're stranded merely because a bridge is out. They settle into a primitive but largely idyllic existence, despite a few cross-cultural miscues. (The delicious crunchy things turn out to be fried insects; the Karen believe the Younger White Brother is carrying the "Lost Important Writings" actually a paperback of Stephen King's Misery.) Meanwhile, the tourists' disappearance ignites a global media frenzy, which friends back home hope will pressure the junta to find them and which the junta manipulates to burnish its image. The situation is ripe for satire, and Tan pours it over her tour bus of fools: the television dog-show host who thinks diplomacy is a lot like pooch training, the academic couple who can't stop intellectually one-upping each other, the dangerously do-gooding heiress. Saving Fish from Drowning (the title comes from a Buddhist fisherman's rationalization of his craft) ends without clear winners. And Tan neatly frames the dilemma: To help the oppressed, do you use a carrot or a cudgel?