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"I'm not very polemical," says Tan from the San Francisco house she shares with her lawyer husband Lou DeMattei. "I just wanted readers to have a better understanding of moral complexities. I wanted to examine, for instance, the notion that people must die in order to make things better." She cites a controversial 1996 British television exposé of abuses at Chinese orphanages. "Right away the orphanages were closed, adoptions discontinued, cleft-palate and other special surgery stopped. My husband and I worked with some of those orphanages, so we know what was at stake. Does publicly humiliating China save lives? Or is China more effectively motivated by other things, like trade agreements?"
How did a writer known for parsing personal dilemmas get interested in the political kind? The answer may lie in the inner turmoil Tan faced just before fate led her to Burma. For years, she had suffered bouts of depression, which she thinks runs in her family (her grandmother, a merchant's concubine in prerevolutionary Shanghai, committed suicide in front of Tan's mother). By 2000, her anxiety had become debilitating. "On the street I was afraid I'd be stabbed in the back," she recalls. "I thought somebody would break into my house and kill me there. I couldn't write. I couldn't walk. I had severe numbness in my feet, to the point where I was looking into getting a motorized wheelchair."
Her affliction turned out to be Lyme disease, which she caught in the U.S., probably from an insect bite, though she doesn't know how. Her illness, which went undiagnosed for four years, can cause emotional problems. "I'll never be cured completely," she says now, 21/2 years after beginning antibiotic treatment. "I have 16 lesions on my brain, and that's where the bacteria go to have a picnic. I have seizures. I have a sleep disorder. But I'm so much happier now. I'm so grateful for what I have. I can walk. I see things I don't want to take for granted ever again. I try to do more in life."
Saving Fish is one result of Tan's new energy, and the next is an opera based on The Bonesetter's Daughter. Her collaborators are librettist Michael Korie and composer Stuart Wallace, whose 1995 opera Harvey Milk, about the assassination of San Francisco's first gay city supervisor, won wide acclaim. They are aiming for a 2008 debut in the U.S. or China. Meanwhile, Tan is starting to think about her next novel. "I'm not sure what it will be about, but it will incorporate music, because that's my obsession right now. One of the things I do in thinking about a novel is find a fascinating place to set it, and then go from there. I think I've found it, a spot as close to paradise as any I've ever seen. But I can't tell you where it is, or it'll be spoiled."
Is it in China? Or perhaps Burma, a country she can't seem to get out of her mind? "If there's one thing I wanted to do [in Saving Fish]," she says, "it's to remind people that there is this country, now called Myanmar, where a military regime is causing great suffering. People are being tortured, raped and killed. I could have laid out the problem calmly and directly in a nonfiction book, but that would have been what Americans call 'a bummer.' So I chose fiction. And comedy. Sometimes only the subversiveness of comedy can do justice to the extremes of horror." Especially in the hands of a writer who knows the value of life.