Excerpt from Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Saving Fish From Drowning

by Amy Tan

Saving Fish From Drowning
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 480 pages
    Sep 2006, 512 pages

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I came along in 1937, and Sweet Ma was there to witness my dramatic arrival. "You should have seen your mother when she was nine months pregnant with you. She looked like a melon balanced on chopsticks, teetering this way and that. . . . Early in the morning, that's when her water broke, after making us wait all night. The winter sky was the color of spent coal, and so was your mother's face. . . . You were too big to come out between her legs, so the midwives had to slice her nearly in two and pull you out like a fatty tapeworm. You weighed over ten pounds, and you had bloody hair down to your shoulders."

I shivered when she said that.

"Bifang your mother named you, though heaven knows I tried to persuade her to choose something else. ‘Good-reputation jade' sounds like an advertisement poster, in my opinion, what pleases the ear of those who don't know better. ‘Bifang, bifang, buy your bifang here!' Ha, fang pi would be a better name to call you, a fart, yes indeed, that's what you were, all right, a stinky little fart that shot out of her bottom."

Sweet Ma held up a hairpin for me to see but not touch. "She named you Bifang because your father gave her this ugly thing to commemorate your successful birth." It was a hairpin with a hundred tiny leaves carved out of bright imperial-green jade. Within the branches were peony blossoms made of tiny diamonds. The shining hairpin, when placed in the hair, suggested a glorious spring. Upon seeing that hairpin for the first time, I knew why she named me Bifang: I was her precious jade, her budding treasure, her glorious spring. Bifang.

Sweet Ma tried to change my school name as well. "I like the name Bibi," I said. "Father calls me that."

"Well, there's nothing good about that name, either. It's especially common. Your father had a Dutch customer whose wife was named Bibi. He asked the Dutch lady if that was an unusual name in her country. And she said, ‘Heavens, no. "Bibi" can be French, it can be German, Italian even, so really, it is found everywhere.' And your father clapped his hands and said there was an expression that meant exactly that: bibi jie shi—can be found everywhere. If it was found everywhere, he said, to be polite, it must be popular, very much in favor. To my way of thinking, if it's found everywhere then it must be a common nuisance, like flies and dust." The day Sweet Ma said this, she was wearing my mother's hairpin, the one she said was so ugly. I wanted to pull it out. And because I could not, I said in my strongest voice that I had already chosen Bibi as my school name and I would not change it. Sweet Ma then said if I was old enough to choose my name, I was old enough to know the true circumstances of my tiny mother's death.

"She died of excess and dissatisfaction," Sweet Ma divulged. "Too much but never enough. She knew I was your father's first wife, the most respected, the most favored. No matter how many sons she had, he would probably one day turn her out the door and replace her with another."

"Father said that?"

Sweet Ma did not confirm or deny. Instead she said, "You see, respect is lasting. Fondness is passing, a whim for a season or two, only to be replaced by a new fancy. All men do this. Your mother knew this, I knew this. Someday you will, too. But rather than accept her situation in life, your mother lost all control of her senses. She began to crave sweets. She couldn't stop eating them. And she was thirsty all the time, drinking like the genie who swallowed the ocean and spit it back up. One day, a ghost saw how weak she was in spirit and entered her body through the hole in her stomach. Your mother fell to the ground, twitching and babbling, and then she was still."

In my made-up memory, I saw my tiny mother rise from her bed and go over to a pot of sugared black sesame seed soup. She dipped her fingers to taste if it was sweet enough. It was not. She added more lumps of sugar, more, more, more. Then she stirred the hot, dark paste, tipped bowlful after bowlful into her mouth, filling her stomach to the level of her throat, the hollow of her mouth, until she fell to the floor, wet and drowned.

From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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