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'm giving useful information," I told her.

"Like my mother," she said.

At my funeral, she said those words again at the very end, only this time she was smiling with tearful eyes: "Bibi was like a mother to me. She was terribly generous with her advice."

My own mother did not give me advice, terrible or otherwise. She died when I was a baby. So it was my father's first wife who raised my two brothers and me. She was named Bao Tian—"Sweet Bud"—which was not quite suitable. We, her stepchildren, were obliged to call that old sour-mouth by the affectionate name of Sweet Ma. Whatever emotional deficits I had, they were due to her. My excesses, as I have already said, were from my mother.

According to Sweet Ma, she would have been my father's only wife had she not insisted that my father take a concubine so he could seed some descendants. "It was my own idea," Sweet Ma boasted. "I wasn't forced to accept the arrangement, not at all."

As the fates would have it, Sweet Ma was unable to bear children. Soon after she married she caught a spotted-skin disease—it might have been measles, or chickenpox, but was definitely nothing as serious as smallpox. The aftermath of this illness, she lamented, blocked off the path to the warm springs of her body, and thus, she did not have sufficient heat to incubate the seeds of babies. Instead, this useless warmth rose in her body and continued to break out as blisters on her face and hands, and perhaps the rest of her, which we couldn't see, nor did we want to. Time and time again, she would wonder aloud over what she had done in a past life to deserve such a barren fate. "What small transgression for such bitter punishment?" she cried as the red dots rose. "No children of my own, just the leftovers of others" (meaning my brothers and me). Whenever she ate anything that disagreed with her, from unripe kumquats to veiled insults, her face was soon decorated with crusty splotches that resembled maps of foreign countries. "Do you know where India is?" we would ask her, and swallow our giggles. To soothe herself, she scratched and complained incessantly, and when she ran out of things to say, she would look at me and criticize my mother for endowing me with such ugly features. In time, she scratched her eyebrows bald, and when she did not draw them in with mean black slashes, she resembled a Buddhist nun with knots on her forehead, bulging with anger.

That is how I remember Sweet Ma, always running a sharp finger along her hairless eyebrows, chattering nonsense. My older brothers managed to escape her grasp. They were immune to her influence and treated her with blank-faced disdain. Thus, all her arrows fell on me as her solitary target.

"I tell you this," Sweet Ma would say to me, "only so you won't be stricken sick to hear it from someone else." And she would tell me once again that my mother had been a tiny girl like me, but not as squat, barely seventy pounds at age sixteen when my father took her in as his breeding concubine.

"Itty-bitty though she was," Sweet Ma said, "she was excessive in everything she did. She ate too many pears. She showed too much emotion. Why, when she laughed she could not control herself, and would fall to the floor in a fit of giggles until I slapped her back to her senses. What's more, she slept all night long, yet yawned all day. She slept so much her bones turned soft. That was why she was always collapsing like a jellyfish out of water."

During wartime, when the price of fatty pork had tripled, Sweet Ma could be heard to declare: "Though we have money enough, I'm content to eat meat sparingly, just for the taste and certainly not more than once a week. But your mother, when she was alive, her eyes were like those of a carrion bird, ready to pounce on any dead flesh." Sweet Ma said a decent woman should never show eagerness for food or any other kind of pleasure. Most of all, she should "never be a burden," this being what Sweet Ma strived not to be, and she desired in particular for my father to acknowledge this as often as she did.

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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