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Amy Tan turns her literary gaze on the world of birds in 'The Backyard Bird Chronicles'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: She is a novelist-turned-naturalist.

New York Times bestselling author Amy Tan has turned her intense gaze to the world of birds and shared her private drawings and musings in a new book.

Jeffrey Brown recently joined her at her Northern California home for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Amy Tan, Author, "The Backyard Bird Chronicles": He's asking a question. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, you can come.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a backyard bird call, part of the daily routine of observing and interacting with the many species of birds, more than 60 and counting, that regularly visit the Sausalito, California, home of a flightless creature named Amy Tan.

Amy Tan: I'm the flightless creature with the food. I'm here.

Jeffrey Brown: It's now captured in her new book, "The Backyard Bird Chronicles," gathered from six years of looking and learning.

Amy Tan: It's a chronicle of me learning to be a curious child again, a chronicle of hope, a chronicle of learning to observe more closely and match it with emotions and questions about morality and mortality. It's so many things to me. It was a diary of my life during this period.

Jeffrey Brown: Tan is best known for her fiction, beginning with "The Joy Luck Club" in 1989, books often grounded in her own Chinese-American experience.

Her turn to birds was partly stirred by the ugliness she saw in the human world, including a rising bigotry, even violence, directed toward Asian Americans.

Amy Tan: I noticed that there was a lot of overt racism going on. It was as though people thought it was their freedom of expression, that it was now a need to express this, a very small segment of society, but it was frightening to me.

It made me feel that it had always been there, and some of it was directed toward me, and I'd never had that experience.

I needed to take myself out of that, this hatred of being different, and take myself into a place where the things -- the very things that were different were the most beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: She'd love to draw as a child growing up in Oakland, California.

But a pursuit of any kind of art wasn't encouraged at home or school. She's kept a high school report card declaring this future beloved writer "lacks imagination or drive necessary to a deeper creative level."

Long ago, she made a promise to herself.

Amy Tan: I told myself as an adult that when, I reached the age of 65, I would allow myself the indulgence of learning to draw.

Jeffrey Brown: You told yourself this? At what point?

Amy Tan: I would -- when I was like in my 30s or 40s, I said, when I'm 65, I will retire from my job, and I will learn to draw.

Well, I became a writer. I'm never going to retire. So what am I going to do? So, at age 65, I remembered the dream, and I said, I'm going to start to draw.

Jeffrey Brown: And she did start to draw birds, drawing as a way of close observation, of coming to know the names and habits of specific species, little birds like the dark-eyed junco and orange-crowned warbler, big creatures, including the great horned owl, always focusing on birds she can see and that can see her in and around her own home, a gorgeous setting overlooking the San Francisco Bay, which she made into even more of a birdie haven by putting up numerous feeders, creating a garden habitat.

So do you have favorites at this point?

Amy Tan: I have different favorites. Sometimes, it'll be the oak titmouse, because he's so funny and he's little and he scolds me or the other birds.

Jeffrey Brown: The drawings became part of a daily journal filled with her notes and questions, personal, curious, learning as she went.

She's not an expert, she wants us to know, but she's getting there, and she's definitely, her word, obsessed. On June 30, 2019, she writes: "I have been spending more hours a day staring at birds than writing. How can I not?"

Now, I see you have got your binoculars. So, you're ever...

Amy Tan: Always.

Jeffrey Brown: Always?

Amy Tan: Always.

Jeffrey Brown: Ever ready, just walking around the house?

Amy Tan: As soon as I get up and put on my clothes, I put on my binoculars.

Jeffrey Brown: Really?

Amy Tan: Because I have all these windows. And you never know what's going to land on a tree right in front of me.

Jeffrey Brown: So, at any moment, you're -- you're sort of going about your day here, but you're looking around.

Amy Tan: I'm there.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Amy Tan: And then I look.

Jeffrey Brown: Tan has fun in these pages, imagining, for example, the windowsill wars, interspecies aggression, though, as a hermit thrush says: "We don't use terms like that. We're birds."

But she also observes the crucial daily tasks, the life-and-death struggles.

Amy Tan: I think what miraculous creatures these are. So many of them don't survive. They die through lack of food or they get taken by another bird, but...

Jeffrey Brown: Which you're seeing out -- right out your doors here.

Amy Tan: I'm seeing it in action.

What I see out there is not birds. I see drama. I see stories that unfold. And each day, I would write down what the story was, what the drama was, and how I was moved by it, how my curiosity was piqued.

Jeffrey Brown: And here, in a fascinating way, is where Amy Tan, the fiction writer, is also at work.

Amy Tan: I imagine myself being the bird and what it must be thinking.

Jeffrey Brown: You imagine yourself?

Amy Tan: I'm the bird.

Jeffrey Brown: You're the bird.

Amy Tan: Yes.

I'm the bird looking at the person that is really me. And what does a bird see? What am I thinking when a bigger bird comes up to me? What am I thinking if a smaller bird comes up to me? How do I tell that bird, this is mine?

So I'm watching this happening and imagining I'm that bird as I'm drawing. And it brings me so much closer into what's happening, this drama, the conflict that's happening, or the courtship that's happening, the -- all of that. And in that way, it's very similar to writing a novel, because I become the characters.

Jeffrey Brown: These days, many people tell Tan of how their own bird obsession began or grew during the pandemic, a kind of refuge that grew, as for her, into a sense of wonderment and appreciation.

Amy Tan: I started asking all the obvious questions. And it became so much more interesting to me, and it grew. It just took off.

And now I couldn't stop. I wanted to find the answers. But, of course, the answers would always elude me. And the reason why is because I'm not a bird. I can't possibly know the intentions...

Jeffrey Brown: It turns out you're not a bird.

Amy Tan: I am not a bird.


Amy Tan: I can try to pretend I'm a bird or imagine I'm a bird, but the thing is, I don't know the intentions of a bird, and I always remind myself I don't know that. And that's what makes it wonderful as well.

They will always be a mystery .

Jeffrey Brown: From the backyard and all its mystery, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour" in Sausalito, California.

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