Birds Offer Moments of Hope

Author Amy Tan Speaks About New Book

By Steven Scarpa, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

At the height of the global pandemic when things were at their worst, the acclaimed novelist Amy Tan looked to the backyard at her California home for solace and discovered what was, for her, a new world. She directed her considerable powers of observations skyward and began looking at and drawing birds – sometimes for as long as 12 hours a day.

“The birds are a balm to me,” Tan said.

The result of this contemplation was her newest book, “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” a love letter to the avian life she observed from 2017 to 2022. The journal begins with the simple act of Tan setting up a hummingbird feeder. One of the birds landed on her hand and she was smitten.

She spoke about the creation of the book at an International Festival of Arts and Ideas talk held at in Yale Peabody Museum’s Central Gallery on June 18, moderated by WTNH anchor Ann Nyberg. “It is great to see the space full,” said director David Skelly in his introduction. “We’d love to welcome you as part of the Peabody family.”

There is a certain sensibility you need when you are observing birds, Tan explained. To understand the bird’s lifeforce, using her expression, it was important to imagine what its life was like. The more Tan watched the birds, the more refined her questioning became. “You have to know these things over time before you can even make a guess,” Tan said.

She endeavored not to assign the birds human traits (not always successfully, she joked, as evidenced by her drawings of an owl’s ‘resting face’ and ‘sexy face’.) She just wanted to see them as they were, focusing on their daily survival. Seventy-five percent of birds do not live to adulthood, Tan said, so she became deeply invested in the primal drama taking place outside of her window. “These miraculously beautiful birds manage to survive,” Tan said.

When a novel she was working on didn’t quite come to fruition, Tan’s editor suggested that her birding observations might be of interest to the public.

It wasn’t such a leap from novels filled with detailed and sensitive observations of life and relationship to nature writing. The act of seeing and questioning are crucial components of her work as a writer, Tan said. She takes the magic of word and knits them together with her observations about life to represent what she is trying to feel in a moment of her life.

There were moments of despair during the pandemic when Tan found it difficult to focus on the future. It was then that the birds offered something else. “Did you find hope?” Nyberg asked.

“I found a lot of things,” Tan said. “When you look at something with intention for a long period of time, it’s like a feeling of love.”


Last updated on June 27, 2024

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