Born in Oakland, California to John (a Baptist minister) and Daisy (Shanghai nurse), she was 14 when her father and elder brother died of brain tumours. With her mother and younger brother Peter, Tan moved to Montreux, Switzerland shortly afterward. She received a master's degree in linguistics at San Jose State University and her first job was as a children's speech therapist.
Tan is best known for the critically acclaimed The Joy Luck Club, a book made into a feature film in which Tan was a director. She also wrote several other books, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter's Daughter. Her most recent book is a collection of non-fiction essays, entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. In addition, she has written two children's books The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994). She has appeared on a short spot on PBS encouraging children to write.
Tan's mother Daisy witnessed her mother committing suicide, and Amy believed that her grandmother, her mother and herself all suffered from depression. Tan currently takes Zoloft to treat her bouts of serious depression .
In 1985, after her psychiatrist fell asleep for the third time during one of their sessions, Tan quit therapy and took up fiction writing instead.