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Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Tan's debut novel is arguably one of the most famous works of Asian-American writing. It is one of the few works with an explicitly Asian theme to find mainstream popularity. The novel remained on the New York Times best-seller list for nine months and was later adapted into a hit movie.
To date, no other Asian-American novel has matched the critical and popular success of The Joy Luck Club, not even by Tan's later works.
My interest in The Joy Luck Club stems from the 16 interlocking tales detailing the lives and struggles of four Chinese mothers and their four American daughters. The novel finds resonance with Chinese- and Asian-American families because of Tan's lyrical reconstructions of the immigrant experience, of poverty/fear/persecution in the homeland and of alienation in America. The parts of the novel set in China, in particular, give The Joy Luck Club the feel of a grand epic.
However, Tan's novel also resonates on a more personal level. By exploring the tensions between mothers and daughters, The Joy Luck Club sweeps the reader into a conflict that, despite ethnicity or "Orientalism," seems deeply familiar. After all, the complex relationships between mothers and daughters are both a multi-cultural constant and a staple of literature.
This paper focuses on the mother-daughter narratives in The Joy Luck Club. It focuses in particular on the mothers' side of the narratives. It shows how Tan successfully subverts stereotypes about Chinese and Asian women to reveal a fierce inner strength.
Amy Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California. Tan's parents were both immigrants from China. Her father was a Baptist minister while her mother came from an upper-class family in Shanghai (bio).
Tan's mother pushed her daughter to study medicine, hoping that Amy would eventually become a neurosurgeon. Instead, Tan studied English at San Jose State University in the early 1970s and did graduate work at the University of California-Berkeley (bio).
Tan began her writing career as a technical writer. She later turned to fiction writing, having gained inspiration from Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, a novel about a Native American family. The Joy Luck Club is Tan's first novel (bio).
Tan's novels contain elements of autobiography. For example, in her teens, Tan learned that her mother had two daughters in China from a previous marriage. In 1987, Tan traveled to China and met her two half-sisters for the first time. Describing the experience, Tan said that the experience finally allowed her to say "I'm both Chinese and American"...Suddenly some piece fit in the right place and something became whole." Tan later incorporated this experience into The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan bio).
Tan followed The Joy Luck Club with The Kitchen God's Wife in 1991. In the second novel, Tan focused once again on the mother-daughter narrative. Many critics found The Kitchen God's Wife superior in structure to the previous novel because the latter novel focused on a single mother-daughter narrative (Bio).
Tan's later novels include The Hundred Secret Senses in 1995 and, in the same year, The Year of No Flood (Bio). In addition, Tan also writes juvenile fiction. These works include 1994's The Chinese Siamese Cat and, in 1992, The Moon Lady (Bio).
The Moon Lady is a children's story based on a tale narrated in The Joy Luck Club. In The Moon Lady, Tan narrates the story of a young girl's experiences during the traditional Moon Festival in China (Henrickson).
Tan also ventured into film in 1993, when she co-authored the screenplay and worked as the producer on the film version of The Joy Luck Club. Like the novel, the movie enjoyed both critical and box office success (Bio).
In addition to her mainstream popularity, Tan has achieved critical praise for several of her novels. The Joy Luck Club was awarded a gold medal for fiction by the Commonwealth Club and was cited as the best book for young adults in 1989 by the American Library Association (Bio).
Tan has been lauded for her ear for dialogue, her lyrical writing style, her depictions of complex and ambiguous tensions in human relationships and a "sensitivity to the power of cultural and historical forces on the individual and family" (Bio).
Because of her writing, Tan has been hailed as an important figure in the emergent tradition of Chinese-American women's literature. Her two major works - The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife - are representative of her skillful portrayal of the emotional tensions between Chinese-American mothers and their American-born children (Bio). These tensions help ensure that her writing finds resonance with the growing number of Chinese- and Asian-American children who struggle with the same familial conflicts.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of Tan's writing, however, is on a personal level.
For Tan, writing is also a voyage of self-discovery. The novels, Tan writes, have allowed her to see "how Chinese I was. And how much had stayed with me that I tried to deny" (cited in Bio).
Background and Review of the Work
The Joy Luck Club is a rich lyrical novel that weaves 16 stories and seven viewpoints into a narrative tapestry. This review focuses on the effectiveness of Tan's multiple viewpoint narrative technique and on her subversions of the submissive Chinese woman stereotype.
One unusual feature of The Joy Luck Club is Tan's explicit inclusion of the mother's perspective. Even as the daughters tell their stories, the voices of the mothers shine through.
For literary critic Marina Heung, Tan's depictions of matrilineage include her in the growing canon of writing that addresses the intersections of race, class and gender. This canon includes works by several important women of color, such as Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston (Heung).
While the tradition was pioneered by African-American writers, women of Asian and Chinese ancestry are adding their stamp to this genre of writing. In addition to Tan, earlier writers like Monica Sone, Joyce Kagawa, Chuang Hua and Maxine Hong Kingston have used "multiple presences, ambivalent stories, and circular and fluid narratives" (Ling, cited in Heung).
Tan's contribution to this tradition is the inclusion of the mother's voice. Indeed, half the novel is devoted to the stories of An-Mei Hsu, Ying-Ying St. Clair, Lindo Jong and Suyuan Woo. Their stories bridge an epic-like telling of a past in China and the more familiar immigrant tales of discrimination and alienation in their new homeland.
Instead of succumbing to the technique of contrasting the liberated American daughters with their weaker, subservient American mother, Tan skillfully plunges the reader into worldview of the mothers. Through their narratives, Tan teases out how the mothers transform "common experiences of pain and victimization into testimonials of mother/daughter bonding" (Heung).
This subversion is particularly evident in the narrative of An-Mei Hsu, who as a child, lived as a second-class citizen with her concubine mother. Like her mother, An-Mei begins her life as passive sufferers who live "like turtles seeing the watery world together from the bottom of the little pond" (Tan 244).
Although she has been estranged from her mother for years, An-Mei recognizes their bond and, at first, seems to believe they share the same fate. An-Mei's early life is a depiction of the lack of choice that limited the lives of Chinese women in the early 20th century. The victim of rape, An-Mei's mother is further taunted by malicious lies that cause social scorn. This loss of status, familial rejection and lack of options force An-Mei's mother to become her rapists' the fourth concubine.
However, within this world of limited choice, An-Mei's mother successfully ensures a better life for her daughter by using her death as a weapon. Through suicide, the mother kills "her own weak spirit so she could give (An-Mei) a stronger one" (Tan 271). Instead of using suicide as an escape, An-Mei's mother uses suicide as both an expression of love for her young daughter and as a way to make her daughter strong.
In this context, suicide is not an act of cowardice or escape, but of strength. On the day of her mother's death, An-Mei says that "she learned to shout" (Tan 272). An-Mei has become strong enough and learns to assert herself.
All in all, the mother's stories are addressed to their daughters as gifts.
Suyuan Woo formed the Joy Luck Club not only as a social gathering for mah-jongg. Instead, Heung observes that the women's gathering provides women with a platform "to transmute the painful history of women...into communal expressions of defiance and hope" (Heung).
Through the medium of storytelling, Tan is able to go beyond mere narration of suffering. Instead, she provides women like An-Mei and Suyuan with chances to reflect on their past experiences and to transform their stories of oppression and suffering. The characters, along with the readers, are then able to appropriate these tales of victimization into narratives of strength, determination and individual empowerment.
Because of its complex narrative and multiple viewpoints, Tan employs a literary…[continue]
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The reader is poignantly aware of the potential for greater communication and understanding, but only in the reader's mind is the dialogicity between positions uncovered and experienced." (Soulis, 1994, p.6) This potential is never perfectly realized in the narrative of the book, as outwardly experienced, but some internal healing and unity between mother and daughter is clearly achieved at the very end. Although they cannot verbally unite, June sees
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