Amy Tan’s voice is an important one among a group of “hyphenated Americans” (such as African Americans and Asian Americans) who describe the experiences of members of ethnic minority groups. Her short fiction is grounded in a Chinese tradition of “talk story” (gong gu tsai) a folk art form by which characters pass on values and teach important lessons through narrative. Other writers, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, employ a similar narrative strategy.
A central theme of Tan’s stories is the conflict faced by Chinese Americans who find themselves alienated both from their American milieu and from their Chinese parents and heritage. Other themes include storytelling, memory, and the complex relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and sisters. By using narrators from two generations, Tan explores the relationships between past and present. Her stories juxtapose the points of view of characters (husband and wife, mother and daughter, sisters) who struggle with each other, misunderstand each other, and grow distant from each other. Like Tan, other ethnic writers such as Louise Erdrich use multiple voices to retell stories describing the evolution of a cultural history.
Tan’s stories derive from her own experience as a Chinese American and from stories of Chinese life her mother told her. They reflect her early conflicts with her strongly opinionated mother and her growing understanding and appreciation of her mother’s past and her strength in adapting to her new country. Daisy’s early life, about which Tan gradually learned, was difficult and dramatic. Daisy’s mother, Jing-mei (Amy Tan’s maternal grandmother), was forced to become the concubine of a wealthy man after her husband’s death. Spurned by her family and treated cruelly by the man’s wives, she committed suicide. Her tragic life became the basis of Tan’s story “Magpies,” retold by An-mei Hsu in The Joy Luck Club. Daisy was raised by relatives and married to a brutal man. After her father’s death, Tan learned that her mother had been married in China and left behind three daughters. This story became part of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife.
Tan insists that, like all writers, she writes from her own experience and is not representative of any ethnic group. She acknowledges her rich Chinese background and combines it with typically American themes of love, marriage, and freedom of choice. Her first-person style is also an American feature.
The Joy Luck Club
Although critics call it a novel, Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club as a collection of sixteen short stories told by the club members and their daughters. Each chapter is a complete unit, and five of them have been published separately in short-story anthologies. Other writers, such as the American authors Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) and Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place), and the Canadian Margaret Laurence (A Bird in the House), have built linked story collections around themes or groups of characters.
The framework for The Joy Luck Club is formed by members of a mah-jongg club, immigrants from China, who tell stories of their lives in China and their families in the United States. The first and fourth sections are the...
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