Amy Tan, born in Oakland, California, as the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, gained both popular and critical acclaim by writing about relationships between Chinese immigrants and their American-born children. The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan’s second novel, shares many incidents with the life of her mother, Daisy Tan, who had escaped an abusive marriage to come to the United States.
The Kitchen God’s Wife is written in first person from two different perspectives. Pearl Louie Brandt’s voice introduces the novel and takes up the narrative again near the end, providing a frame narrative for her mother’s story. The bulk of the novel, however, is Winnie Louie’s story and is told in her voice. Winnie often interrupts her own story to explain Chinese words, to ask for Pearl’s approval, or to compare her understanding of the past with that of Helen Kwong, her close friend. These interruptions serve to emphasize that Winnie is finally telling her own story after being silenced for most of her life; they also remind the reader that the story is being told orally, allowing the novel to draw on the traditional talk-story. Talk stories constitute an oral genre that transmits crucial cultural information within a family context, a particularly appropriate genre for a novel that also retells a tale in the oral tradition, that of the Kitchen God. Finally, by reminding the readers that they are “listening in” on a story that Pearl is hearing, Winnie’s self-interruptions create a cozy family setting that contrasts strongly with the harsh realities of Winnie’s first marriage.
Tan’s style in the frame narrative adheres closely to standard American English, but during Winnie’s narrative, Tan attempts to re-create the vivid and compelling, if imperfect, English spoken by her mother. To this end, she uses an abundance of descriptive detail, along with simple sentences with occasional syntactic irregularities and a few Chinese words that do not translate exactly. These strategies serve both to strengthen the reader’s sense of Winnie’s character and to validate the kind of English that she speaks. Some critics have objected to Tan’s use of Chinese-seeming details as reinforcing a stereotyped American image of China, but others...
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