Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3172
Like the works of many late twentieth and early twenty-first century writers, Amy Tan’s books are difficult to classify into a single fictional genre. Although Tan’s works are indisputably novels, readers and critics agree that her fiction fuses several narrative genres: memoir and autobiography, mythology and folktale, history and biography. Moreover, like Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan appropriates and deploys Chinese talk story—a combination of narrative genres from Chinese oral tradition expressed in a local vernacular—to give shape and a distinctive voice to her novels.
Tan’s fictional landscape is both geographically vast and spatially confined. In her first four novels, the American spaces embrace San Francisco and the Bay Area, while the Chinese locations include a large territory from Guilin to Shanghai and encompass time from feudal China to the twentieth century. In her fifth novel, she ventures into new territory—Myanmar, which she calls Burma in the narrative. Between her protagonists’ ancestral homeland and their adopted country, between the United States and Burma, lies the Pacific Ocean, symbolically crossed by the woman and the swan in the tale that begins The Joy Luck Club and traversed in the other direction by the travelers in Saving Fish from Drowning. Nonetheless, the crucial events in Tan’s novels are contained within definitive boundaries: a circumscribed Chinatown neighborhood, the tiny village of Changmian, one-room accommodations for Chinese pilots and their wives, a stuffy apartment crammed with elderly Mah-Jongg enthusiasts, an isolated Karen encampment in the jungle, the remote hamlet of Immortal Heart.
Enclosed by framing narratives set in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the embedded stories in Tan’s novels are set in earlier eras, transporting readers to nineteenth century rural China, war-ravaged Nanking (Nanjing) during World War II, or cosmopolitan Shanghai between the wars. Juxtaposing events separated by decades, Tan parallels the dislocations experienced by immigrants from a familiar culture into an alien one with their daughters’ painful journeys from cultural confusion to acceptance of their dual heritage.
Tan’s protagonists—members of that diasporic community called Asian Americans—represent two groups: Chinese-born immigrants, imperfectly acculturated despite decades of life in the United States, and American-born women of Chinese ancestry, uncomfortably straddling the border between their ethnic heritage and the American milieu that is their home. Enmeshed by their shared histories in California’s ethnic neighborhoods, the women in Tan’s novels struggle to create personal identities that reflect their lives, needs, and desires.
With Saving Fish from Drowning, Tan reworks her themes, developing them through the interactions of characters whose primary identity is as American citizens despite their varied ethnic backgrounds. In this novel, cultural conflict is played out in the experiences of well-meaning Western travelers whose assumptions about the world lead them to manifest disrespect and misunderstanding in their interactions with their Chinese guides and later the Karen tribespeople who kidnap them.
Through her fiction, Tan examines identity—its construction, boundaries, assumptions, and contexts. Indelibly branded by their visible ethnicity, many of Tan’s characters daily negotiate the minefields of cultural disjunction and tensions between Chinese tradition and Americanization, family connections and individual desires. These tensions inevitably surface, causing intergenerational conflict and the disintegration of family relationships as members of the older generation look back to China while their daughters remain firmly connected to California, triggering international incidents when traveling Californians fail to see that the rest of the world is different from their home.
The Joy Luck Club
The Joy Luck Club tells the stories of four mother-daughter pairs: Suyuan and Jing-mei Woo, An-Mei and Rose Hsu Jordan, Lindo and Waverly Jong, and Ying-ying and Lena St. Clair. Implicit in the generational conflicts that erupt between the women is the bicultural angst separating the Chinese-born mothers from their American-born, assimilated daughters. Initially unable to discover common ground, the two groups of women speak different languages, embrace different values, aspire to different ambitions, and lead divergent lives.
The social club of the title binds together the lives of these eight women. As the novel opens, Jing-mei Woo prepares to take her dead mother’s place at the Mah-Jongg table that anchors the club’s activities. During Jing-mei’s first game, the older women beg her to go to China on her mother’s behalf, and their pleas trigger in Jing-mei painful memories of her Chinatown childhood. Jing-mei’s first narrative introduces the other narrators, and, except for Suyuan, whose story emerges through Jing-mei’s, each woman tells her own story.
Representing the immigrant generation that fled China after World War II, the mothers have had difficult early lives: Suyuan Woo is driven to abandon twins to give them a chance to survive, An-Mei Hsu’s mother commits suicide to force her husband to acknowledge An-Mei as his child, Lindo Jong endures an arranged marriage at twelve to an even younger child, and Ying-ying St. Clair, deserted by her first husband, experiences a decade of poverty. In the United States, the mothers must negotiate the traumas of leaving a war-ravaged homeland, starting over in an alien country, and trying to learn a strange language. Through their vicissitudes, they cling to memories of China and to fading traces of their ancestral culture, and they eventually establish stable new lives for themselves.
In contrast with their mothers, the daughters have had good lives—with plenty to eat, comfortable homes, intact families, music lessons, and college educations. Nevertheless, the daughters are discontented and unhappy: Jing-mei is single and aimless, Rose is separated from her husband, Waverly is already divorced, and Lena has summoned up the courage to examine her dysfunctional marriage. Each daughter feels detached from herself, her family, and her community; none of them knows how to reconnect.
The novel traces the evolution of understanding between the mothers and daughters, who are, at the end, finally able to articulate the depth of their caring for each other. The novel concludes when Jing-mei travels to China to meet her two half sisters—the women who were the infants that Suyuan lost in wartime China.
The Kitchen God’s Wife
The Kitchen God’s Wife also explores the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship in the context of cultural and ethnic disjunctions, albeit in less detail than does The Joy Luck Club. This novel focuses on a woman’s journey to wholeness after an eventful life that replicates the Chinese immigrant experience in microcosm. The novel’s title refers to Winnie Louie’s version of the story of the Kitchen God who achieves deity status when he proves to be capable of shame upon discovering that the wife he has mistreated still cares about his welfare. Unfortunately, according to Winnie, the Kitchen God’s wife is denied membership in the Chinese pantheon of deities despite her fidelity.
The novel tells two stories: the sketchy framing narrative involving the widening rift between Winnie and her daughter, Pearl, and the fully developed chronicle of Winnie’s life in China. Through her story, Pearl contextualizes Winnie’s reminiscences, describing a series of events and revelations that ultimately changes their relationship. Required by family obligations to attend the funeral of an ancient “aunt” and the engagement party of a “cousin,” Pearl spends more time with Winnie than she has in many months, and the enforced companionship prompts the younger woman to examine the roots of their estrangement. Winnie, goaded to action by a letter from China that closes a painful chapter in her past, decides to tell Pearl about her life in China.
Save for the early chapters, in which Pearl speaks, and the epilogue, in which Winnie and Pearl deify the Kitchen God’s wife as Lady Sorrowfree, the novel chronicles the eventful life of Jiang Weili—Winnie’s Chinese name—as she negotiates the difficult journey from a privileged childhood through an abusive marriage and the tragedy of war, and ultimately to a secure life in the United States.
The daughter of a wealthy Shanghai merchant, Jiang Weili marries the dashing Wen Fu only to discover after the wedding that he has misrepresented his family’s wealth and status. Worse yet, he turns out to be an adulterer, abuser, and pathological liar. Forced to follow her pilot husband as he is posted to different cities during the war, Weili tries to be a good wife and mother, laboring to establish a home wherever they happen to be assigned. She must spend her dowry for family expenses when Wen Fu gambles away his pay or squanders it on a mistress. After silently enduring her miserable existence and the deaths of her two children, Winnie finally escapes to the United States and a new life with Jimmy Louie.
The Hundred Secret Senses
Unlike Tan’s first two novels, which examine the dynamics of the mother-daughter dyad, The Hundred Secret Senses explores the psychological and emotional bonds between sisters. Still, the novel displays several characteristics common to Tan’s fiction: conflict between generations in immigrant families, multiple points of view, a strong grounding in Chinese culture and history, and compelling narratives.
Although The Hundred Secret Senses is Olivia’s story, Kwan is central to every narrative in the novel. One of Tan’s most stunningly original creations, Kwan is an energetic woman who is Chinese at the core despite having adopted Western dress and American slang. Kwan claims to have yin eyes, which she describes as an ability to see and converse with the dead, whom she calls “yin people.”
Central to the novel is the uncomfortable relationship between American-born Olivia and her Chinese sister, Kwan, who arrived in San Francisco at eighteen. Although sharing a father, the two women are markedly different: Olivia, whose mother is American, is completely Westernized; Kwan, born to a Chinese first wife, never completely assimilates, remaining predominantly Chinese. Embarrassed by Kwan’s exuberant Chineseness, Olivia resists her sister’s attempts to form a close relationship. She declines invitations, evades contact, and refuses all overtures of friendship. Despite Olivia’s coolness, Kwan continues her friendly attempts to be a real sister to Olivia, whose unhappiness is palpable. Maneuvering Olivia and Olivia’s estranged husband, Simon, into a trip to the hills beyond Guilin in China, Kwan engineers a situation that forces Olivia and Simon to reassess their relationship and take tentative steps toward reconciliation.
Paralleling Olivia’s story and embedded in the novel are Kwan’s puzzling narratives about a previous life when—she claims—she was a woman called Nunumu, a Chinese servant to a group of missionaries. In that household, Nunumu was befriended by Nelly Banner, a young American woman whose passion for a deceitful adventurer imperils the group and whose love for a half-breed results in death for herself and Nunumu. The intertwined stories of Nunumu and Nelly Banner are set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion, led by a charismatic leader who claimed to be Jesus’ younger brother.
As in her first two novels, Tan establishes clear parallels between past and present, between historical events and contemporary problems, between East and West, China and the United States. Constantly relaying messages from her yin friends, who seem inordinately interested in Olivia’s marital problems, Kwan manages to manipulate Olivia to the brink of believing that she, Olivia, has somehow participated in Nunumu’s life, has experienced fear of approaching rebel soldiers, and has faced death on a rainy hillside. Whether Olivia truly had a previous life and once was Nelly Banner is never made clear—what is certain at the end of the novel is Olivia’s understanding of the unbreakable ties of love and affection that exist between sisters, friends, and lovers.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter
With its two parallel narratives, The Bonesetter’s Daughter adds a layer of complexity to Tan’s ongoing analysis of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Structured in three parts, the novel introduces Ruth Young, a successful Chinese American ghostwriter who specializes in self-help books although her personal life is a failure: Her ten-year relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Art, is deteriorating, and she is struggling with her mother, Luling, who is increasingly forgetful and erratic. When Luling’s doctor diagnoses a form of dementia, Ruth is catapulted into the realization that family stories as well as her mother’s history are in danger of disappearing. Recalling that her mother gave her a copy of her autobiography calligraphed in Chinese, Ruth arranges to have the manuscript translated, hoping to find the key to understanding her mother’s fixation with ghosts and the past.
Set in the remote Chinese village of Immortal Heart just prior to and during World War II, the middle of the novel is narrated by Luling, who tells her own story as well as that of Precious Auntie, her nursemaid—and the title character whose suicide defines the rest of Luling’s life. Embedded in the story is the mystery of how the once-beautiful Precious Auntie, who was famous for assisting her father in his work as a “bone doctor,” has become a mute and horribly disfigured servant who communicates only through sign language and grunts. When Precious Auntie kills herself in despair over Luling’s impending marriage, the truth is revealed—she is Luling’s real mother. Racked by guilt over her part in the suicide, Luling spends the rest of her life fretting that she never recovered Precious Auntie’s body from the deep gorge into which it was thrown.
The final section of the novel focuses on Ruth’s new insights into her family history. As a child, she had resented Luling’s overprotectiveness and obsession with ghosts, unaware that Luling was trying in her own way to correct the past. Understanding her mother’s life provides Ruth with a context for making sense of her own history and its impact on the present, and she is able finally to embrace her life and communicate her desires.
The dominant image in the novel is that of bones—the dragon bones used to heal injuries, the oracle bone that is Luling’s legacy from Precious Auntie, the bones of Peking man that draw American scientists to Immortal Heart, the ground-up bones that are a secret ingredient in the ink that Luling’s family makes. At the end of the novel, Luling, who is deep in happy memories of the past, finally remembers Precious Auntie’s family name: Gu, meaning “bone” but also “character” and “gorge,” meanings that resonate with the intertwined narratives of Tan’s characters.
Communication is at the heart of The Bonesetter’s Daughter. In China, Luling translates Precious Auntie’s gestures into language; in California, Ruth translates Luling’s Chinese into English. Luling is a superb calligrapher, shaping Chinese characters into art; Ruth makes a good living by transforming other people’s ideas into best-selling books. Luling is unable to show her love for Ruth, however, and Ruth finds it impossible to communicate her feelings to Art. Baffled by Ruth’s wall of silence, Art cannot tell her that he loves her, and their relationship is failing. Significantly, each year during the annual meteor shower, Ruth loses her voice for a week, thus absolving herself from communication with everyone.
Saving Fish from Drowning
Tan’s fifth novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, opens with a quote from Albert Camus and a folktale that provides the novel’s title. The Camus quote, “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding,” segues neatly into the tale of a pious man who catches fish because he wants to save them from drowning.
In many ways, this novel is a departure from Tan’s earlier work: Most of the central characters are Caucasians, nearly all of them are Americans, and some of the notable ones—including the Chinese and Karen—are men. Furthermore, although there are parent-child pairings in the group, the only mother-daughter tension, Bibi’s fraught relationship with her stepmother, is in the past tense. Tan’s signature focus on cultural conflict is very much a part of the novel, however, albeit in a new form.
Narrated by Bibi Chen, a San Francisco antiques dealer and socialite who died in a bizarre accident, the novel chronicles the adventures of twelve Californians on an art tour on the Burma Road through China and Myanmar. The travelers run the gamut from a nonprofit administrator to a hypochondriac who travels with an arsenal of medications, from a British dog trainer to a Darwinian biologist. Having originally instigated and planned the journey, which she called “Following Buddha’s Footsteps,” Bibi joins the group as an opinionated ghost who comments on the events as they transpire and occasionally interferes with arrangements.
The China section of the journey is something of a comic travelogue that has serious undertones. The tourists behave much like well-intentioned but unthinking travelers—they desecrate a shrine because they mistake it for a urinal, they romanticize rural landscapes, they judge everything they encounter from a Western perspective. Once they cross into Myanmar, however, the reason for the novel’s title becomes clearer and the narrative takes on a darker tone.
On a Christmas morning boat trip to see the sunrise, eleven of the travelers are kidnapped by Karen tribesmen who mistake one of the Californians for a Jesus figure, the Younger White Brother for whom they have been waiting for a century. The oblivious travelers are unaware that they are captives, believing that they are trapped in the Karen encampment because a bridge has fallen into a ravine; the tribe’s members, meanwhile, fail to realize that their god is merely an American teenager who is singularly adept at card tricks. Left behind because of a hangover when his friends took their sunrise trip, Harry, the celebrity dog trainer, embarks on a picaresque media and public-relations campaign to rescue them from their jungle prison. All eventually ends well, but not until Tan has raised a number of serious issues and questions.
Saving Fish from Drowning turns the spotlight on cultural collisions, not only those created by well-meaning Westerners who travel in the name of “saving” people in developing countries but also those conflicts caused by repressive governments that seek to destroy traditional lifestyles and practices. The travelers find themselves in the middle of both types of conflicts, and they are forced to confront their assumptions and to question the consequences of their actions. If they escape from the jungle camp, what will happen to their captors who have become their friends? Can they save both themselves and the tribe? Tan also questions the role of the news media, particularly in tense situations—does media coverage help to redress a problem, or does it exacerbate tensions to the point of no return? What if good intentions have bad results? Finally, although the novel skirts lightly around the real-world situation in Myanmar, the plight of the Karen tribespeople sets the stage for discussions of moral responsibility and truth telling.
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