Download Amy Tan Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Amy Tan Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 3,172 words.)