Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Amy Tan 1952–
(Full name Amy Ruth Tan) Chinese American novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Tan's career through 1996.
Amy Tan gained immediate popularity and garnered high praise from critics with her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989). The novel explores the unique situation of the...
(The entire section contains 57958 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Amy Tan 1952–
(Full name Amy Ruth Tan) Chinese American novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Tan's career through 1996.
Amy Tan gained immediate popularity and garnered high praise from critics with her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989). The novel explores the unique situation of the Asian-American immigrant, but has universal appeal in its expression of the conflict inherent in mother-daughter relationships. Tan's next two novels were also both popular and highly acclaimed.
Tan's father, John Tan, an engineer and Baptist minister, immigrated to the United States from China in 1947. Her mother, Daisy, came to the United States from China in 1949, leaving behind three daughters from a previous marriage. Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952, and given the Chinese name En-Mai (Blessing of America). Throughout her childhood, Tan's mother told her stories about her Chinese heritage, and she uses these stories in her fiction to emphasize the importance of the act of storytelling. Tan lost both her older brother Peter and her father to brain cancer in the late 1960s. After their deaths, her mother decided to move the rest of the family to Europe in order to escape what she felt to be the evil of their diseased house in California. Tan rebelled while in Europe and was arrested when only sixteen years old. When her family returned to the United States, she entered Linfield College in Oregon, where she intended to study medicine, but decided to pursue a degree in English. Tan transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned her bachelor of arts degree in 1973. In 1974 she married Lou DiMattei and received her master's degree in English and linguistics. Tan enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of California Berkeley, but withdrew from the program in 1976 after the murder of her best friend. From 1976 to 1981 she worked as a language-development specialist for disabled children. She edited a medical journal and worked as a technical writer during the 1980s. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, brought her instant acclaim and rose quickly on the New York Times best-seller list. She followed her initial success with a second critically acclaimed novel, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991).
Through sixteen interconnected stories told by four immigrants from China and their four American-born daughters, The Joy Luck Club illuminates the nature of mother-daughter relationships in both cultures. The theme of Tan's novel focuses on the impact of past generations on the present. The structure, in which the daughters' eight stories are enveloped by those of the mothers, implies that the older generation may hold a key to resolving the problems of the young. The Kitchen God's Wife again tackles mother-daughter relationships, but this time Tan limits herself to one family and the relationship between Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl. The relationship between Winnie Louie and Pearl is strained because of the secrets they keep from each other. It is only when they reveal their secrets that they establish a connection. The Moon Lady (1992) is a children's story based on an episode from The Joy Luck Club which is derived from a Chinese legend. In The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), Tan focuses on the relationship between two sisters: Olivia, an American-born daughter of a Chinese father, and Kwan; her older Chinese-born sister from her father's previous marriage. The conflict in this novel arises from Kwan's mystical belief in ghosts and previous lives and Olivia's pragmatic attachment to the concrete and the real.
Praising Tan's storytelling abilities, commentators note that the chapters of The Joy Luck Club could stand on their own as short stories. Merle Rubin asserted, "Each story is a gem, complete in itself. Yet each is further enhanced by its relationship (direct or indirect) with the others." Tan is often compared to Maxine Hong Kingston in her presentation of the Asian immigrant's experience in America. Criticism leveled against Tan includes the implausibility of The Hundred Secret Senses, particularly the physical evidence of Kwan's previous life; and reviewers question the authenticity of Tan's descriptions of Chinese life in her novels, even though others cite her particularization of Chinese culture as one of her greatest talents. Helen Yglesias stated that "it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm." Reviewers consistently laud Tan's gift as a story teller and the compelling nature of her narratives. Elgy Gillespie stated, "Once again I found myself reading Amy Tan all night, unable to put the story down until I knew what happened in the end, sniffling when I got to the sad bits … and finally going to sleep at dawn with the conviction that Tan had provided an education for the heart."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34
The Joy Luck Club (novel) 1989
The Kitchen God's Wife (novel) 1991
The Moon Lady (children's literature) 1992
The Joy Luck Club [with Ronald Bass] (screenplay) 1993
The Chinese Siamese Cat (children's literature) 1994
The Hundred Secret Senses (novel) 1995
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
SOURCE: "Chinese-American 'Bridge' Club," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, No. 102, April 21, 1989, p. 13.
[In the following review, Rubin asserts, "In Tan's hands, these linked stories [of The Joy Luck Club]—diverse as they are—fit almost magically into a powerfully coherent novel."]
Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is a touching, funny, sad, insightful, and artfully constructed group portrait of four mother-daughter relationships that endure not only a generation gap, but the more unbridgeable gap between two cultures.
The Joy Luck Club is an informal "institution" started by Suyuan Woo upon her arrival in San Francisco in 1949. Suyuan finds three other Chinese immigrant women to play mah jongg, cook and consume special foods, tell stories, gossip, invest in stocks, and plan for joy and luck. In the years that follow, the club links the four families, enabling them to pool resources and keeping them in touch with their past as they take on the challenges of adjusting to a new country.
Nearly 40 years after the first meeting, as the novel opens, Suyuan Woo has died and her place at the mah jongg table is assumed by her 36-year-old daughter, Jing-mei. Like many another American-born child of immigrants, Jing-mei has little understanding of her mother's values or the world that shaped them, although recently, the general interest in ethnicity has prompted her to revive her Chinese name, "Jing-mei," in preference to the American "June May," and has made her more curious about her roots.
When her Joy Luck "aunties" (Lindo Jong, An-mei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair) offer Jing-mei a trip to China to meet her long-lost half sisters, whom Suyuan was forced to abandon as infants while fleeing war-torn Guilin, the "aunties" (now edging into their 70s) urge Jing-mei to tell her half sisters the story of the mother they never knew. The trouble is, Jing-mei feels she never really knew her mother, either—a feeling shared by the other Joy Luck daughters: Waverly Jong, Rose Hsu Jordan, and Lena St. Clair. The daughters' difficulty in comprehending their mothers is echoed by the mothers' frustration at not being able to pass on the benefits of their accumulated wisdom and experience.
The 16 linked stories that make up this novel fill in both sides of the gap: four sections of four stories each, told by seven voices. In the first section, "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away," we hear the voices of the four mothers (with the exception of the late Suyuan Woo, whose story is told by Jing-mei), each with a memorable, even shocking, tale of life in China. The next two sections contain stories by the four daughters: recollections of mother-dominated childhoods under the rubric "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" (a Chinese book spelling out the various hazards—26 of them—awaiting hapless infants) and accounts of adult life under the heading "American Translation." In the fourth section, "Queen Mother of the Western Skies," the mothers speak again, this time about their lives in America and their daughters, and in the closing story, Jing-mei goes to China to meet her half sisters.
Each story is a gem, complete in itself. Yet each is further enhanced by its relationship (direct or indirect) with the others. The range is remarkable: The author deftly captures the neurotic comedy of contemporary life styles and the scarring tragedies of the hidden Chinese past.
It's amazing how much plot; character, drama, and atmosphere are crammed into these short (15-page) narratives: the comic warfare of mothers competing over whose daughter is the most talented; the bitter experiences of a Chinese concubine; the ingenuity of a Chinese girlfaced with the fait accompli of an arranged marriage; the courage of a mother struggling to cope with the loss of a child. By the time we are through, we—and Jing-mei—fully appreciate the determination and pathos of the mothers' efforts to mold their daughters' characters, as well as the daughters' inevitable reactions.
As a testament of Chinese-American life, The Joy Luck Club may well be compared to Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men and The Woman Warrior. Like them, it makes exceptionally good use of short stories to present the many strands of an intricate cultural tapestry. Tan's style is warmer and less austere than Kingston's, and her subject matter offers a more direct emotional appeal to the reader.
In Tan's hands, these linked stories—diverse as they are—fit almost magically into a powerfully coherent novel, whose winning combination of ingredients—immigrant experience, mother-daughter ties, Pacific Rim culture—make it a book with the "good luck" to be in the right place at the right time. This first novel is a featured alternate of two major book clubs and is being serialized in four magazines. It also happens to be a novel that deserves its fortune.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
SOURCE: "Your Mother is in Your Bones," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 12.
[In the following review, Cheng praises Tan's The Joy Luck Club for its accessibility and vision.]
With clarity of voice and lucidity of vision, Amy Tan's delightful first novel, The Joy Luck Club, reveals to us that for all life's contradictions and tragedies, the true path of existence is convergence.
This is a hard faith to hold when modern life seems so cacophonous, so divisive. But it is key for immigrants to this country who must try to adjust to the new world without being swallowed up by it, who must raise children whose first impulse is to reject their cultural heritage. The frustration is especially deep for those immigrants cut off from their homeland, as were the Chinese who fled from the extremist politics and social upheaval of postwar China.
Tan's book revolves around four such immigrant women and their daughters, each chapter unfolding in the first-person voice of one of them. Some begin their tale far back in China, a world of traditions both suffocating and embracing; some start here in the United States, where the plethora of choices sometimes leads to making the wrong one. All are beautifully interwoven with legend and memory, archetype and longing. Like Maxine Hong Kingston's brilliant The Woman Warrior, published more than a decade ago, these tales blend the mythical and the mundane, and the endings are often astonishing connections of the two.
The mothers meet in California shortly after World War II and form a mah jong quartet, the Joy Luck Club. Even under hard-pressed financial and social conditions, they sit down regularly to play at the noisy game of tiles, to eat delicacies, and to "say stories." The daughters are born in the Chinese ghettos of California, growing up ashamed of their un-mainstream backgrounds and eccentric mothers.
With the mothers and daughters split by historical, geographic, and cultural experience, misunderstandings and cross purposes abound. As the novel begins, Jing-mei "June" Woo, the central "I" of the novel, sits down with mixed emotions to the Joy Luck Club table. She is taking the place of her mother, who has recently died, and must overcome her lifelong view of the club as a "shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war."
Unexpectedly, the three "aunties" reveal that her mother's first two children—daughters left behind in China—are alive. They give her the mission of returning to China to tell them about their mother. June protests that she did not really know her. "Not know your own mother?" one auntie cries out. "How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!"
Conversations with the "aunties" remind June of painful distances: "My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more."
Language itself has been a major gap. When June's mother once tried to explain the difference between Jewish mah jong and Chinese mah jong, June's puzzlement led her to think, "These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese." The two languages are literal, as well as figurative, because even in English the mothers speak with the cadence and the mindset of the Chinese. While they frequently mangle idioms—"college drop-off" for college drop-out and "so-so security" for social security—these inadvertent neologisms are uncannily apt, as are the mothers' twisted observations of American life.
Tan also demonstrates that a fundamental faith in invisible forces pervades traditional Chinese culture and that this, too, divides the first and second generations. For example, Waverly Jong is taught the "art of invisible strength" at the age of six by her mother. When Waverly launches on an unexpected career as a junior chess champion, her mother proudly shepherds her around, dispensing folksy advice like, "It is just tricks. You blow from the North, South, East, and West. The other person becomes confused. They don't know which way to run."
But being modern and increasingly cocky with her success, Waverly resents what she feels to be her mother's misplaced credit taking. One day she tells her mother off on a Chinatown street, and this, incredibly, is the beginning of the end of her prodigious career. Too late, "I realized my mother knew more tricks than I had thought."
Amy Tan has managed to express the sense and sensibility of being Chinese in a remarkably accessible way, while remaining uncompromisingly true to her own experience, her own vision. Each chapter has a self-contained quality—several were published individually in magazines—and is a marvel unto itself. However, they are tied together so adroitly in the end that your mind burns long afterward, and the book's dedication to Tan's mother and "the memory of her mother" returns to haunt you: "You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
SOURCE: "Pangs of an Abandoned Child," in New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991, p. 9.
[In the following review, Forman Dew points out a few problems with Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife, but concludes that the novel is "in the end, greatly satisfying."]
Within the peculiar construction of Amy Tan's second novel is a harrowing, compelling and at times bitterly humorous tale in which an entire world unfolds in a Tolstoyan tide of event and detail. No doubt it was daunting to attempt a second book in the wake of the enormous success of The Joy Luck Club, but none of Ms. Tan's fans will be disappointed. The Kitchen God's Wife is a more ambitious effort and, in the end, greatly satisfying.
The novel gets off to a slow start, but Ms. Tan eventually relates the story of Jiang Weili (Weiwei) from the time she was 6 years old in the China of 1925 through the present, in which she is Winnie Louie, the widowed matriarch of an extended Chinese family living in San Francisco. It is unfortunate that we first encounter her through the eyes of her 40-year-old daughter, Pearl, because Winnie seems disappointingly stereotypical. She is full of dour aphorisms, is preternaturally cranky and so intrusive that Pearl has kept secret for seven years the fact that she is afflicted with multiple sclerosis.
Perhaps it is Ms. Tan's intention to present us with a formulaic character and then slowly reveal to us our own misconceptions. But I believe she was searching for a subtle way to pose a philosophical question. I think she faced the problem of how to tell the amazing tale she needed to tell and persuade us to ponder it apart from being merely entertained by it. In the long run, she succeeds in this remarkable book, even though her method is initially awkward and sometimes downright unbelievable.
It turns out that it is not only Pearl who has been hiding a crucial truth for so many years. Winnie also has harbored secrets that, for various reasons, she finally feels compelled to relate to her daughter. The method of this revelation, however, is labored. Winnie persuades her daughter to visit one afternoon, serves her a bowl of soup, a cup of tea, and for the next three hundred pages or so relates the story of her life while Pearl sits at her mother's kitchen table.
Amy Tan manages to get away with this, although it is irritating each time she insists on bringing us back from Winnie's mesmerizing tale. Whenever Winnie halts her narrative to ask her daughter some question whose answer we only infer—Pearl does not speak—Ms. Tan challenges our suspension of disbelief. But never mind. These occasional intrusions are momentary and, indeed, it is very nearly hypnotic to be submerged in the convoluted story of the life of Jiang Weili.
Her mother abandoned her under mysterious circumstances when Weiwei was 6; she was sent away from her father's prosperous, communal household in Shanghai to live with her paternal uncle's family in the countryside. Over 60 years later Winnie Louie still suffers the pangs of the abandoned child she once was: "For many years, my mother was the source of funny and bad stories, terrible secrets and romantic tales…. I felt so bad to hear them. And yet I could not stop myself from listening. I wanted to know how it could be that my mother left me, never telling me why…. Now I no longer know which story is the truth…. They are all the same, all true, all false. So much pain in every one." And so, too, is the reader persuaded that all is true, all is false, as the tale unwinds.
Her mother's disappearance is the first of many losses, humiliations and sorrows so great that it is only Weiwei's exasperated humor and her tone of harsh certainty—a kind of bossiness—that maintains credulity. In 1937, when she was 18, she made what she had hoped would be a marriage that would change her luck, that would remove her from a household in which she was treated kindly, but certainly not cherished. Her marriage to the dashing young pilot Wen Fu, however, was disastrous almost from the first day. Her desperation first to comprehend and then to escape the brutality and degradation of this union shapes the rest of her story, which carries through World War II in China to Weiwei's second marriage and eventual immigration to the United States.
As Weiwei's story encompasses the deaths of her first three children and the further disintegration of her first husband's boorish and finally psychotic personality, we begin to understand that this is a chronicle not only of a woman's victimization, but of the unwitting conspiracy within society to ignore and therefore perpetuate the condition. There are still, unfortunately, many contemporary parallels. Ms. Tan also manages, even within often tragic circumstances, to illuminate the nobility of friendship and the necessity of humor.
But the major question posed by the investigation of the life of Jiang Weili/Weiwei/Winnie is how much our circumstance is fated and how much is shaped by individual choice, or if, in fact, fate and individual choice are even entirely separate things. This idea is like an undercurrent throughout Winnie's tale, and I wish Ms. Tan had not underscored her point by making the equation between the horrors that befell Winnie and the disease that has befallen her daughter. This is not to say that multiple sclerosis is less terrible a deprivation of autonomy, but Jiang Weili was trapped in a time and culture that all but precluded individual choice in her case; her daughter has been stripped of a degree of individual choice by her disease. The problem, however, is that the consequences the two women endure are simply not equally horrific, and Pearl's real despair and fear, when she finally confides in her mother, is diminished in our minds when we inevitably make the comparison.
I would rather not have had to deal with this problem when talking about The Kitchen God's Wife. I would rather say something to the reader much like what I said to my children in their early teens when I urged them to press on through War and Peace: "It's not important the first time around to worry about the names, the war or the peace; just read it to see what happens." That's what I want to convey. Don't worry about the obstacle of the framework of this novel, simply give yourself over to the world Ms. Tan creates for you. It's the story she tells that really matters.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1551
SOURCE: "Amy, Angst, and the Second Novel," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1991, pp. 33-4.
[In the following review, Gillespie discusses the problem of a second novel and asserts that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife is both different from her first novel and successful in its own right.]
Granted, she has her reasons. When Amy Tan wrote amusingly and tellingly about "Angst and the Second Novel" in a recent Publishers Weekly, she was so sympatico about the frightening game of fiction that it seemed unfair to those who usually call the shots around here: the reviewers. In essence, our Amy defanged all her potential critics, silencing us with the sheer weight of her apprehension, guilt-tripping them in advance.
The Second Novel, she said, is always compared to the first, specially if the first was an unexpected runaway success; and the First Hit Novel is the curse from which few best-selling authors can ever recover: "It's like the kid brother sticking his tongue out going nyah-nyah-nyah." And critics are always worse when the First Novel was really big—like Tan's best-selling The Joy Luck Club.
"With the first," Tan continues, "they put you on this great big pedestal. But by the time The Second Book comes around, you realize you're not sitting on a pedestal at all. It's one of those collapsible chairs above a tank of water at the county fair." After that, to slap The Kitchen God's Wife would be brutish. But there would be a scintilla of resentment attached to any praise—for how can a reviewer experience the new book adequately and objectively after the neurosis cited by Tan? And, since this book is more about mothers and daughters—a particular Chinese mother called Winnie in Shanghai during the forties and her life story and her feelings towards her daughters—we may be forgiven for reacting with skepticism to Tan's assertion that this book is no replay.
Whatsamatta, Amy? Tired of being appreciated so highly, suspicious that overvaunting praise must come before a fall? Listen up: this is show biz, sister, and you can take your reviews right on the chin. Playwright Brendan Behan used to say that critics were mere eunuchs, willing to carp and destroy because of their naked envy; they knew what was being done but could not do it themselves. In the end, though, Behan would have been a eunuch himself without those castrated critics.
Maybe the reason for Tan's Second Book nerves is because this time she did it without a safety net, so to speak. She has been writing by herself instead of taking each new chapter to her weekly writing class, as she did with Joy Luck. Both are dedicated to her writing-class teacher, Molly Giles, and her peers in the class were certainly also a major influence on the first book. After three false starts, with exhortations to make Chinese customs more accessible, to stop starting sentences with "And …," as well as to iron out inconsistencies, Tan delivered her firstborn to agent Sandra Dijkstra.
But this one came into the world sans those extra midwives. "You can say this," reported Molly Giles, when I asked about her influence on Tan's progress as a writer, "She has gone out on her own now and that's the way it should be. That's the aim of the writing class. To help a writer go out on their own." Tan still holds the classes in her house every week, but is very often away on reading or speaking engagements at schools and libraries of one kind or another, the kind of gigs that swell your fans and disarm any critics and which are necessary for writers now.
The Kitchen God's Wife begins as Pearl-ah, a young Chinese-American woman at a big family reunion, starts to tease out the relationships between her relatives from Chinatown and the Avenues, only to discover that her mother, Winnie, had several children before Pearl was born. We then abandon the story of Pearl and her mother's second family and go back to where Winnie's story begins, in the first person. As the third wife of a rich Shanghai merchant, Winnie's mother is a melancholy figure right up to her sudden and unexplained death. Married off young to the evil and vicious Wen-Fu, Winnie endures the loss of her children and her husband's infidelities and abuse during the upheaval of the Japanese invasion. Her life as Wen-Fu's wretched victim is ended by the arrival of the Allies, when she meets Pearl's father, loses him again when she is jailed, and is finally swept away to San Francisco. It is a story with a believably happy ending, for Winnie is delivered from her torturer and reunited with her American love.
The raves have already started for The Kitchen God's Wife ("A ravishing, vivid, graceful, and unforgettable tale of womanhood, endurance and love, lit by gentle humor and the healing aspect of truth. Stock up. Amy Tan's admirers are growing into a voracious legion," said American Librarian). But Tan may have a point about critics and the Second Book.
Like others, I took up The Joy Luck Club somewhat skeptically, unable to believe a blockbuster that had hogged the top of the New York Times Book Review best-sellers list could be anything other than a schlockbuster. But if I felt that tinge of resentment about Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife I soon forgot it, just as the slight condescension I had felt towards its predecessor vanished the moment I forgot the best-seller charts and began to read. It is indeed possible to pull off a second novel as good as (and perhaps better than) the first. It is also quite possible for a best-seller to be an estimable piece of writing as well as a ripping read, something I only came to credit quite recently. Once again I found myself reading Amy Tan all night, unable to put the story down until I knew what happened in the end, sniffling when I got to the sad bits (specially the loss of Yiku and Danru, Winnie's first babies) and finally going to sleep at dawn with the conviction that Tan had provided an education for the heart.
There is a poem by the Irishman Derek Mahon called "In a Disused Shed in County Wexford," in which a man who stumbles upon trays of forgotten mushrooms growing unseen in the darkness compares them to the lost victims of history and to "magi, moonmen, lost people of Treblinka." Millions of lives lived in obscurity, oceans of pain and suffering, are recalled by their sad round white faces glowing in the blackness of the forgotten. Tan's second book is further testimony to the endurance of the human spirit, to the many privations and humiliations borne by the unseen and unheard victims—particularly those who were female—in China's recent history.
You may have seen The Last Emperor, you may have read Empire of the Sun, and you may have a notion that you know the tiniest bit about what happened in Harbin and Tientsin and Shanghai in the forties, Tienanmen in the eighties. But after reading this book, you will see how little you knew about the forgotten millions whose homes you may one day snap as a tourist, and their brave but often futile efforts to survive and carry on. In Mahon's words, "You with your light meter and your relaxed itinerary / Let not our naive labors have been in vain!"
If anything, The Kitchen God's Wife is a more satisfying book than its predecessor. It deals with the same themes, but more profoundly and sensitively, and its linear structure allows puzzles to be unraveled and truths to unfurl along the way. Its characterization is sometimes exaggerated and comic, but its dialogue is so natural that the people practically stand beside you. There are some splendidly cinematic scenes—the meeting of Winnie and her Chinese-American true love, Jimmy Louie, for instance, in a crowded, drunken dance-hall, where she is confronted with two hideous sights: her own vicious and jealous husband who abuses her in front of everyone, and a shamed Chinese wife who is being passed along from soldier to soldier like an unstrung puppet.
As a backdrop, of course, we learn more about the nature of arranged marriages in Chinese societies and also about the kind of inter-wifely accommodation arranged by second or third wives and their offspring. It is like being invited into a dusty room full of castoffs, and being given a chance to re-apprehend them in their former richness. We get to understand how this society worked, and we understand how, why, and from where Chinese-American society evolved. All this is the most important job of fiction, of course; and since Chinese women lived lives not just of forgotten obscurity, but of hermetically sealed oblivion, Tan is handing us a key with no price tag and letting us open the brass-bolted door.
Despite some superficial similarities between The Joy Luck Club, with its mother-daughter mah jong-style symmetry, and The Kitchen God's Wife, with its deepened mother-daughter dynamic, the new novel bears out Tan's claim that it is different. It is at once simpler and truer; the voice firm, unalloyed. Tan's army of sisterly defenders have nothing to fear.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321
SOURCE: "Luck Dispensers," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 13, July 11, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald states that it is the attitude of the older generation that distinguishes Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife.]
Amy Tan was born in San Francisco soon after her parents emigrated from Communist China. A few years ago she joined a Writers' Circle, which told her, as Writers' Circles always do, to write what she had seen herself. She wrote about what she had seen herself and what she hadn't—her own experience and her mother's. She produced a long, complex and seductive narrative, The Joy Luck Club, which was one of the best-sellers of 1989. The Joy Luck Club itself is a group of young wives, stuck in Kweilin during the Japanese invasion, who keep up their spirits by playing mah jong with paper money which has become worthless. All four of them escape to California, and one of them, as an old woman, wants to tell her Americanised daughter, who has 'swallowed more Coca Colas than sorrows', what happened to them, then and afterwards. But the story at best will be no more than a fragment of the whole memory—like a single feather from a swan that has flown.
In The Kitchen God's Wife Amy Tan returns to more or less the same material, seen in a more comic but at the same time a sadder light. The Kitchen God, surely one of the most irritating minor deities ever conceived, was once a rich farmer called Zhang, with a kind and patient wife. But he chased her out of the house, spent all his substance on another woman and reduced himself to beggary. Nearly at death's door, he was carried into the kitchen of a charitable lady who took pity on the unfortunate. Ay-ya! The lady was none other than his wife! Ashamed, Zhang tried to hide in the fireplace, and was burned to ashes. But when he reached the other world, the Jade Emperor rewarded him, because he had admitted his fault, by making him the Kitchen God and entrusting him with the task of watching over human behaviour and deciding who deserved good luck, who bad. He must always be placated, therefore, with gifts of cigarettes, tea and whisky.
No problem in buying a porcelain image of Zhang at any good China Trading Company. It is impossible, of course, to get a statue of his wife. She is not an Immortal, although she tried with her tears to put out the fire that burned Zhang. Time and history may bring her into her own, though if she were to be translated, she would be the goddess, not of independence, but of consolation and compassion.
As a writer, and a second-generation immigrant, Amy Tan wants to provide a fair hearing for the past, the present and the future. The novel is told from the viewpoint of Winnie Louie, formerly Jyang Weili. At the beginning and end we hear the voice of her daughter, Pearl. Winnie's oldest friend, Helen—once Hulan—who followed Winnie to America, has decided (quite mistakenly) that she must soon leave this world, and in order to free herself from the burden of lies, proposes to tell everyone the never-referred-to story of their earlier life. Fear and embarrassment drive Winnie to do the telling herself. 'I will call Pearl long, long distance. Cost doesn't matter, I will say … And then I will start to tell her, not what happened, but why it happened, how it could not be any other way.'
It could not be any other way, not only because of human weakness and 'the mistakes that are mine', but because of the universal rule of luck. Chance determines your birth, luck decides your life, although it can be deflected at any moment by an unhappy word. 'According to my mother, nothing is an accident,' thinks Pearl. 'She's like a Chinese version of Freud or worse.' Winnie's luck has been bad. Her mother deserted her father and she was brought up on an island upriver from Shanghai by an uncle and his two wives, Old Aunt and New Aunt. She is married off to Wen Fu, a brute for whom no excuses are made. 'He would roll me over, unbend my arm, unbend my legs as if I were a folding chair.' It is a feudal marriage and her in-laws measure her worth by her husband's belch. In 1937, when the Japanese invade, Wen Fu begins training as a pilot in Hanchow with the three hundred-strong Chinese Air Force. But his unit, with their wives, have to retreat across the mountains, first to Chungking, then to Kunming. In 1949 Winnie makes her way to Shanghai, only five days before the Communist flags go up over the city. Her little son dies of a rat-borne plague, she is arrested for deserting her husband, and after a year in jail begins the painful process of bribing her way out of China. At the last moment, Wen Fu turns up, rapes her and threatens to tear up her visa. But the Luck Dispensers cause her old friend Helen to come into the room at that moment, and between them they are able to down Wen Fu.
Evidently this could make, and does make, a long, large, engrossing, colourful, comforting, first-and-second-generation saga—comforting because Winnie marries a Baptist minister and later opens the Ding Ho flower shop in San Francisco. You expect, and get, heroic mothers, bewildered sons-in-law, bizarre relations, crowded weddings, open-casket funerals where the generations join battle, and a confusion of cultures—what to keep, what to throw away. When Helen turns out her purse she finds two short candles, her American naturalisation papers in a plastic case, her old Chinese passport, one small motel soap, knee-high nylons, 'her pochai stomach pills, her potion for coughs, her tiger-bone pads for aches, her good-luck Goddess of Mercy charm if her other remedies do not work'. Corresponding to this mix-up are the beguiling variations of spoken English. (Timothy Mo has said that his Hongkong novel, An Insular Possession, is essentially about language.) Amy Tan indicates particularly well the differences between Chinese speaking Chinese to each other, Chinese speaking fluent American and broken Chinese and Chinese speaking a version of the 'funny English' which has been the novelist's standby ever since Defoe created it for Man Friday.
What gives The Kitchen God's Wife its distinction is the refreshingly sweet-sour and practical attitude of the older generation. Winnie admires her preacher husband, but she feels she ought to have got him to take a different job, because swallowing other people's troubles has changed his own luck. She herself finds forgiveness difficult. 'When Jesus suffered, everyone worshipped him. Nobody worshipped me for living with Wen Fu.' On the subject of Communism, she says she would have joined the Party if it was the best way out of her marriage. 'If I had had to change the whole world to change my own life, I would have done that.' Helen is her friend, but they tell each other lies and exasperate each other. It's true that Pearl perceives that the lies are a form of loyalty, 'a devotion beyond anything that ever can be spoken, anything that I will ever understand'. But there is no way for Winnie to express it, or even what she feels for her daughter.
In this tale of survival the future should rest with Pearl. She is the traditional carrier-on. But Pearl also has a secret to tell: she is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. At the end of the book Helen and Winnie are preparing to take her on a visit to China, a journey of memory and forgetting and, they believe, of miraculous healing—all at cut-price through a Chinatown travel agency. But we are not encouraged to think that Pearl will be cured.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1964
SOURCE: "The Second Time Around," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 12, September, 1991, pp. 1, 3.
[In the following review, Yglesias delineates the reasons that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife may surpass the success of her The Joy Luck Club.]
Amy Tan is an immensely popular writer. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a knockout success, and her second is well on its way to equal, if not surpass, it. The readers who loved the first will surely love the second, since both tell the same story—and this time around Tan has executed the work better in conception, in design, in detail and in sheer pleasure for the reader.
If this sounds like criticism in the guise of praise, it is not. Amy Tan commands an intriguing style which, along with her highly special subject matter, makes for a unique contribution to contemporary writing. The Joy Luck Club introduced her as a young novelist; more or less inevitably, what she had to say was not entirely successfully done the first time. It is to our advantage that she returned to her powerful material for another try.
Amy Tan herself comments that things Chinese are fashionable these days, and some part of her extraordinary success is due to its chic aspect, if only in the most surface way. (Note The New Yorker's recent two-part article on Chinatown, much of whose opening up of this closed society was undone by its emphasis on the area as the center of a new Mafia, reinforcing the image of Chinatown as a sinister place.) Chic or not, our contemporary interest in Chinese-American society is a corrective to former attitudes of vilification at worst, and abysmal neglect at best.
Even more blatantly than prejudice towards blacks, Native Americans, Latins, Jews and gays, ignorance of the culture and humanity of Asians has given anti-Asian racism a special twist. "Orientals" have been cast as quintessentially other, giving Westerners leave to ascribe villainy to everything about them, beginning with the shape of their eyes and extending to their religion and the mysteries of their enclosed private lives. Everybody of my generation hides memories of anti-Chinese chants, shouted as we raced past the local Chinese laundry. In entertainment, we have parlayed our ignorance into a mish-mash of comic-strip mythology in which Chinese women, when they aren't helpless victims of murderous males, yellow or white, are campy villains, Dragon Ladies all.
There isn't a single Chinese laundry in either one of Amy Tan's novels, and no Dragon Ladies. Tan rescued the Chinese-American woman from numbing distortion in The Joy Luck Club, but the central gimmick of that book's design was finally limiting. In 1949, four Chinese women in San Francisco form a club to play mah-jong, invest in stocks, eat dim sum and remind one another of their pasts in China, neatly combining basic elements of Chinese life—gambling, money, eating, ancestral power and community. Tan told the mothers' stories as well as those of their four daughters, revealing the tension that is engendered in any mother-daughter relationship, but especially between first-generation American daughters and their immigrant mothers. This shaping presented the reader with eight separate protagonists, a spread too thin and too confusing to be truly successful.
In The Kitchen God's Wife, without sacrificing a social breadth we cherish as readers, Tan hews closely to one woman's story. Once again a mother and daughter exchange secrets. In speaking her bitterness, the mother's tale evokes an entire female generation's excruciating trials. Almost all of us are immigrants or daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, and our identification with the story Amy Tan tells is the source of the powerful sway she exerts on us as readers. Because I am Jewish, I find the parallels with the Jewish immigrant ordeals most moving, but perhaps readers of all backgrounds feel a similar identification. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, the immigrant experience is the immigrant experience is the immigrant experience, and the violent shocks of dislocation were, and are, common to all.
Back in 1976 when I published Family Feeling, which attempted to do the daughter-and-immigrant-mother syndrome as fiction, one reviewer (Bell Gale Chevigny in the pages of The Nation) recognized the intent and commented on its placing a woman at the center of this experience of dislocation. Anzia Yezierska had done her bit earlier in the century in a highly idiosyncratic manner, and later Kate Simon added her compellingly beautiful memoirs; but overall in the chronicle of the Jewish migration, women writers have performed against a background of powerful males already dominating, and distorting, the tale. It's interesting that in the Chinese-American rush of truth, women writers predominate.
The power of literature over sociology lies in particularization, and it is in its details The Kitchen God's Wife excels. Hooked to the legend of the kitchen god, a weak, selfish and thoughtless man saved from damnation by the virtue and good sense of his wife, who of course never becomes a god herself, the thrust of the book is made plain—perhaps too obviously. The novel hardly needs the legend to sustain its clear intent to elevate the kitchen god's wife to her rightful place in history. But, nothing lost, it enhances the book with a striking title.
Amy Tan is gifted with a quirky style, a broad historical sense, and great energy as a story-teller. Winnie's life is recounted backwards, from her present existence in contemporary San Francisco to her beginnings in the old China before the Second World War, for the understanding of her daughter Pearl, a Chinese-American speech and language clinician married for fifteen years to a non-Chinese physician. The young couple and their little children are very much the American middle-class family wrapped up in the interests consistent with their status—except for the exotic ingredient of Pearl's Chinese family, and the terrible note struck by her affliction with multiple sclerosis.
Pearl is keeping this diagnosis a secret from her mother, just as her mother has kept fundamental information secret from her. The novel is the working out of these mysteries between the two. On the surface, Winnie's ways are more irritating than mysterious to the daughter, who arrogantly assigns herself a critical perspective on her mother's life. But with the full account of that life, Pearl comes to know—as does the reader—not only an identifiable and deeply moving woman who engages our full sympathies, but also the cruel mores, the male domination and the rigid class structures of the society that distorted the child her mother was into the seemingly crabbed old woman she appears to be.
History is also set straight, Winnie reminding her daughter that World War Two began for the Chinese when Japan invaded China. The account of forced flight from the advancing Japanese is powerful story-telling, but it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm. Some anecdotes, done with astonishing mastery in Winnie's voice, are complete diversions within themselves, encompassing no more than a couple of paragraphs.
… like that girl I once knew in Shanghai, the schoolmate who went to the same Christian school as me. She came from a rich family like mine. She was almost as pretty as me. Around the same time I married my first husband, she had a wedding contract to a rich banking family. But after the summer, her face became marked forever with smallpox, and that contract disappeared. I pitied that girl because she had lost her face two ways.
Many years later I met her again … in Fresno. She was married to an American Chinese man who owned a grocery store, selling soda pop, potato chips, cigarettes, everything at high prices. That's how I met her again, at the checkout counter. I was buying ice cream on a stick. She cried "Sister, sister, remember me!" But she didn't give me a discount. After I paid her, she told me how her husband was honest, very kind, very nice and as she said this, she pushed her many jade bracelets up her arm so they would fall back down and clink together like rich music. She was smiling so big all her pock marks looked like the happy dimples she now wore.
Tan weaves trivia into rich and illuminating character portrayal, treasures that literally appear on every page. Here is Winnie describing her closest friend, Hulan, and in the mirror image, herself:
Hulan could not be called pretty, even if you judged her with an old-fashioned eye. She was plump, but not in that classical way as a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. While she had cut her hair in a popular Western style—parted deep on one side like this, combed back smooth, and curled halfway down—she had applied the curling sticks to her hair unevenly. So here it was lumpy, there it was flat. And she had no sense of fashion, none at all. One day I saw her wearing a Western-style flowery dress on top of a yellow Chinese dress that hung down like a too long slip. On top of this she wore a sweater she had knit, with the sleeves too short. She looked just like laundry hung out to dry.
… When we washed together every evening, she sat on the stool with her legs wide open like this, scrubbing herself vigorously—her breasts, under her arms, under her legs, between her legs, her backside, the crease of her bottom—until her skin was covered with red streaks, And then she would get on her hands and knees, just like a dog, and naked like that, she would dip her hair into the basin of cloudy hot water left over from her bath.
I was embarrassed for her—and for myself, knowing this was the way I appeared to my husband every night. I tried not to look at her. I would pretend to be busy washing myself, my thin arms folded in front of my breasts, one large cloth over my lap, while I used another cloth to wash what was underneath without showing any obvious motions. But I could not stop myself from watching Hulan.
Another of Tan's strengths lies in her evocation of large positive emotions without descending into sentimentality, though she can come very close to the edge. Winnie describes herself during her first marriage, still in wartime China, horrified by her bullying husband, attracted to another, gentler man: "I was a married woman, yet I had never felt love from a man, or for a man. And that night I almost did. I felt the danger, that this was how you love someone, one person letting out fears, the other drawing closer to soothe the pain. And then more would pour out, everything that has been hidden, more and more—sorrow, shame, loneliness, all the old aches, so much released until you overflowed with joy to be rid of it, until it was too late to stop this new joy from taking over your heart."
If the novel goes on a little too long and the final resolution is perhaps too pat, a little unlike life as we know it in its wrapped-up gratifications, these very elements add to the satisfactions it gives us. Like Winnie, we end mellow but still sharp: "Now help me light three sticks of incense. The smoke will take our wishes to heaven. Of course it's only superstition, just for fun. But see how fast the smoke rises—oh, even faster when we laugh, lifting our hopes, higher and higher."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928
SOURCE: "Amy Tan Redux," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 15, 19.
[In the following review, Cheng lauds Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife stating, "The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel."]
Yes, it's true: Amy Tan has done it again—with searing clarity of vision she has spun a tale that lyrically weaves past and present, myth and memory. And she has written a true novel this time, one sustained story that lasts all of some four hundred pages.
For the many who read her first book, The Joy Luck Club, the second opens on familiar territory—Pearl is the grown daughter of a very Chinese mother, Winnie, who speaks English with the snappy cadence and salty metaphors of her native tongue and whose way of thinking—of linking the visible and the invisible worlds—has come with her across the Pacific to the San Francisco Bay Area.
While Winnie still lives in Chinatown, Pearl is living fifty miles outside the city with a Caucasian husband and two Americanized little girls. They come together for a cousin's engagement dinner and for an aunt's funeral. Each has been guarding a secret: Pearl has multiple sclerosis; Winnie a checkered past she tried to leave behind in China.
But meddlesome Aunt Helen takes it on herself to set the record straight. When she nags Pearl to reveal her illness, Pearl protests that she does not want to worry her mother.
"This is her right to worry," says Aunt Helen. "She is your mother."
"But she shouldn't have to worry about something that isn't really a problem."
"That's why you should tell her now. No more problem after that."
"But then she'll wonder why we kept this a secret from her. She'll think it's worse than it is."
"Maybe she has some secrets too." She smiles, then laughs at what must be a private joke. "Your mother, oh yes, plenty of secrets!"
Winnie does have plenty of secrets, and revealing them takes most of the book. While both mother and daughter learn to share what has been locked deep inside, this is really Winnie's story. She tells of the turns of fate she suffered in a China that was attempting to modernize but was still fundamentally feudal and often brutal to women.
First Winnie (Weili in her other life) conjures up the romantic memory of her own mother, the first of the moderns of Chinese society to have unbound feet. "When my mother was eight years old," Winnie recalls, "her feet were already unbound, and some people say that's why she ran wild." Her mother received an education, which some later called "bad." But Winnie says, "If you were to ask me, what happened to my mother was not a bad education but bad fate. Her education only made her unhappy thinking about it—that no matter how much she changed her life, she could not change the world that surrounded her."
Her bad fate was to fall in love with one man but be forced to marry another. Then one day she mysteriously disappears, and her young daughter is dispatched to be raised by relatives on a remote island. Weili grows up dreaming for her disgraced fate to change. When she gets matched to the dashing young Wen Fu, a man from a well-to-do family, she believes that it has. But as soon as she is married, her in-laws make off with her immense dowry, and her groom turns out to be a selfish brute whose behavior gets progressively worse.
As one of the first pilots for the Chinese Air Force, Wen Fu is transferred from training camp to military base and finally to Kunming, the Kuomingtang stronghold towards the end of the war. Weili naturally moved with him, trying to maintain the semblance of home, preparing special meals and treats purchased with the dowry money that was, fortunately, banked in her own name.
In such ways Weili and her friend Hulan, both alternately foolish and valiant, seek happiness even as the world around them is collapsing. Tan captures beautifully this helter-skelter period in China, when many lived on the run, never knowing how long they would be in one place—or one piece, as the Japanese battered cities with aerial raids.
It seems that Weili endures one humiliation, only to have greater sorrow come to crush her. She is physically beaten, her babies die, and more, much more. Yet this woman grows less foolish, more resilient, until she finds the courage to grasp her own happiness.
The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel.
At a recent appearance in Washington, D.C., Amy Tan said, "I always find that it's necessary to write with some reader in mind, and for me, that someone is always my mother." In a haunting way, she has also successfully taken on her mother's voice in The Kitchen God's Wife—or, at least, the voice of someone of her mother's generation who lived through the tumultuous period of history her mother did. In addition to this remarkable mediumship, Tan displays superb storytelling—spinning personae and situations that are credible and compelling. But more, she has the courage to share heartfelt sorrow and grief, to acknowledge human imperfection and fate's ambiguities. Tan shows us that a life can encompass all that—grief, imperfection, ambiguity—and still add up to triumph, a triumph of the spirit, of the human soul to endure, to show compassion, and to hold fast to dreams.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3331
SOURCE: "Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club," in Critique, Spring, 1993, pp. 193-99.
[In the following essay, Shear analyzes the mother-daughter relationship in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]
Orville Schell's review of The Joy Luck Club for the New York Times emphasizes that those millions of Chinese who were part of the diaspora of World War II and the fighting that resulted in the triumph of the Communists were subsequently cut off from the mainland and after 1949 left to fend for themselves culturally. Though Schell is struck by the way this book renders the vulnerability of these Chinese women in America, the novel's structure in fact succeeds in manifesting not merely the individual psychic tragedies of those caught up in this history, but the enormous agony of a culture enmeshed in a transforming crisis. What each person's story conveys is the terror of a vulnerable human consciousness torn and rent in a culture's contortions; and although, like other Chinese-American books, this novel articulates "the urge to find a usable past," it is made up of a series of intense encounters in a kind of cultural lost and found.
The structure that presents this two-fold impression recalls works such as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, and William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, books that feature distinct, individual narratives but that as a group simultaneously dramatize the panorama of a critical transition in cultural values. In The Joy Luck Club Tan organizes her material in terms of a generational contrast by segregating stories of mothers and their daughters. The separate story sections are divided into four parts with mother figures telling two stories, mostly concerned with their past in pre-1949 China, and their daughters telling two stories, one about growing up and one about a current family situation. The exception to this pattern is Jing-mei Woo, the daughter of the founder of the Joy Luck Club, who narrates a story in each of the four sections and who adds additional continuity by narrating the first and last section. Though all these people, for the most part, know one another, few of the stories involve contacts with anyone outside the immediate family group. While the daughters' stories usually involve their mothers, the mothers' stories tend to feature a distinct life, involving rather rigid family experiences in old China and their current relationship to their American daughters. By using the perspectives of both mothers and daughters, Tan initially seems to solve what Linda Hunt, examining Maxine Hong Kingston, describes as a basic problem for a Chinese-American woman: "being simultaneously insider (a person who identifies strongly with her cultural group) and outsider (deviant and rebel against that tradition), she cannot figure out from which perspective to speak."
Nevertheless, just as in The Woman Warrior, the communication barrier here is a double one, that between generations and that created by the waning influence of an older culture and the burgeoning presence of another. Jing-mei announces in the first section: "My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more." Generally, the daughters tend to perceive cultural blanks, the absence of clear and definite answers to the problems of family, whereas the mothers tend to fill in too much, often to provide those kinds of cultural answers and principles that seem to empower them to make strong domestic demands on their daughters. Thus, as in Woman Warrior, the object of "confrontation" for a daughter is often the mother, "the source of authority for her and the most single powerful influence from China."
The mothers tend to depict themselves as, in a broad sense, students learning about the social realities around them and using their experiences to come to conclusions about essential forms of character strength and weakness. For example, one of the mothers, An-mei Hsu, seems to see in her own mother's suicide how to use the world for her own advantage. She not only traces how her mother makes the Chinese cultural beliefs work for her—"suicide is the only way a woman can escape marriage and gain revenge, to come back as a ghost and scatter tea leaves and good fortune"—but also she realizes almost immediately the acute significance of the words of her mother who tells her "she [the mother] would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one."
Ying-ying St. Clair claims, "I have always known a thing before it happens." Her daughter tends to confirm at least an ironic version of her mother's acquired powers by adding, "She sees only bad things that affect our family." In at least one case the mother's knowledge is a gift passed to the daughter: Waverly Jong opens her story by claiming, "I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though none of us knew it at the time, chess games." In the last case the knowledge apparently blossoms from the mother's folk saying, "Bite back your tongue," and although Waverly regards it as a secret of her success in chess, she herself is finally a victim of her mother's more authoritarian deployment of the tactic, as it suddenly takes the form of simply ignoring her.
As the last interaction demonstrates, there is nearly always some tension in the exchange between mother and daughter, between old China and the new American environment. Most often the focus is either on a mother, who figures out her world, or on the daughters, who seem caught in a sophisticated cultural trap, knowing possibilities rather than answers, puzzling over the realities that seem to be surrounding them and trying to find their place in what seems an ambivalent world. Strangely, given the common problems presented, there is little concern with peer communication among the daughters. Jing-mei explains, "Even though Lena and I are still friends, we have grown naturally cautious about telling each other too much. Still, what little we say to one another often comes back in another guise. It's the same old game, everybody talking in circles." This difficulty in communication may simply be a consequence of living in what Schell describes as an "upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone" world, but it also tends to convey a basic lack of cultural confidence on the part of daughters and thus a sense of their being thrown back into the families they have grown up in for explanations, validations, and identity reinforcement and definition.
Again, in the tradition of The Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club explores the subtle, perhaps never completely understood, influence of culture on those just beginning to live it. The mother-daughter tensions are both the articulation of the women's movement and the means of specifying the distinctness of Chinese and Chinese-American culture. As in Woman Warrior, behind the overt culture is odd intuition of a ghost presence, at times a sense of madness waiting at the edge of existence. It is an unseen terror that runs through both the distinct social spectrum experienced by the mothers in China and the lack of such social definition in the daughters' lives. In this context the Joy Luck Club itself is the determination to hope in the face of constantly altering social situations and continually shifting rules. The club is formed during the Japanese invasion of China, created by Jing-mei's mother as a deliberate defiance of the darkness of current events. With a mixture of desperation and frivolity, she and a group of friends meet, eat, laugh, tell stories, and play mah jong. She reasons, "we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy." "It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable."
It is the old China experience that manifests most definitely the enormous weight of fate in the lives of the characters. On the one hand, the constrictive burden is due to the position of women in that society. An-mei seems to regard the woman's role as an inescapable fate: "I was raised the Chinese way; I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way … she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way." Another mother, Lindo Jong, is the victim of a marriage arranged when she was only a child. In her struggle to extricate herself from the situation, she does not blame her family who made such arrangements but the society, the town where she grew up, a place she claims is frozen in custom at a time when the rest of China was beginning to change. Although the old culture places the family at its heart, as the experience of the women in this revolutionary situation demonstrates, its attitude toward women begins in the more fluid modern world to tear away at this fundamental unit, making the difficulty of mother-daughter bonding a crucial problem for the culture as a whole.
Ying-ying St. Clair blames herself more than her circumstances, but it is her early social circumstances that structure the experience that so haunts her and cripples her psychically. Situated higher in the social scale of old China than the other members of the club, she seems to fall as a child into a subconscious state from which she never fully recovers, a state that in the social context may stand as a paradigm for individual nightmare in a fragmenting culture. Hers is an episode with a fantasy/folk flavor and a motif of dreaming, which seems to represent a naive, open but mechanical relationship to culture—opposed to a vital reciprocity of being. Ying-ying (the childhood nickname here may be intended to suggest the regressive nature of her trauma) describes her adventures on a boat cruise during the Moon festival, which in her account becomes a symbolic episode, a psychological drifting from the fundamental reality of family. While everyone else sleeps, the little Ying-ying watches in fascination as some boys use a bird with a metal ring around its neck to catch fish. The bird serves its purpose, catching the fish but being unable to swallow them, its social function thus symbolically dependent on an intensely personal, intensely perverse individual frustration.
Finally the boys leave, but Ying-ying stays, "as if caught in a good dream," to watch "a sullen woman" clean fish and cut off the heads of chickens and turtles. As she begins to come back to self-consciousness, she notices that her fine party clothes are covered with the mess of these deaths—"spots of bloods, flecks of fish scales, bits of feather and mud." In the strangeness of her panic, she tries to cover the spots by painting her clothes with the turtle's blood. When her Amah appears, the servant is angry and strips off her clothes, using words that the child has never heard but from which she catches the sense of evil and, significantly, the threat of rejection by her mother. Left in her underwear, Ying-ying is alone at the boat's edge, suddenly looking at the moon, wanting to tell the Moon Lady her "secret wish." At this key moment in her young life, she falls into the water and is about to be drowned when miraculously she finds herself in a net with a heap of squirming fish. The fishing people who have saved her are of a class known to her, but a group from which she has previously been shielded. After some initial insensitive jokes about catching her, they attempt to restore her to her family group by hailing a floating pavilion to tell those aboard they have found the lost child. Instead of the family appearing to reclaim her, Ying-ying sees only strangers and a little girl who shouts, "That's not me…. I'm here. I didn't fall in the water."
What seems a bizarre, comically irrelevant mistake is the most revealing and shocking moment of the story, for it is as if her conscious self has suddenly appeared to deny her, to cast her permanently adrift in a life among strangers. To some degree this acute psychic sense of and fear of being abandoned by the family is a basic reality for all the mothers in this book, each of whose stories involve a fundamental separation from family, an ultimate wedge of circumstances between mother and child.
Though Ying-ying is finally restored to her family, the shock of separation has become too intense a reality. She tries to explain, "even though I was found—later that night after Amah, Baba, Uncle, and the others shouted for me along the waterway—I never believed my family found the same girl." Her self-accusations at the beginning of this story become a miniature autobiography: "For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out. And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me…. I kept my true nature hidden…." Later she accuses herself of becoming a ghost: "I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain." She fears that this abandonment of self has in some way been passed on to her daughter. "Now," she announces to herself, "I must tell my daughter everything. That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has no chi. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?" Her first narrative ends with her trapped in the legendary world of old China, still a child but with all the terrible insight into her later life: "I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found."
The chi that she refers to may be impossible to render wholly into English, but it involves a fundamental self-respect, a desire to excel, a willingness to stand up for one's self and one's family, to demonstrate something to others. It may well be a quality that the daughters in the book lack, or that they possess in insufficient amounts. Veronica Wang states, "In the traditional Chinese society, women were expected to behave silently with submission but act heroically with strength. They were both sub-women and super-women." Possibly those cultural expectations, although almost totally erased in American culture, could still survive in residual roles when validated by a concept such as chi.
Whereas the major problem for the older generation had been the struggle against fate, the younger generation perceives their essential difficulty to involve the making of choices. The problem, as Rose Hsu Jordan defines it, is that America offers too many choices, "so much to think about, so much to decide. Each decision meant a turn in another direction." Like their mothers, many of the daughters are moving out or thinking of moving out, of family relationships, but such moves involve decisions about divorce, about whether their marriages are working out, about whether their husbands or future husbands fit into their lives.
One group of stories concerning the daughters features the struggle for maturity, a rather typical generational tension with the mothers. Perhaps surprisingly, the older women are for the most part not portrayed as pushing their daughters into an outmoded or inappropriate set of values and traditions, but they do insist on a basic cultural formulation. Lindo Jong's comments express a typical attitude: "I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character." This sounds a note of compromise, but in reply to her daughter's declaration, "I'm my own person," she thinks, "How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?"
Curiously, in two instances, the generational tensions appear to have their origins in what seems a very American ambition. Waverly feels that her mother leeches off her chess achievements with an appropriating pride, and Jing-mei feels her mother, inspired by a competition with Waverly's mother as well as the belief that in America you could be anything you wanted, pushes her beyond her abilities, at least beyond her desires. The familiar cry "You want me to be someone that I'm not!" accelerates to "I wish I wasn't your daughter. I wish you weren't my mother." and finally to "I wish I'd never been born!… I wish I were dead! Like them." The "them" are the other daughters her mother had been forced to abandon in China. This story of Jing-mei moves toward the kind of muted conclusion typical of most of the daughter stories: "unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me." There is the sense that this "me" lacks some vital centering, the cultural force that would provide its chi.
In the context of cultural analysis, the happiness of the conclusion seems only partially earned by what has preceded it. And the fact that the return and the reunion with the two half-sisters reflect almost exactly the author's own experience suggests that there may be more than a little biographical intrusion here. Ultimately, however, the book's final cultural argument seems to be that there is always a possibility for the isolated "me" to return home. At one time Jing-mei notes, "in a crowd of Caucasians, two Chinese people are already like family." As she makes the return trip to China in the last story, she feels she is at last becoming Chinese. What she discovers in her reunion with her Chinese half-sisters, in her father's story of her mother's separation from these children and from the mother's first husband, and in the photograph of her and her sisters is a renewed sense of her dead mother. The mother's living presence in them is the feeling Jing-mei has been searching for, the feeling of belonging in her family and of being at last in the larger family of China. In this case the feeling of cultural wholeness grows out of and seems dependent on a sense of family togetherness, but the return to the mainland certainly suggests a larger symbolic possibility, one, however, that must still cope with the actual barriers of geography, politics, and cultural distinctness.
In contrast to the treatments of generational differences in earlier books such as Fifth Chinese Daughter, both Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan are empowered by current feminist ideas in their examinations of the Chinese-American woman's dilemma. In both The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, much of the focus springs out of the mother-daughter relationships and the way the diaspora has created a total contrast in the experiences of mother and daughter. Kingston's influential book tends to sort out the problems of a single "I" persona and is thus sharper in its dramatizations of the varied identity strands of a single individual, whereas Tan's multiplicity of first person narratives establishes a broader canvas with more feeling of fictional detachment between the reader and "I" and creates a voice for both generations. Both these authors testify to a rupture in the historical Chinese family unit as a result of the diaspora, but both seem to believe in a cultural healing. However, as her conclusion suggests, Tan seems to place more emphasis on the Chinese identity as the healing factor. Although perspectives are difficult to come by with contemporary work, the ability of both Kingston and Tan to render the experience of a culture through vividly dramatic individual narratives provides a sound basis for what seems to be a developing tradition of Chinese-American women's writing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9624
SOURCE: "'Only Two Kinds of Daughters': Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club," in MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 99-124.
[In the following essay, Souris applies Wolfgang Iser's theory concerning multiple-narrator novels to Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]
Amy Tan has said that she never intended The Joy Luck Club to be a novel. Instead, she thought of it as a collection of stories. But she did plan on having the stories cohere around a central theme, and she did plan the prefaces from the start, although they were written last. More importantly, her collection of first-person monologues participates in and contributes to a tradition of multiple monologue narratives. Since the precedent-setting experiments of Woolf and Faulkner—The Waves, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!—a number of interesting novels written in the decentered, multiple monologue mode have been published. Louise Erdrich's Tracks, Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson, Louis Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet, and Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman are just a few of the contemporary examples of this compelling genre.
Because of its decentered, multi-perspectival form, The Joy Luck Club invites analysis from critical perspectives that theorize and valorize fragmented, discontinuous texts and the possibilities of connection across segments. Mikhail Bakhtin may come to mind first because of his emphasis on and celebration of texts flaunting a diversity of fully valid and autonomous voices with relativistic and centrifugal consequences as well as counter-centrifugal tendencies such as the active intermingling of perspectives within single consciousnesses (what I call "intra-monologue dialogicity"). Tan's "novel" offers a heteroglot collection of very different, fully valid voices each presented from its own perspective, with relativistic and centrifugal implications. Moreover, its unique theme—mothers from China and their American-born daughters struggling to understand each other—allows for a rich array of dialogized perspectives within single utterances: the Chinese, the American, and the Chinese-American, all three of which can be discerned, to varying degrees, in the monologues.
My concern in this essay, however, will not be with the counter-centrifugal phenomenon of "intra-monologue dialogicity." Rather, it will be with what I call "inter-monologue dialogicity," or the potential for active intermingling of perspectives across utterances, with the site of the dialogicity located in the reader's experience of the narrative. Although Bakhtin has some provocative things to say about the dialogic potential of textual segments set side by side and even hints at the role a reader would have to play in establishing that dialogicity, his theory does not fully allow for a reader's moment-by-moment processing of a text. Wolfgang Iser picks up where Bakhtin leaves off regarding the counter-centrifugal dialogicity that can be said to exist between textual elements in a multiple narrator novel. It is with his narrative model that I propose to uncover and articulate the dialogic potential across monologues in The Joy Luck Club.
Iser's phenomenologically rigorous model of the act of reading is ideally suited to the pursuit and articulation of inter-monologue dialogicity in narratives modeled more or less after The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, or The Waves. Although The Act of Reading is a classic text in the reader-response school, a brief summary of the main points of Iser's theory will establish the context for my analysis of the potentially interacting structures of The Joy Luck Club.
Like other reader-response critics, Iser emphasizes the active involvement of the reader in the creation of meaning. For Iser, reading is a "dynamic happening" and is the product of a "dyadic interaction" between text and reader. "Meaning is an effect to be experienced," he asserts; it does not inhere in a literary work independent of the reading experience. For Iser, "literary texts initiate 'performances' of meaning rather than actually formulating meanings themselves." Meaning for Iser is "text-guided though reader-produced." What a reader encounters in processing a text are "instructions for the production of the signified."
Iser's emphasis on the reader's active involvement with the text does not allow for the extreme subjectivism that Norman Holland and David Bleich allow for in their theories. As such, Iser's model is relatively conservative because it insists that all concretizations be "intersubjectively" valid: "The subjective processing of a text is generally still accessible to third parties, i.e., available for intersubjective analysis." Indeed, the reason for restricting the creative activity of the reader is to allow for observations that can be agreed upon across subjectivities: "One task of a theory of aesthetic response is to facilitate intersubjective discussion of individual interpretations." To that end, Iser distinguishes between "meaning" and "significance": "meaning" is what all readers who are properly following the "instructions for the production of the signified" should arrive at; "significance" concerns how a particular reader might apply that meaning to his or her own life. But the emphasis in Iser's model is always with the processing of textual elements rather than the production of a detachable message, as he indicates by asserting that "what is important to readers, critics, and authors alike is what literature does and not what it means."
In calling for an "erotica of art" (following Sontag), and in inviting the reader to "climb aboard" the text, Iser emphasizes the moment-by-moment experience of what a text "does" to the reader. He refers to the reader's "wandering viewpoint" because of this emphasis on the temporal experience of a text. "The wandering viewpoint," he argues, "divides the text up into interacting structures, and these give rise to a grouping activity that is fundamental to the grasping of a text." These interactive structures are conceptually apprehended as a gestalt. Any perspective of the moment—or "theme," in his terminology—is apprehended against the backdrop of a previous "theme," which becomes the "horizon." For Iser, responding to the textual prompts as "instructions for the production of the signified" amounts to actively recalling previous moments and allowing them to enter into significant combinations with present moments. Or, since his model allows for readers rereading, any present moment can be creatively paired up with a moment one remembers will be encountered later in the text. Constantly creating foreground/background Gestalten, an Iserian reader's experience of a text is very three dimensional. But each theme/horizon concretization is temporary and may have to be modified as other Gestalten are experienced. Iser expresses this complex concept thusly: "The structure of theme and horizon constitutes the vital link between text and reader … because it actively involves the reader in the process of synthesizing an assembly of constantly shifting viewpoints, which not only modify one another, but also influence past and future syntheses in the reading process." Iser illustrates the concept of constantly modifying one's concretizations by comparing the reading experience to a cybernetic feedback loop. Because of this experiential emphasis, he can assert that "the text can never be grasped as a whole, only as a series of changing viewpoints, each one restricted in itself and so necessitating further perspectives."
"Gaps" or "blanks" (Unbestimmtsheitsstellen) provide the impetus for the creation of a theme/horizon gestalt by inviting the reader to respond to an interruption in the flow or exposition with a meaning-creating pairing. "Wherever there is an abrupt juxtaposition of segments there must automatically be a blank," he argues, "breaking the expected order of the text." Iserian gaps have been explained as "conceptual spaces" between textual elements that allow for reader ideation. According to Iser, "Gaps are bound to open up, and offer a free play of interpretation for the specific way in which the various views can be connected with one another. These gaps give the reader a chance to build his own bridges." But gaps do not really allow for "free play"; the reader must engage in "intersubjectively" valid concretizations: "The structured blanks of the text stimulate the process of ideation to be performed by the reader on terms set by the text. The concept of Unbestimmtsheitsstellen, or gaps, is Iser's central trope for figuring the active reader involvement required by the reading experience.
The final concept to summarize before applying Iser's phenomenologically precise model of the reading process to Tan's Joy Luck Club is negativity. For Iser, the depiction of anything unattractive or deformed automatically causes the reader to imagine a positive counterbalance. This is another kind of gap, then: deformity creates a space in which the active reader compensates for the unattractive depiction with the imagining of a more positive situation or character.
Iser's unusual sensitivity to the moment-by-moment construction of the text by a reader makes his theory especially relevant to fragmented texts. Indeed, he "valorizes the discontinuous work" that is full of gaps. This can be seen in his comments on Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, and Humphrey Clinker in The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading.
Reading The Joy Luck Club in the context of Iser's elaborately worked out theory and his remarks on fragmented, multi-perspectival texts require paying attention to the way in which a reader's moment-by-moment processing of the text confers a centripetal coherence upon a potentially chaotic, centrifugal collection. We need to ask how the discontinuous nature of the narrative (the gaps between sections, in particular) impels the reader to establish Gestalten that are multiple, constantly shifting, and thematically suggestive. We need to look for ways in which initial constructions of foreground/background configurations have to be revised as additional text is encountered. And we need to ask where the line can be drawn between responses that are "intersubjectively" valid and those that range beyond what can be agreed upon intersubjectively.
The segmented presentation of The Joy Luck Club allows for many combinational possibilities. I will present some of the most salient Gestalten; other foreground/background paintings will, no doubt, suggest themselves based on the examples I offer.
One way Gestalten can be created is through juxtapositions of contiguous and non-contiguous monologues. With contiguously placed utterances that "speak to" each other, the side-by-side placement of monologues with common denominators, or, to use Bakhtin's term, "semantic convergence," constitutes an overt invitation to the reader to explore the dialogic potential between the monologues. In these cases, the gap between the sections, which always invites a reflective pause, ensures that a rereading reader will make the connection (although the reader still deserves credit for making the connection).
The first cluster of four monologues provides us with some examples of meaningful juxtapositions, both contiguous and non-contiguous.
In the opening monologue of the novel, Jing-mei (June) offers comments on both Ying-ying and An-mei that color our attitude toward those two. Of Ying-ying, she says that the aunt "seems to shrink even more every time I see her." A few pages later, she adds to this unflattering picture by reporting what her mother thought of Ying-ying. "'Oh, I have a story,' says Auntie Ying loudly, startling everybody. Auntie Ying has always been the weird auntie, someone lost in her own world. My mother used to say, 'Auntie Ying is not hard of hearing. She is hard of listening.'"
A few monologues later, we meet Ying-ying from her own point of view. Her account of the traumatic experience of falling off her family's boat and, more generally, growing up in a wealthy family without much contact with her mother, sets up a meaningful gestalt with Jing-mei's comments. On first reading, June's unappreciative comments prejudice us against Ying-ying as the "weird" one; when we read her own account of her childhood and pair that with Jing-mei's words, we realize Jing-mei's account is reductive. On the outside she may appear to be shrinking, and she may appear "hard of listening" on the inside she has a story to tell that helps explain why she is the way she is. The experience of this gestalt, which shifts depending on one's position in the text (June's words as foreground, Ying-ying's monologue as background, or the latter's monologue as foreground, and June's unappreciative words as background), points out to the reader that greater understanding can lead to greater appreciation and tolerance.
June also comments on An-mei in an unappreciative manner, reporting what her mother has said of An-mei. This allows for the establishment of another theme/horizon configuration.
"She's not stupid," said my mother on one occasion, "but she has no spine…."
"Auntie An-mei runs this way and that," said my mother, "and she doesn't know why."
As I watch Auntie An-mei, I see a short bent woman in her seventies, with a heavy bosom and thin, shapeless legs. She has the flattened soft fingertips of an old woman.
When we meet An-mei in "Scar," immediately after June's opening monologue, we realize that her childhood helps explain why she appears to have no spine. Her moving account of her painful separation from her mother and the traumatic circumstances resulting in her throat scar establishes a context for her apparent spinelessness; it adds to the outer appearance of weakness a story that makes the reductive labeling inadequate to the human reality. This juxtaposition would be interesting even if An-mei herself said she did not have spine: the theme/horizon juxtaposition would make for a poignant realization in the reader's mind of the subjective, limited nature of understanding, with An-mei's terrible childhood, on the one hand, helping to explain why she behaves the way she does, and the unsympathetic, reductive pigeonholing by Suyuan, on the other, typifying the overly reductive manner in which we often sum people up.
The theme/horizon gestalt produced and experienced by the reader following the textual prompts is further enhanced, however, when it is remembered that An-mei thinks she herself does have spine, and that her daughter Rose is the one who is weak. Rose tells us in "Without Wood": "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people. She knew this, because once she had almost become this way." June's mother, Suyuan, who was a bold woman, may have thought that An-mei lacked spine; An-mei, who is proud of having stood up for herself after her mother died, thinks that her daughter lacks "wood": what results is a vivid realization in the mind of the reader who is alert to the potential dialogicity between textual segments that some things are entirely relative.
Another kind of inter-monologue dialogicity in the first cluster of four monologues consists of a triptych of personality difference the monologues of An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying. At the center of this trio of self-portraits is a remarkably bold and strong individual who managed to extract herself from a repressive situation cleverly and diplomatically so that everyone benefited. Lindo's resourcefulness and boldness is framed by two portraits of passivity and weakness: An-mei and Ying-ying are victims of their childhood circumstances. As we move from An-mei's "Scar" to Lindo's "Red Candle," we are impressed with the very different responses to repressive circumstances; as we move from Lindo's "Red Candle" to Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" we return to the perspective of a victim. One specific gestalt the reader is invited to create between Lindo's "Red Candle" to Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" revolves around the "semantic convergence" (using Bakhtin's phrase) of losing and finding oneself. Lindo tells us that she discovered her inner power through an epiphany:
I asked myself. What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn't see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
I threw my head back and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents' wishes, but I would never forget myself.
This remarkable passage about self-discovery and self-assertion in the midst of repression can be set in dialogue with the concluding passage in Ying-ying's monologue following Lindo's, where Ying-ying tells us that the most important moment of her childhood was when she lost herself:
Now that I am old, moving every year closer to the end of my life, I … feel closer to the beginning. And I remember everything that happened that day [the day she fell into the water] because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself.
I remember all these things. And tonight, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found.
These contiguously placed monologues with a common denominator of finding or losing one's self enter into a dialogicity of difference with the reader as the agent and site of the dialogicity. The result is to enhance the range of personalities offered: the mothers, for all their similarities, are indeed very different, as comparisons such as the one just made establish. Tan succeeds in achieving a truly diverse and heteroglot range of mothers's perspectives in The Joy Luck Club.
Another example of a counter-centrifugal gestalt the reader is invited to create from contiguously placed monologues consists of a pairing of Lena's worries in "Rice Husband" with Waverly's worries in "Four Directions." In this third quartet of monologues, both Lena and Waverly express frustration over their meddlesome mothers. In "Rice Husband," Lena is apprehensive about her mother's visit, fearing that her mother will perceive that her relationship with Harold is flawed. Ying-ying has an unusual ability to sense trouble and even predict calamity.
During our brief tour of the house, she's already found the flaws…. And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts. But then I look around and everything she's said is true. And this convinces me she can see what else is going on, between Harold and me. She knows what is going to happen to us.
Knowing that there is something wrong with the rigid policy she and Harold follow of sharing all costs equally, she is afraid her mother will confront her with a truth she does not want to admit. Waverly, on the other hand, is worried that her mother will poison her relationship with Rich the way Lindo poisoned her marriage with her previous husband, Marvin. Lindo had effectively ruined the gift of a fur coat Rich had given Waverly: "Looking at the coat in the mirror, I couldn't fend off the strength of her will anymore, her ability to make me see black where there was once white, white where there was once black. The coat looked shabby, an imitation of romance." Lindo has destroyed something that Waverly took pleasure in. Likewise, she is apprehensive that Lindo will undermine her love for Rich.
I already knew what she would do, how she would be quiet at first. Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.
Whereas Ying-ying will confront Lena with something Lena should deal with, Lindo will insidiously undermine the love Waverly has for Richard, thus poisoning her relationship. The gestalt that the text invites the reader to create from these contiguously placed monologues counters the centrifugal tendency of this decentered text by setting into an aesthetically meaningful dialogue these two very different kinds of apprehension. This linkage across monologues works to point out the difference between the two daughters—thus enhancing the heteroglot nature of the multi-voiced narrative even as it creates coherence across fragments through the essential similarity.
In Bakhtinian terms, we might think of Lena's and Waverly's apprehensions as entering into a dialogic relationship of similarity. Bakhtin points out in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics that there can be a dialogicity between two speakers uttering the same words—"Life is good"—depending on the particular nuances each gives to the utterance from embodied and distinct reference points. Simple disagreement can be less dialogic than agreement, he points out. We might say that Lena declares, "Mothers are meddlesome," and that Waverly concurs with "Mothers are meddlesome"; the reader is the agent and the site of the dialogic engagement of these two essentially similar, yet very different, complaints.
My final example of counter-centrifugal Gestalten created from contiguously placed monologues is the triptych of three mothers in the final cluster. An-mei's "Magpies," Ying-ying's "Waiting Between the Trees," and Lindo's "Double Face" all present the reader with a mother who wants desperately to reach out and establish a connection with her daughter—in spite of the disagreements and conflicts. Each mother hopes to establish a closer relationship by telling her a story. And each mother is shown with a story to tell. Each mother offers the second installment of her life story: An-mei tells what it was like living with her mother as Fourth Wife; Ying-ying describes her marriage in China, the murder of her child, and her marriage to her current husband; and Lindo tells about how she left China and came to the United States. In each case, however, it appears that the actual communication does not occur. Tan's multiple monologue novel seems to participate in the convention of having speakers speak into the void—or to the reader as audience. No actual communication between mothers and daughters occurs. Presented with these three monologues, the reader is invited to establish the connection between them. The dialogicity of similarity in this gestalt, where each theme of the moment can be set against one or both of the other monologues as the horizon, is a powerfully persuasive method of arguing on behalf of the mothers. No narrative voice need announce that mothers should be listened to; the narrative makes the reader poignantly aware of the distance between each mother and daughter by showing the unbridged gap between them and the potential for sharing and communication that is only partially realized. This triptych of well-meaning mothers who want to pass on something to their daughters is another example of how there can be dialogic potential between similar utterances (as in "Life is good," "Life is good") in a multiple narrator novel, with the reader's consciousness as the site of the inter-monologue dialogicity.
So far, my discussion of the counter-centrifugal Gestalten created by the reader has focused on the pairing of "themes" (Iser's term for perspectives of the moment) that are already presented by the narrative in a relationship through simple contiguous juxtaposition. It is also possible to consider Gestalten that a reader's wandering viewpoint might create from "themes" that are not already set side-by-side. These juxtapositions might be called conceptual rather than contiguous (although even with side-by-side placement, the resulting gestalt must be a creation in the reader's mind and thus conceptual).
The pairings possible with monologues from Lena and Ying-ying are examples of the interesting Gestalten creatable from non-contiguous monologues. We might take Lena's "The Voice from the Wall" as a starting point. Her perspective on her mother is entirely unappreciative here; she has no understanding or sympathy—and how could she, since Ying-ying's past is never talked about ("My mother never talked about her life in China, but my father said he saved her from a terrible life there, some tragedy she could not speak about."). She presents her mother as psychologically imbalanced. She thinks of her mother as a "Displaced Person," using a photograph taken after the scared woman was released from Angel Island Immigration Station to represent her personality:
In this picture you can see why my mother looks displaced. She is clutching a large clam-shaped bag, as though someone might steal this from her as well if she is less watchful. She has on an ankle-length Chinese dress…. In this outfit she looks as if she were neither coming from nor going to someplace….
My mother often looked this way, waiting for something to happen, wearing this scared look. Only later she lost the struggle to keep her eyes open.
We realize that Ying-ying's troubled mental state must have impinged negatively on Lena as she grew up, and we sympathize with her for that. But as readers who are privileged to know the inner thoughts of every character, we can balance off that perspective with what we know from Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" monologue, where we learn about the childhood trauma that has clearly affected her personality. And from "The Voice from the Wall," we can look forward, as well, and set Lena's frustration with her mother's aberrational personality against "Waiting Between the Trees": in this moving monologue, Ying-ying reveals a side of herself that Lena would be surprised to learn about. The Ying-ying we meet here is completely unknown to her daughter.
So I will tell Lena of my shame. That I was rich and pretty. I was too good for any one man. That I became abandoned goods. I will tell her that at eighteen the prettiness drained from my cheeks. That I thought of throwing myself in the lake like the other ladies of shame. And I will tell her of the baby I killed because I came to hate this man so much.
I took this baby from my womb before it could be born. This was not a bad thing to do in China back then, to kill a baby before it is born. But even then, I thought it was bad, because my body flowed with terrible revenge as the juices of this man's firstborn son poured from me.
When the nurses asked what they should do with the lifeless baby, I hurled a newspaper at them and said to wrap it like a fish and throw it in the lake. My daughter thinks I do not know what it means to not want a baby.
When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small old lady. That is because she sees only with her outside eyes. She has no chuming, no inside knowing of things. If she had chuming, she would see a tiger lady. And she would have careful fear.
This set of Gestalten—"Voices" and "Moon Lady," "Voices" and "Waiting"—points out the relativity theme that this multiple narrator novel, like many, proposes. The very structure and narrative mode of the novel suggest that we appreciate the subjective nature of perception there is in Lena's thinking of her mother as a Displaced Person and Ying-ying's thinking of herself as a "Tiger Woman." However, The Joy Luck Club differs from other radically decentered multiple narrator novels such as As I Lay Dying and, more recently, Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet or Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson—in that it does not insist on absolute epistemological relativism. The reader who actively pairs momentary "themes" realizes that there is more to Ying-ying than Lena's "Displaced Person" label allows for; the reader senses the potential for dialogue between mother and daughter that fails to take place.
This repeated failure for mother and daughter to enter into meaningful exchange is effectively represented through another Lena/Ying-ying gestalt: the pairing of Lena's "Rice Husband" monologue with Ying-ying's "Waiting Between the Trees." In "Waiting," Ying-ying is apparently about to cause the unstable table to fall, sending the vase crashing to the floor. She hopes to attract her daughter's attention and get her to come into the room where Ying-ying can talk to her. Ying-ying clearly wants to use it as the occasion to tell Lena everything she has wanted to tell her and to pass on her chi to her daughter. But in "Rice Husband," five monologues prior to "Waiting," the vase has already crashed to the floor and mother and daughter have already had their moment together. From what Lena reports in "Rice Husband," nothing came of the encounter. Tan's use of the unstable table as a common denominator across the two monologues constitutes an effective exercise in triangulation, a common technique in multiple narrator novels to demonstrate (usually) the subjective nature of perception.
Another example of triangulation that prompts the reader to create a gestalt pairing two monologues that have a common denominator occurs with An-mei's "Magpies" and Rose's "Without Wood." The common denominator inviting a pairing of the monologues is Rose's psychiatrist. This gestalt is an especially interesting one for the novel because of the way it foregrounds the distance between the traditionally minded Chinese mother living in the United States and the American-born daughter who has embraced many American ways. From the American perspective, it is normal and even stylish for Rose to see a psychiatrist; from the Chinese perspective, seeing a psychiatrist is incomprehensible; indeed, An-mei might even regard it as bringing shame upon the family. An-mei's "Magpies" begins and ends with her complete dismissal of the idea of seeing a psychiatrist; she does not approve of Rose's seeing one. But this conceptual gestalt—"Without Wood" and "Magpies" on the issue of seeing a psychiatrist—is more interesting than just the representation of complete lack of understanding on the part of mother and daughter. Rose actually does stop seeing her shrink—and she's better off because of it. She stops talking to other people as well, which her mother recommended. After a prolonged period of isolation and sleep—three days—she emerges defiant, ready to take on Ted. She thus relies on her own inner strength and faces up to Ted, which is just what her mother wanted her to do. However, she reaches this point on her own, not by simply listening to her mother (her mother's alternative to seeing a psychiatrist is the daughter simply listening to the mother's advice). And confronting Ted seems to have unleashed a realization at a deeper, psychic level about the abusive nature of her mother, as well. In her dream, her mother is planting weeds in her garden that are running wild.
Another example of how non-contiguous "themes" can be set into a gestalt through the active memory and conceptual pairing activity of an Iserian reader is the linkage of the moments of self-assertion throughout the novel. This involves a series of linkages, with several possible pairings, or even one mega-gestalt. Rose's self-assertion in "Without Wood" can be linked up with June's in "Two Kinds," An-mei's in "Magpies" (where her self-assertion after the death of her mother is described), and Lindo's in "The Red Candle" (where she describes the epiphany that led her to her ruse, as previously discussed). Here we have another example of the dialogic potential of similar utterances: each of these women has had to assert herself in the face of some kind of oppression; in spite of their differences, they are united on this theme, but each has a different nuance to give to the statement, "I have had to assert myself."
Another way in which The Joy Luck Club invites through its discontinuous form the creative work of a reader pairing segments into order—conferring Gestalten in response to textual prompt—is with the four prefaces. They serve, much like the interludes in The Waves, as a universalizing backdrop against which to see the particularized monologues. Each monologue can be set against the preface, and each cluster can be taken as an Iserian "theme" set against the "horizon" of the respective preface. The prefaces also help the reader pick up on what Tan calls the "emotional curve" of each "quartet."
The prelude to Part One, "Feathers From a Thousand Li Away," presents in fable-like form a nameless Chinese woman who emigrated to America with hopes that she'd have a daughter who would lead a better life than was possible for a woman in China. The Chinese woman is full of good intentions and hopes for that daughter. But her relationship with her daughter is characterized by distance and lack of communication. The following four monologues reveal mothers who bemoan the distance to their daughters but who had good intentions. This prefatory piece, then, helps us organize the four very different opening monologues around that "emotional curve," which serves as a horizon against which the monologues can be apprehended.
The preface to Part Two, "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates," helps organize the way we think about the daughters's monologues in that section by suggesting that Chinese mothers can be overbearing in their attempts to protect and control their daughters, and that this will result in rebelliousness on the part of their daughters, as well as misfortune. This brief fable-like anecdote manages to encapsulate the dynamics of the monologues that follow and helps us organize the disparate elements of those monologues around the implied criticism of overprotective, overbearing mothers. If the first preface prepares us to be sympathetic towards the mothers, this second preface prepares us to be sympathetic towards the daughters as we read each monologue against that preface as a backdrop.
The preface to Part Three, "American Translation," also enters into a dialogic relationship with the monologues of that section through the gestalt-producing activity of the reader. Introducing another round of daughters's monologues, it presents us with a mother who appears to be overbearing in her desire for a grandchild. She insists that her daughter mount a mirror on the wall for good luck. The mother sees her grandchild in the mirror; the daughter sees only "her own reflection looking back at her." Tan seems to be suggesting with this the theme of conflicting perspectives and the struggle between daughters and mothers—a theme that is seen in the monologues that follow. Mothers see one thing; daughters see something entirely different. But the metaphor here is actually relevant only to the daughters's perspective: it suggests that mothers project their own subjective preferences upon what they see whereas daughters see objectively, which is itself a distorted notion. From the mothers's perspective, they see clearly and daughters distort reality. Because this preface is designed to make us sympathetic to the daughters, it is slanted towards them; the "emotional curve" is with the daughters.
A dialogic relationship also exists between the final fable-like preface and the final four monologues when the gestalt-creating capacity of the reader is called upon. The preface gives shape to the monologues that follow by presenting a mother who has a grandchild and who is treated sympathetically: she is self-critical and hopeful for her daughter, wishing that her daughter can learn "how to lose [her] innocence but not her hope." Very sympathetic to the mother, this preface prepares us to organize the monologues we are about to encounter in a manner that is sympathetic to the mothers. Reading each monologue in this cluster against the backdrop of the fourth preface helps establish the thematic point.
The Gestalten the reader creates from the four prefatory pieces thus confer considerable order upon what might at first appear to be a dizzying display of very different personalities, even with the common denominator of Chinese mothers and Chinese-American daughters. Like The Waves, The Joy Luck Club sets monologues against third-person interludes that function by suggesting a universal backdrop to the series of individualized voices; unlike The Waves, however, which uses nature as the universal backdrop, The Joy Luck Club prefaces use nameless human figures and abstract situations to suggest general truths.
Although the narrative invites the reader to establish all sorts of specific pairings between contiguous and non-contiguous monologues, the fundamental Gestalten, of course, consist of pairings of mothers collectively and daughters collectively. The daughters complaining about their mothers can be gathered together as one gestalt, with each daughter set against another daughter or the rest of the daughters. Presenting the daughters together in the middle two quartets encourages this kind of pairing. The mothers complaining about their daughters can be gathered together as well, with each complaining mother set against any other or the group. The narrative's most basic gestalt is that of mothers apprehended against the backdrop of daughters, or daughters apprehended against the backdrop of mothers. Among the daughters and among the mothers there is a dialogicity of sameness that consists of a fundamental similarity with individual nuances.
The narrative steers the reader, however, towards a particular kind of gestalt consisting of mothers's and daughters's perspectives; we have more than just an array of different perspectives with combinational possibilities among them. The daughters's positions, however understandable and valid, are enclosed and framed by the mothers's positions; however unreasonable or narrow-minded the mothers may seem in their attempts to impose their wills on their daughters, the narrative's structure, which invites the reader to apprehend the daughters against the backdrop of mothers, gives the mothers the upper hand in the argument. The three mothers presented before Jing-mei's closing monologue acquire a critical mass; their voices add up to an overwhelming appeal to respect the life experience and wishes of the mothers. Amy Ling's observation that the book "more often takes a sympathetic stand toward the mother" is a sound assessment because of the shape Tan gives the collection by allowing the mothers to have the final say.
The reader's processing of the four quartets over time necessitates changing initial assessments and thus illustrates Iser's concept of reading as a feedback loop requiring the revision of Gestalten. The Iserian reader's primary activity and response consists of creatively pairing different sections or moments into meaningful Gestalten and then revising initial constructions when new material is encountered. The clustering of monologues into quartets tempts the reader into certain judgments that must be revised as more of the text is encountered (upon an initial reading): the first cluster biases us towards the parents; the second and third clusters make us more sympathetic to the daughters; the final cluster ensures that the mothers get the upper hand in the debate, even though the daughters are given a very full hearing. The various foreground/background conceptual structures (and Gestalten from contiguously placed monologues are conceptual as well as Gestalten from non-contiguous monologues) can be created during an initial reading, or upon rereading (which allows one to reach forward as well as backwards from any present moment of reading).
Iser's concept of negativity, another kind of "gap," also applies to The Joy Luck Club. 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. The mothers and daughters are speaking into a void, not to each other (I read the occasional use of the second person in some of the monologues as an aside to an imagined audience, not an actual audience). Thus the narrative form and the thematic point complement each other. The result of this depiction of failed communication is that the reader, through the process of "negativity," is motivated to imagine a healthier response. Although the narrative provides a solution to the dilemma in the final chapter, the reader's experience before the final chapter of the failure to communicate ensures that the reader will be motivated to avoid such incommunicative relationships in his or her own life.
At this point I would like to address the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club. Although depicting in the final chapter an answer to the problem of non-communication demonstrated up to the ending may seem like the perfect way for Tan to conclude, I have had difficulty accepting what seemed to me to be an overly sentimental and facile resolution. I would like to present my initial assessment of this issue and then attempt to move beyond that resisting response with a more accepting reading of the ending. My purpose in presenting my own experience with the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club is to foreground various issues that I believe are important for an understanding of Tan's book.
In my 1992 study of contemporary American multiple narrator novels, I summed up my discomfort with June's novel-ending monologue thusly:
My sense, when viewing The Joy Luck Club in the context of other multiple narrator novels, is that the book is at odds with itself. The various monologues of mothers and daughters, monologues that foreground difference—indeed, that flaunt discrepancy, conflict and relativism—set in motion a centrifugality that cannot so easily be overcome. The happy ending … [is] not true to the heteroglot diversity actually revealed throughout the text…. In my experience of The Joy Luck Club, the Suyuan/Jing-mei reconciliation is not convincing, and there clearly is no final reconciliation between all the mothers and daughters. Thus, as I see it, the attempt to reign in the heteroglossia does not do justice to the resonating diversity; that diversity actually eludes subduing through the kind of reductive thematic reading [that the ending invites].
I then pointed out the similarity between my observation about closure in The Joy Luck Club and Dale Bauer's comment about the novels she analyzes in her Feminist Dialogics. In Bauer's Bakhtin-inspired uncovering of repressed heteroglossia, she observes that "while the plot resolutions give closure to the novels, the dialogue resists that closure." I continued my attempt to articulate my discomfort with the ending by arguing that the process Iser terms "negativity" is sufficient to make the thematic point without a heavy-handed ending.
The reader's sense of the poignancy inherent in a situation where mothers and daughters do not communicate as fully as they might in itself implies a remedy, in itself motivates the reader to imagine a solution—one that would accommodate the needs of both mothers and daughters…. The Joy Luck Club interferes with the imagined affirmation by prodding the reader too much. It is one thing to show Waverly, at the close of "Four Directions," attempting to impose an artificial, superficial pleasantness on her deeply problematic relationship with her mother by thinking about taking her mother with her on her honeymoon that reveals an interesting split within this particular consciousness; it is another matter to have Tan … [impose] a superficial sense of harmony at the end of the book that does not do justice to the actual diversity and conflict between the covers. The collection of stories is full of moral potential without the heavy-handed ending simply through its presentation of multiple voices, artistically organized.
My having been immersed in Bakhtin, Iser, and Faulkner at the time contributed to my lack of appreciation for the way this novel ends. Bakhtin's take on the novel as a genre is one that privileges the flaunting of diverse perspectives that, while dialogized, are never resolved into harmonious agreement or simple synthesis. His insistence on "unfinalizability" led me to privilege open-ended multiple narrator novels over those with strong closure. Iser's model led me to privilege texts that allow the reader to establish the thematic point without having it boldly announced. And my reading of Faulkner's own multiple narrator novels likewise biased me. As I Lay Dying, for example, while providing a sense of ending, flaunts diversity and discrepancy across subjectivities; it revels in the diverse viewpoints and the isolated personalities. The Sound and the Fury, too, while offering closure, resists its own ending and the thematic answer it provides (through Dilsey) to the problem of the solipsistic ego epitomized by the Quentin and Jason monologues. Faulkner, as I read him, is more interested in the poetic potential of pathology than in offering any thematic proposition about life.
My effort to rethink my initial response to the strong sense of closure in The Joy Luck Club involves a number of considerations based on feedback about this response from other scholars and my own students.
One of those considerations is gender. The "sentimental" ending of the novel may simply evoke different responses from male and female readers. With the kind of psychodynamic model of personality development that feminists like Nancy Chodorow offer (c.f. The Reproduction of Mothering), it is possible to argue that women, who are more oriented to bonding and relationships than men (men emphasize separation and autonomy instead, according to this theory), are less likely to resist Tan's ending. My experience teaching the novel in an all-female classroom at Texas Woman's University was enlightening because no one found the ending to be sentimental or false….
Perhaps the most useful approach to the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club is a culturally grounded one. When Tan's contribution to the multiple narrator sub-genre is considered in the context of Asian values, the desire for an ending that brings the resonating diversity and conflicting positions to a tidy close is entirely understandable.
A culturally nuanced reading of the novel might begin with the fundamental orientation toward the group rather than the individual in Asian cultures generally, as stated in the following passage taken from the classic reference book cited earlier of Asian culture for American therapists whose client population includes Asian Americans:
American society has tended toward the ideals of the self-sufficient, self-reliant individual who is the master of his or her fate and chooses his or her own destiny. High value is placed on the ability to stand on your own two feet, or pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or do your own thing. In contrast, Asian philosophies tend toward an acknowledgment that individuals become what they are because of the efforts of many things and many people. They are the products of their relationship to nature and other people. Thus, heavy emphasis is placed on the nature of the relationship among people, generally with the aim of maintaining harmony through proper conduct and attitudes.
This general orientation toward the group is manifested in the emphasis on respecting and serving one's parents, not resisting them. "The greatest obligation of East Asians," according to McGoldrick and her colleagues, "is to their parents, who have brought them into the world and have cared for them when they were helpless. The debt that is owed can never be truly repaid; and no matter what parents may do the child is still obligated to give respect and obedience"—an attitude that can be traced back to Confucius.
Another aspect of Asian cultures generally (East Asian in this particular case) that is pertinent to a culturally nuanced response to The Joy Luck Club has to do with shaming. McGoldrick and her co-authors explain that in these cultures, "shame and shaming are the mechanisms that traditionally help reinforce societal expectations and proper behavior." Vacc and his colleagues explain more specifically that "control of the children [in Chinese and Japanese families] is maintained by fostering feelings of shame and guilt." Without knowing this, it is more likely that the shaming behavior some of the mothers of The Joy Luck Club engage in to control their children will result in a reading that blames those mothers for inappropriate behavior. As a consequence of the misunderstanding, such a reader would not grant those mothers the sympathy for which they qualify.
Yet another aspect of Asian culture that contributes to a sensitive reading of Tan's novel is the close relationship between a mother and her children in Asian countries. McGoldrick and her co-authors explain it thusly:
The traditional role of the mother must also be understood and respected within the context of her role expectations within the family. Issues involving the children reflect upon her self-esteem as a mother. We must remember that in the traditional family, the children are primarily her responsibility, as well as her resource for the future. Frequently, issues around perceived dependence of children and overprotection of the mother are raised by American therapists who are unfamiliar with traditional family dynamics of Asian families. Therapists do not always understand that within the family mutual interdependence is stressed and expected. This is not to say that individuation does not occur or is not promoted, but it is constantly tinged with the subconscious knowledge of the relationships and obligations between the individual and other family members.
Although The Joy Luck Club gives equal time to the position of daughters who resist or resent a domineering mother, an American reader is less likely to grant those mothers their due without understanding that Asian mothers normally behave in a more heavy-handed manner than their American counterparts.
The final point I wish to make about Asian cultures that contributes to a balanced response to both the mothers and the daughters in The Joy Luck Club is that Asian families in America tend to place extraordinary emphasis on the importance of education for their children. Vacc and his co-authors explain it thusly:
The pressure to succeed academically among Asians is very strong. From early childhood, outstanding achievement is emphasized because it is a source of pride for the entire family…. Reflecting the emphasis on education is the finding that college enrollment rates for Chinese and Japanese between the ages of 18 and 24 and the percentage completing college is higher than for any other group in the United States. Parental expectations for achievement can be an additional stress factor in young Asian-Americans.
This information is important for a sensitive response to both Jing-mei and Suyuan, who calls her daughter a "college drop-off." It is in the context of explaining her dropping out of college that Jing-mei tells us: "My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more."
With this background information in mind, it is easier to understand the thematic readings of Tan's novel that do not focus on the differences between mothers and the differences between daughters as much as upon the similarities. In this culture-specific context, Tan's attempt to rein in the reverberating heteroglossia has a compelling logic.
The readings of The Joy Luck Club offered by Amy Ling and Elaine Kim are undertaken within this context. They emphasize the mother/daughter gestalt discussed earlier and the importance of the broader dynamic between mothers and daughters that this gestalt suggests; Ling and Kim are not as focused on individual personalities as a reader coming from Faulkner, Bakhtin, and Iser would be. Ling argues that "though the mothers all have different names and individual stories, they seem interchangeable in that the role of mother supersedes all other roles and is performed with the utmost seriousness and determination. All the mothers in The Joy Luck Club are strong, powerful women." Kim likewise argues that "one of the triumphs of the book is that it is easy to lose track of the individual women's voices: the reader might turn distractedly to the table of contents, trying to pair the mothers and daughters or to differentiate among them, only to discover the point that none of this matters in the least." Ling's reading privileges the mothers's perspectives and argues that the narrative endorses their position more than the daughters's resisting positions. Her reading of the novel is that it "more often takes a sympathetic stand toward the mothers's. Ling further argues that in spite of the battles described, the daughters eventually acquiesce: "The daughters' battles for independence from powerful commanding mothers is fierce, but eventually, as in [The Woman Warrior], a reconciliation is reached. The daughters realize that the mothers have always had the daughters' own best interests at heart." Ling has no problem with Jing-mei's "act of filial obedience" closing the narrative. Her concluding remarks clearly indicate her acceptance of the ending as a perfectly appropriate one; she does not resist the narrative's attempt to counterbalance the conflicting voices with its ending. "[The novel] ends on a note of resolution and reconciliation. The struggles, the battles, are over, and when the dust settles what was formerly considered a hated bondage is revealed to be a cherished bond." Thematizing the novel, she interprets its message thusly
To be truly mature, to achieve a balance in the between-world condition then … one cannot cling solely to the new American ways and reject the old Chinese ways, for that is the way of the child. One must reconcile the two and make one's peace with the old. If the old ways cannot be incorporated into the new life, if they do not "mix" as Lindo Jong put it, then they must nonetheless be respected and preserved in the pictures on one's walls, in the memories in one's head, in the stories that one writes down.
Bonnie TuSmith, in her recent study of the importance of community in American ethnic literatures, All My Relatives, offers a reading of the battling positions of the narrative that also privileges the mothers's perspective. She interprets the passage describing the Polaroid shot of the three sisters as follows: "This composite image of three daughters who, together, make up one mother reflects the novel's communal subtext, which works as a counterpoint to the textual surface of individualistic strife between mothers and daughters." More specifically, she suggests that the narrative argues against the daughters's individualistic voices and for the establishment of harmony with the mothers:
The novel opens with Jing-Mei's assuming her mother's role at the mahjongg table of the Joy Luck Club. Her "substitute" role is recalled in the conclusion when she is in China and taking her mother's place once again. This literary frame alone suggests that, although the mother-daughter power struggle appears individualistic on the surface, there is a different message embedded in the text.
The culturally based, heavily thematic readings that TuSmith and Ling offer thus emphasize the overall Gestalten of mothers set against daughters and daughters set against mothers with a nod towards the position of the mothers. Ling emphasizes the importance of the daughters respecting and acknowledging the position of the mothers; TuSmith offers a more complex surface versus deep structure analysis that sees the conflicting perspectives as merely a surface phenomenon and the difference-transcending communalism as a more fundamental underlying impulse.
Although my own earlier reading was not sufficiently cognizant of cultural factors—such as the emphasis in Chinese-American cultures on group and family orientation, respect for parents, shaming by parents for control of children, dependent relationships, and education of children—a reading of The Joy Luck Club that fully accounts for its complexity perhaps requires taking a middle-ground position: the narrative, with its overall structure (framing) and thematic conclusion, suggests resolution and reconciliation, but the actual collection of voices cannot with complete accuracy be reduced to a thematic reading. If one imagines Tan writing with her mother looking on (and from what she has said about her relationship with her mother, this seems accurate), there should be no surprise that the novel argues for something while at the same time resisting it through the very presentation of a heteroglot array of individual voices.
In either case, a Bakhtin-inspired and Iser-based reading of The Joy Luck Club is possible and contributes to a moment-by-moment uncovering and articulation of the counter-centrifugal dialogicity in the collection of monologues. An Iserian reading locates the various points of difference and agreement across monologues and establishes the connections between them. As Bakhtin suggests, the dialogicity can be of agreement as well as disagreement; to use his example, "Life is good" and "Life is good" can resonate through slightly different accents given to the basic proposition. "Mothers are oppressive" and "Mothers are oppressive"—or "daughters should show respect" and "daughters should show respect"—can likewise resonate across monologues by having a different accentuation with each speaker.
Whether or not one agrees that the novel genuinely achieves a resolution and reconciliation (that might be an objective "meaning" versus subjective "significance" issue, in Iserian terms), an Iserian reading focuses on the moment-by-moment experience of the dialogicity of difference and agreement across monologues. On a first reading, during a rereading, or standing back after reading and selectively meditating on the assemblage, there are several ways the segments enter into a dialogic relationship through the active agency of the reader responding in a controlled way to textual prompts. Meaningful connections can be established between contiguous monologues, non-contiguous monologues, moments within monologues or entire monologues, prefaces and post-preface monologues, and quartets (such as the mothers's quartets framing the daughters's quartets). We might say that the fundamental Iserian gap in this text is the conceptual space between daughters and mothers, between one generation and the other. The primary objective "meaning" that obtains at the site of the dialogicity—the reader's consciousness—is one of unrealized potential. That, in itself, argues, through Iserian negativity, for children and parents to try to listen better and communicate more. By writing a multiple narrator novel with an argumentative edge to it—a thematic thrust that extends beyond an assertion of the relativity of perception—Tan makes a distinct contribution to the genre of the multiple first-person monologue novel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4544
SOURCE: "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge in The Kitchen God's Wife," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall, 1994–1995, pp. 164-74.
[In the following essay, Caesar states, "By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the 'otherness' of what Americans consider foreign [in The Kitchen God's Wife], Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative."]
If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard says, a "master narrative" is required to legitimate artistic expression, for the past thirty years the legitimizing narrative of mainstream American literary realism has been the quest for personal fulfillment. The increasingly stagnant, if not outright polluted, mainstream has produced novel after novel concerning the mid-life crises (and sometimes accompanying marital infidelities) of self-centered American men, with even the once rich Jewish and Southern literary traditions now given over to novels like Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, Walker Percy's The Second Coming, and Reynolds Price's Blue Calhoun, all concerning a middle-aged (and in the first two instances, wealthy) white man's discontent. All are a far cry from the writers' earlier ethical and philosophical concerns. The consideration of the reflective person's stance toward questions of political and social justice, central to the 19th- and early 20th-century novel from Charles Dickens' Bleak House to Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, seems to have become limited to experimental postmodern novels (E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland) and to the kinds of essays on domestic politics, international affairs, and human rights that appear in The New Yorker, Harpers', and The Nation. Worse, American literary realism's concentration on the purely personal has led to a delegitimation of other experience, namely, the experience of introspective and articulate people who have lived lives devastated by social and political forces outside their control. These people are relegated to inarticulate images on the television screen—in Sarajevo, in Somalia, in the Middle East, in Thailand, and in China. These people, then, whose real stories and histories remain untold to the American public, become less "real" than many of the characters who populate American literary fiction.
In this context, it is very significant that the supposedly "popular" novels of minority American women—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and now Amy Tan—seem to be reaching a larger audience than much mainstream literary realism. In part, this is because all five can create such an engaging and often witty surface and because all seem to deal with the popular topics of TV talk shows: spouse abuse, recovering from divorce, finding one's roots, etc. And of course all are hyphenated Americans of some sort, a fact which engages the curiosity of readers who do not share the writers' backgrounds. (Chicana and Native American writers like Sandra Cisneros and Leslie Silko, who use more experimental techniques and deal with a wider range of subject matter, have yet to reach the Waldenbooks reader.)
Yet Tan, for one, does much more than articulate popular media issues. She causes us to question the very basis of how we know what we know. She creates her own narrative by seeming to affirm popular American assumptions in the formula of the popular novel and then undermining that very narrative in a complex political allegory that questions the basic American (indeed Western) concepts of truth and rationality.
In keeping with this subtly deceptive plan, The Kitchen God's Wife seems at first like a lively but somewhat clichéd popular novel, a modern pseudo-feminist retelling of the folklore story of the abused wife (patient Griselda in the West, the kitchen god's wife in the East) who wins her husband's love by passing all his tests or his remorse by her generosity of spirit. What makes it modern is that the abused wife is angry at her ill treatment and seemingly "finds herself" in that anger. The women, moreover, are the "good guys" while the men seem quite unrelievedly evil, with the exception of the male rescuer. It seems, in short, to be a type of formula novel which provides women readers with clear heroines, heroes, and villains, all without disrupting the Gothic romance's illusion of rescue by "the right man." Jiang Weili, the narrator of the central three-fourths of the novel, endures the most horrifying abuse from her brutal husband, Wen Fu, while traditional Chinese society not only fails to intervene but colludes in her victimization. The only twist seems to be that instead of winning her husband's love, Weili is rescued by a handsome prince, in this case, Jimmy Louie, a Chinese-American soldier who marries her and takes her back to the United States. In fact, one can see the novel as a rather smug indictment of the misery of women in traditional Chinese society in contrast to American society's enlightened feminism. Moreover, the story that frames the story, that of Jiang Weili's daughter Pearl and her relationship with her mother, seems like yet another story about returning to one's roots to discover some less complicated identity. In short, there seems little here to challenge conventional American thinking.
Yet nothing in the novel is as it seems. Certainly, in the beginning, nothing is as it seems to Weili's American-born daughter Pearl, who narrates the opening chapters of the novel and embodies the American sensibility in all its directness and in all its limitations. Like well-meaning Americans in China, Pearl makes cultural gaffes in dealing with the older Chinese-American community and even with her mother because she doesn't seem to understand the differences between outer display and actual feeling or the realm of implied meanings that are so much a part of Chinese tradition. Thus, at the funeral of elderly Grand Auntie Du which opens the novel, Pearl sees a group of sobbing women in threadbare padded jackets and takes them for recent immigrants from China, Grand Auntie Du's "real friends," when in fact they are Vietnamese professional mourners. Worse, with all the confidence of American pop psychology, Pearl advises her mother to speak frankly to her contemporary, Auntie Helen, about her feelings that Auntie Helen should be sharing more in Grand Auntie Du's care. Pearl says,
"Why don't you just tell Auntie Helen how you feel and stop complaining?" This is what Phil [Pearl's Anglo husband] had suggested I say, a perfectly reasonable way to get my mother to realize what was making her miserable so she could finally take positive action.
Of course, Pearl doesn't realize that her mother is quietly boasting to Pearl about her own dutifulness and implying that more could be expected of Pearl as well. Thus, Pearl is shocked when her mother is so profoundly offended that she will barely speak to her for a month.
She knows her mother as Winnie Louie, her American name, her kindly but often inexplicably crotchety mother to whom she is bound by sometimes tiresome traditions that don't seem to apply to other Americans. She doesn't realize until the end of the novel that her mother is also Jiang Weili, a woman brought up in China who has survived both a disastrous marriage and the invasion and occupation of her country by a brutal enemy army. And because she doesn't know who her mother is, Pearl also doesn't know that she herself is not the daughter of the kindly Jimmy Louie but of Wen Fu, the brutal first husband. This is but one of the novel's pattern of multiple and mistaken identities that suggests the ambiguity of all knowledge and the incompleteness of the official (legitimate) narrative.
In particular, the novel explores the incompleteness of the American narrative, an incompleteness that comes from a refusal to see the validity of the knowledge of other cultures or of the experiences of people who are not Americans. Pearl, with her confident American knowledge of the way things are, her faulty Mandarin, and her imperviousness to implied meanings, misses much of what is going on beneath the surface, although she is sensitive enough sometimes to realize that there are some things she doesn't understand: "… apparently, there's a lot I don't know about my mother and Auntie Helen," she thinks at one point. Since the bulk of the novel is Weili's story, it would seem that one of the purposes of having Pearl as the initial narrator is not only to contrast the American sensibility with the Chinese, but to alert the American reader to the subtext beneath Jiang Weili's story as well. Although the reader would first identify with the American, Pearl, it is very clear that Pearl doesn't know all that needs to be known.
Weili's story is also much more than it would first seem to an American reader. Most obviously, Jiang Weili's is the story of a progressively more violent and degrading marriage set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China. Weili is married off to a man of a socially "suitable" family, although both her father and her aunts and uncles clearly have a sense of the man's flawed character. Because they know something of his deceptiveness, if not his outright cruelty, they marry Weili to him and not her favored cousin, nicknamed Peanut, who had wanted to marry her. Wen Fu proves to be a sexual sadist who delights in humiliation games, a liar who uses his dead brother's diplomas to become an officer in the Nationalist air force (another confused identity), and a coward who manages to save his own life throughout the war by deserting his fellow pilots whenever they encounter Japanese aircraft. Because of Wen Fu's social position, however, no one acknowledges any of these failings.
As the war continues and the Nationalist army flees from Shanghai to Nanjing and finally to Kunming, so Wen Fu degenerates. He refuses to leave a card game to get a doctor for his sick daughter, and then he publicly blames Weili when the child dies. He brings a concubine into the house and then discards her when she becomes pregnant. He forces Weili to "admit" publicly to being a prostitute, despite her very obvious fidelity. He is the enemy of whatever is life-affirming and generous (Weili's maternal responses to save her child, her sisterly desire to help the ignorant concubine) disguised as patriarchal morality. Throughout all of this abuse, no one interferes; in fact, when Weili tries to run away from Wen Fu, her friends Hulan (later Helen) and Auntie Du tell him her hiding place. The increasing viciousness of Wen Fu parallels the increasing closeness of the Japanese army, so that by the time Weili has run away and been brought back to a still more degraded life, the Japanese are bombing Kunming.
The parallel between the victimization of Weili and the Japanese conquest of China is further emphasized by the fact that old Jiang, Weili's father, has collaborated with the Japanese, betraying his country in the same way he betrayed his daughter. His pattern of ineffectual resistance and subsequent capitulation, moreover, continues throughout the novel. He throws a teacup against a priceless painting to show that he would rather destroy China's heritage than betray it—and then accedes to Japanese demands; in Shanghai, when both he and Weili are Wen Fu's victims, he gives Weili the money with which to leave Wen Fu—and then is too ill to help her when Wen Fu accuses her of theft and has her imprisoned.
Even at this level of the political allegory, however, there is little in equating Chinese patriarchy with Japanese expansionism and imperialism that would discomfort or challenge an American reader. It is still "those people" who have done these terrible things, not "us." Yet it is not so comforting if one carries the political allegory to its logical conclusions. Weili's victimization couldn't have taken place if Chinese society had not condoned it to such an extent that even her best friends didn't want to blemish their reputations by helping her escape—at least until the very end of the novel, when they try to get her out of jail (ineffectually, it turns out) by saying that they had witnessed her divorce. These friends, who later join her in the United States, are not all that different from the United States itself, which, as Tan points out, helped to keep the Japanese war machine running by supplying the Japanese with oil and scrap metal all through the 1930s and later helped China only after the United States itself was under attack. Hulan thinks that she freed Weili through her second husband's influence with the Nationalist government; in fact, it is Weili's cousin Peanut, now a communist cadre who runs a shelter for abused wives, who gets Weili out of prison because Nationalist officials in charge of Weili's case fear reprisals from the communists. If Weili is China, then it is a communist who helps to liberate her, although the liberation is far from complete.
Moreover, if we interpret the novel as a fairly literal political allegory, there is yet another disturbing implication. Wen Fu is never punished. When Weili finally gets word of his death, she learns that he has died an old man, surrounded by his family and respected by his community—the very definition of a righteous man's proper death in Chinese tradition. In contrast, Weili's good husband Jimmy Louie dies relatively young and in great pain, seemingly denied by Pearl, the daughter whom he raised. The pain and prematurity of Jimmy's death is one reason it so haunts Weili. Weili, furthermore, is eking out a living in a foreign country (America), widowed and at least, as the book opens, culturally estranged from her children. One could see this as paralleling the fact that all the former imperial powers—Japan among them—are both more prosperous and more respected than their former victims. To cite the most literal sort of example, the Western media tends to blame the human rights abuses and the political unrest in China and the rest of the former colonial world on the ideological systems that ejected the colonial powers, not on the after-effects of imperialism itself. And the crimes of imperialism did go unpunished. The war crimes trials after World War II focused on the Japanese abuse of western POWs, not on the Japanese imprisonment and massacre of millions of Chinese civilians.
One reason for Tan's equation of imperialism and patriarchy is essentially rhetorical. It is easier for an American audience to sympathize with the victims of patriarchy than with the victims of imperialism. Many American women have been the victims of patriarchy, after all, while very few have been the victims of imperialism. We have not had our country invaded and occupied by a foreign army or had laws imposed on us by people who didn't know our language or culture—except, of course, for Native Americans. The type of suffering Weili endures, moreover, is primarily emotional and psychological rather than physical. She is humiliated and exploited; she cannot even complain about her plight. But she is not being starved, beaten, or tortured at a time when millions of her countrymen (and women) were, as Weili herself points out. Weili's suffering is that of a middle-class woman married to a bully. An American reader can identify with this, at least to some degree; and once one has done this, one can begin to get a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally—the Nanjing massacre, for instance. Then other events fit into place. Weili and Wen Fu's children die, one the direct victim of Wen Fu's neglect, two the indirect victims of the Japanese. Tan's presentation helps to legitimize a narrative of suffering otherwise so far outside the American experience that it could seem beyond our capacity for empathy.
But there are more complex philosophical reasons for linking imperialism and patriarchy. For one thing, they both shape the "legitimate" printed narratives of Weili's story. To the Shanghai press covering Weili's case, Wen Fu is a war hero whose wife has been seduced and corrupted by a lecherous American. In this patriarchal narrative, Weili wants to escape Wen Fu not because she has been abused, but because she is "crazy for American sex." This is as true as the printed leaflets the Japanese drop on Nanjing, explaining that civilians will not be harmed.
Behind these official narratives is the assumption that some people's suffering is more significant than other people's sufferings. The Chinese historian Szuma Chien once ironically remarked that some deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai, while others are lighter than a feather—that is, in official versions of events. Thus, the honor of men is more important than the dignity of women, and the deaths of ordinary Chinese simply aren't important at all. This assumption isn't merely Oriental, moreover, since it underlies the current American narrative that the personal emotional crisis of an American is the only suffering interesting enough to write about. The official narratives are used to ignore or justify the sufferings of the powerless.
Consequently, all the official facts in Tan's novel are questionable. Weili's divorce is officially valid when Wen Fu holds a gun to her head and makes her sign the paper, but it can be made invalid by her ex-husband's tearing up the paper. What is a divorce and what does it mean under those circumstances? Weili can be "officially" a thief for taking the gold her father gave her, and then later be "officially" innocent when her imprisonment is termed an "error of the court." Even Pearl's official American knowledge that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor is questionable, since, as Weili points out, it began for China with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. (Or did it begin even earlier, with the German concession of the Shantung peninsula to the Japanese?) The Western narrative is at best an incomplete truth. When does a divorce or a war begin or end?
The narrative structure of the novel also suggests the problematic nature of truth. As Edward Said has pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, the narrative structure of the classic 19th-century realistic novel, with its omniscient narrator or reliable first-person narrator, helped to underscore the idea of an authoritative and "correct" version of events. Despite the polyphonic narrations of the high modernist novel, the 20th-century popular novel has generally preserved the 19th-century technique, as has much of contemporary literary realism. The modernist novel, moreover, focuses on the psychological and philosophical implications of competing narratives (Mrs. Dalloway, As I Lay Dying, etc.), not on their political implication. Much contemporary fiction thus tends to confirm the value of Americanness over foreignness, a kind of contemporary imperialism. (Think, for example, of Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses in which the good guys are all American men and the bad guys either Mexican or female. Consider how different it would be if any of the Mexican or women characters gave their version of events.) In contrast, Tan has two narrators and three versions of events—Pearl's, Weili's, and Hulan's, all of which seem credible in some respects.
While Tan's use of a polyphonic narrative is significant in itself, perhaps more significant is who speaks. Through much of the novel, after all, it is an elderly Chinese immigrant whose syntax and word choice reflect the patterns of Chinese-accented English, a speech pattern marginalized and mocked by contemporary mainstream American society. Tan helps to give this voice a validity and dignity in the same way that Walker and Morrison have helped to legitimize African American speech. She has made the sufferings of those who speak in this voice "as heavy as Mount Tai."
The details of the novel confirm both the validity of these Chinese women's experience and the subjective nature of truth. What Hulan remembers is different from what Weili remembers, yet Hulan's insights are given sudden credibility when she tells Pearl, "You know how she [Weili] is, very hard to thank …," and we realize how very true this is of both Weili and Pearl. Just as Pearl rejects her "cousin" Mary's comforting casseroles when Mary learns of Pearl's illness, Weili would indeed be repelled by the idea of being indebted to Hulan in any way. We also realize the extent to which Hulan's behavior, which Weili had interpreted as simply contrary and obstructive, was well intended. What is interesting here is that in personal relationships, unlike political ones, conflicting versions of the truth are not necessarily divisive, since neither version is used as a means of control or suppression. Thus even the quarrels between Winnie (once Weili) and Helen (once Hulan) are not precisely quarrels at all. Pearl observes,
I watch them continue to argue, although perhaps it is not arguing. They are remembering together, dreaming together.
Tan also contradicts this idea of a rational Western truth through the pattern of double and shifting identities of her characters and by her clear indications that the commonly accepted criteria for determining identity are sometimes irrelevant. Tan shows a world of multiple and contradictory truths, truth as a series of Chinese boxes, not a unitary truth to be "discovered" in the Western sense. Tan's is not even a Western "postmodernist" truth of multiple linear narratives, but of contradictory truths and partial truths intermixed in layers of meaning. Through the contradictions in Winnie's (Weili's) character, we see that a complete person can be both large-spirited and petty, loving and distant. Indeed, self-knowledge consists of acknowledging these seemingly contradictory traits. At one point Weili tells Pearl,
I have told you about the early days of my marriage so you can understand why I became strong and weak at the same time. Maybe according to your American mind, you cannot be both, that would be a contradiction. But according to my life, I had to be both.
The simultaneous existence of these opposites is indeed very different from what our American minds tell us is rational, and thus it calls into question the validity of that rationality.
Moreover, none of the characters is precisely what they seem, even concerning the most common determiner of identity, family relationships. Consider, for instance, the ways in which the characters seem to be related but aren't. Pearl calls Hulan "auntie" and thinks of Hulan's children Bao-Bao and Mary as her cousins. Indeed, Winnie and Helen, with all their feuding and tenderness, act like sisters. And Pearl is as exasperated and yet connected to the "cousins" as she would be with any blood relative, a relationship Tan underscores by using them as foils to Pearl. Pearl has believed the "official version" that Helen is the widow of Winnie's younger brother, but she learns very early in her mother's story that Helen is "merely" a person she has known ever since her youth.
Thus it is not surprising that Pearl's discovery of her parentage, her "real identity" does not have the significance the episode's placement in the novel would seem to grant it. Finally, the great climatic revelation that Wen Fu is Pearl's "real" father seems to be irrelevant after all. It is the pattern formed by all the revelations leading up to it that is important. That Jimmy Louie is Pearl's "real" father is simply one more item in the list of things that seems true, isn't true, and finally is in a larger sense as true as any of the novel's other ambiguous truths. And on the level of character, it doesn't matter either. Pearl is not at all like Wen Fu, as Winnie points out. Ancestry and blood relationship finally do not matter very much—a very non-Chinese idea in a very non-American narrative.
Meaning and truth exist in layers, and what is true on the surface is contradicted by another truth underneath, which is in turn contradicted by a third layer. And all are "true." We see this kind of paradox even in the names of minor characters. Pearl's cousin Roger is named Bao-Bao, "precious baby," because his parents were so happy to finally have a child, but the nickname sticks as he grows up because it becomes a sarcastic description of his superficial and immature behavior. The only one of the Chinese-American characters to have a Chinese name, he speaks like a cartoon of an American and gets married and divorced as carelessly as a character in a Woody Allen comedy. Is it then because he is so American that he is so superficial? In fact, in his self-centeredness and sexual inconstancy, he seems like a comic and relatively benign version of Wen Fu. He's a beloved precious baby who has become a spoiled precious baby whose faults are equally American and Chinese.
In this context, it is not surprising that nationality doesn't matter very much in determining the identity of both Weili and Pearl either. It merely determines their modes of expression. Pearl is very much an American version of Weili. Like Weili, she is a concerned and loving mother, she faces difficulties (her multiple sclerosis, for example) with such stoicism that she cuts herself off from both her husband and her mother, she is witty and critical, and she is willing to let things be understood without spelling them out. Yet in her manners and beliefs, she is an American. When, at the end, she accepts her mother's herbal cures and the offering to Lady Sorrowfree, she does so as an acceptance of her mother's solicitude, not her beliefs. She hasn't found a "Chinese identity" in the way the characters in Song of Solomon and The Color Purple find an African identity; instead she has found a closer relationship with her mother and an insight into the seemingly conflicting layers of reality in the world around her, beginning with the multiple identities of her mother and the Chinese "relatives" whom she thought she knew. Personal identity, like both personal and political truth, is many-layered and elusive, something accepted rather than discovered.
Under the outward layer of a highly readable popular novel, Tan has written an extremely complex postmodern literary novel that challenges the dominant narratives of contemporary American society, particularly our ideas of who matters and who does not, of whose version is "true" and whose is not, and indeed of how one can find what is true. Through the voices of characters like Weili and Hulan, Tan presents a world in which complex and intelligent people must find a way of accommodating hostile political and social forces against which they are powerless to rebel—a type of suffering from which most American readers have been sheltered. Thus, Tan verifies the reality of a world outside the American experience as nevertheless part of the human experience and questions the sense of entitlement and cultural superiority that allows Americans to dismiss the sufferings of foreigners. This sense of entitlement, the idea that "our" deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai and "their" deaths are light as feathers underlies the callousness of all imperial narratives—the novels of contemporary America, as well as narratives of the Imperial China of which Szuma Chien wrote and of patriarchal China and Imperial Japan, of which Jiang Weili speaks. By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the "otherness" of what Americans consider foreign, Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2115
SOURCE: "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s in, around and about Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life, edited by Nancy Owen Nelson, University of North Texas Press, 1995, pp. 111-24.
[In the following excerpt, Braendlin analyzes how the women's liberation movement has affected mother-daughter relationships, specifically focusing on the mother-daughter dialogics in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]
In the 1970s I became, almost simultaneously, a feminist teacher/critic and the mother of a daughter. While analyzing novels emerging from the Women's Liberation Movement, where daughters struggle to free themselves from enslaving ideologies of wife/motherhood, I tended to identify with the daughters and to deplore the maternal machinations of fictional mothers, often characterized as little more than co-opted wives in cahoots with domineering fathers to coerce rebellious daughters into traditional wife/mother roles. As a mother of a daughter in an era when feminism was demanding a place for women in male-dominated culture, I often felt the conflicts among my perceived duty to socialize her toward survival and success in a masculine world, my determination not to replicate my own mother, and my desire to be my own woman and to let my daughter be hers. And just as often my daughter seemed caught between her need for parental direction and her desire for independence….
Antagonisms between mothers and daughters in U.S. history and literature became particularly acute during and after the 1970s, when the women's movement—advocating equality in a man's world—defined subjectivity in masculinist terms that privileged independence, self-sufficiency, and autonomy at the expense of traditional "feminine" relational values of nurturing and caring. Because these values had been embodied in an ideology of motherhood defined and dominated for years by patriarchal males, daughters of the liberation movement viewed them as outdated restrictions foisted upon them by their retrograde mothers. Defining themselves in ways formerly allowed only to men, "liberated" daughters wanted to usurp the traditional son's position, to move out of the home and into the workplace, to climb the ladder of success….
Conflicts between mothers of one generation and daughters of another are inscribed in numerous texts of the liberation era, for instance Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, Alice Walker's Meridian, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, all published in the early to mid-seventies. In Kinflicks, independence for the daughter necessitates both divorce and rejection of her own child, and her mother's abrogation of maternal control. The novel represents maternal self-sacrifice as a fatal blood disease, implying that mothers must die in order for daughters to live. Hong Kingston's fictionalized autobiography also portrays the mother-daughter relationship as antagonistic and obstructive to female development, but she at least spares the mother, and at the end her "Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" unites autonomy, nurturing, and artistry, albeit in a fantasy of utopian female solidarity….
In the eras following the women's liberation movement, we daughters of the seventies have become disillusioned with and conscious of our own co-option in masculinist ideologies and our efforts to replicate our fathers at the expense of maternal values; we've begun to identify with the mothers we had formerly rejected, thus complicating what formerly seemed to be a simple daughter versus mother conflict. Women can now, if they wish, be nurturing without being servile and can encourage men to care about others, protect and nourish relationships. In both fictional and critical texts, moreover, we are moving from antagonistic dialectic arguments—which were often (among critics and between mothers and daughters) really monovocal power plays—to more polyvocal, more dialogic, forms of spoken and written communication.
Dialogism, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is the constant interaction among meanings expressed in spoken or written communication, insuring that no word, ideology, or discourse is privileged or remains privileged, even when it is supported by some kind of authority. In life, the development of individual subjectivity (personhood or self) occurs in the context of one's social and cultural languages (discourses); during the development process, when adolescents and young adults are encouraged—or coerced—into internalizing the discourses of their elders, conflicts arise because the new generation also resists becoming the old. But while individuation is the process by which a society indoctrinates its young into its value systems, it also creates a space for defiance of tradition and of choice among other, competing ideologies. Resistance to and re-evaluation of old values, coupled with new choices, introduce new voices into society; thus as the young grow up into adulthood, becoming modified versions of their parents, they promote and insure sociocultural change (if not, necessarily, progress). In the novel, Bakhtin suggests, the interaction among discourses appears as dialogues among characters, between an author and the characters, between readers and texts, and among various ideologies that permeate a work, linking text and contexts. Literary characters may be read as representing various subject positions, beliefs and behavior patterns that shift and change as the characters act and react within their fictional milieu. And we as readers interpret literature in the context of our own lives; who we are—our cultural, social, political, and psychological selves—guides our reading. Those selves, of course, change over time, modifying the way we read.
As my daughter grows up, I am changing as a mother, becoming less concerned about guiding her development and more willing to appreciate her as a fellow adult, a young woman who struggles to make her own decisions, to become the person she wants to be, while retaining something of her parents' values and mores. She, I can tell, vacillates between resistance to becoming like me and a desire to emulate those qualities in me she admires. And my reading of literature continues to be guided by my own experiences as a daughter/mother and also by my study of contemporary feminist theory. Increasingly, feminist authors, theorists and critics—as we wrestle with issues of gender, race, and class, of history, ideologies, and aesthetics—are calling into question binary oppositions such as culture/nature, male/female, and mother/daughter. Cultural feminist theorists are redefining these putatively "natural" oppositions as socially constructed and thus dependent upon consensus for their continued existence and also open to modifications. Not only have I changed as a reader and critic since the 1970s, but women-authored novels have changed as well, reflecting the increased diversity of American culture and the literary scene, as formerly marginalized and silenced women and ethnic groups voice their perspectives. Published in 1989, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club both imitates and revises works like Kinflicks and The Woman Warrior, which antedate it by some fifteen years. Tan's novel depicts the socialization of young women as a dialogical process in which the mother/daughter opposition becomes more complicated, with mothers and daughters still antagonistic, but also more accepting of the similarities between generations. Instead of one daughter confronting one mother, Tan creates four mothers (three living and one deceased) and four daughters—contemporary young women caught in the marriage/motherhood discourse of western bourgeois capitalism. In conflict with their mothers, who embody marital/maternal ideologies of old China, the daughters express their desire for individuality and independence, often entailing divorces from marriages that entrap them in "other-defined" roles. While their mothers object to these separations and appear to coerce their daughters into remaining in marital "enslavement," their own stories of their early lives in China reveal a female desire for self-definition and resistance that transcends generations, closing generational gaps. And, unlike earlier novels where the daughters' stories predominated, even to the extent of eclipsing the mothers' autobiographies, The Joy Luck Club foregrounds the mothers as characters and narrators who tell their own stories….
The mother-daughter dialog(ic)s of Tan's novel inscribe various discourses, both traditional (for example, patriarchal ownership of women, the sacredness of motherhood) and resistant (as in the desire for independence and selfhood). These are not exclusively expressed by either the mothers or the daughters; although communication between the two is hindered by differences in language and social orientation, both mothers and daughters share inherited beliefs about wife/mother roles that empower and disempower women. Both are in conflict over simultaneous desires to comply with and to resist society's demands and definitions of women. And although the mothers feel compelled to persuade their daughters to accept prescribed marital and maternal duties, they too resist total compliance with demands made by these roles. Some readers of The Joy Luck Club complain that its ending, with daughters reunited with one another and with the spirit of the dead mother, is too easy, too simplistic, too utopian in light of the continued conflictual relationships between "real" mothers and daughters. As a feminist mother in the nineties, I read the ending of the novel, where Jing-Mei Woo holds her long-lost Chinese sisters in an embrace, as a resurrection and vindication of their dead mother, who longed to reunite her daughters, and as a rewriting of earlier novels where lone daughters repudiated their mothers' desires. Like Kinflicks, Tan's novel kills off a mother, but then replicates her in her daughter, creating a matrilinear genealogy of resemblances less utopian than that in The Woman Warrior. It can also be argued that closure in Tan's novel applies an Eastern philosophy of "both/and" to a Western predicament of either (daughter)/or (mother).
What I want to do in the remainder of this essay is to change the format to reflect the multiplicities of mother/daughter relationships and feminist readings of them in literature. As a feminist critic I object to the authoritarian word of the "fathers," the master scholars who appropriate knowledge, possess it, and (often reluctantly) give it over to their chosen initiates. Thus, instead of insisting upon a position as a mother who replicates the fathers by preaching the authoritative interpretation of a novel, I want to open my text to multiple voices and invite you as readers to interact with them, to participate in a dialog(ic) that "concerns the relations among persons articulating their ideas in response to one another, discovering their mutual affinities and oppositions, their provocations to reply, their desires to hear more, or their wishes to change the subject."
What follows is a scenario I have created as a dramatized pastiche of The Joy Luck Club. Imagine the table around which three of Tan's mothers and one daughter gather to play mah jong and to socialize the daughter into the mother role. Just as Tan increases the number of voices and hence complicates the socialization process by interpolating the stories of other mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, so I wish to complicate (but also illuminate) the issue of mother/daughter relations by gathering together around the table several women for a discussion, mixing in postmodern fashion textual figures and "real" people. I as moderator work to unify the group and focus the discussion, in much the same way as a mother might attempt to orchestrate a dining-table conversation (like Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example) or as a novelist, according to Bakhtin, tries to orchestrate the "Tower of Babel mixing of languages," the "heteroglot voices among which [her] own voice must also sound" in her text.
By illuminating subtleties in the mother/daughter binary opposition, this polyvocal conversation suggests ways in which mothers and daughters may exchange and sometimes change their (and our) ideological positions and thus encourage a better understanding of one another's views. This dialog(ic) inescapably reinscribes but also defies the opposition—socially and textually constructed in the liberation era—through interchange of ideas and identities among women who both adhere to and resist traditional roles, who agree and disagree, exchanging roles and positions so "that [binary] oppositions are only apparent, that the alleged polarities inhabit each other." In the women's discussion, differences may not be resolved, but emerging similarities among the women call into question the divisive mother/daughter dichotomy that plagues intergenerational relationships.
My scenario opens Tan's text to a contextual dialogue that resists the closure of any one interpretation; in the end, there will be no resolution to the discussion or to the generational conflict. But I hope that through the exchanges and in the gaps and interstices between them, meanings will be made and interpretation enhanced by the participants, including you as reader. Here you may participate in the dialogue as one does in any conversation where speakers anticipate answers and exchange ideas, constructing meaning in the process; you are invited not to be "a person who passively understands but … one who actively answers and reacts," offering either "resistance or support," but in either case "enriching the discourse."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5776
SOURCE: "Born of a Stranger: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Storytelling in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 233-44.
[In the following essay, Shen discusses the importance of storytelling to the mother-daughter bond in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]
Amy Tan's first work, The Joy Luck Club, is a challenge to the novel as a "narrative paradigm" in several ways: form, narrative structure, and narrative techniques. It is not a novel in the sense that only one story, "his story" is presented; it is a work of sixteen "her stories." The stories are "presented" not by one single third-person narrator either from her particular perspective or from the various "points of view" of the characters. These are narrative techniques conventionally associated with the novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book is divided into four main sections; the stories are told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters. The only exception is Suyuan Woo, who, having recently died, speaks not for herself but through her daughter, Jing-mei. The daughter tells her mother's stories as she takes her mother's place at the mahjong table and on the fateful trip to China. The stories, "told" by the three mothers and four daughters at different times and in different settings, resemble fragments of stories collected by a sociologist and randomly put together, rather than carefully constructed narratives set in a deliberate order by an author. In other words, The Joy Luck Club employs an unusual narrative strategy. In this chapter, I explore the connection between the narrative strategy employed in The Joy Luck Club and the relationships between the Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters.
In The Joy Luck Club, important themes are repeated in the stories like musical leitmotifs and presented from slightly different angles in order to give the reader a continuous sense of life as well as a full understanding of the significance of each event. The unique structure of The Joy Luck Club allows the unconnected fragments of life, revealed from different but somewhat overlapping perspectives by all the "reliable" narrators, to unfold into a meaningful, continuous whole so that the persistent tensions and powerful bonds between mother and daughter, between generations, may be illuminated through a montage effect on the reader.
The traditional novel as a "narrative paradigm" entails a set of rules that bestow legitimacy upon certain narrative forms and preclude certain other forms. Jameson expounds the notion of "narrative paradigm" by claiming that the "forms" of the novel as the "inherited narrative paradigms" are: "the raw material on which the novel works, transforming their 'telling' into its 'showing,' estranging commonplaces against the freshness of some unexpected 'real,' foregrounding convention itself as that through which readers have hitherto received their notions of events, psychology, experience, space, and time." The "inherited narrative paradigms" determine rules of the game and illustrate how they are to be applied. The rules define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question. Oral narrative forms, such as popular stories, myths, legends, and tales, are thus viewed as belonging to a "savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated" mentality, composed of opinions, prejudice, ignorance and ideology. As Lyotard notes, oral narrative forms have been deemed fit for women and children only and have not been rightly considered as appropriate or competent forms to be subsumed under the category of the novel. As a Western-conceived notion, the "narrative paradigm" of the novel thus excludes various minority subnarrative traditions, including women's. Structurally, The Joy Luck Club is an interesting example because it rejects artificial unity and espouses the fragmentary, one of the main features of postmodernism.
The dissolution of unity in the traditional novel, best manifested in the "fragmentation" of the work, serves to highlight different themes that evolve around the mother-daughter relationship. The Joy Luck Club is divided into four sections, each of which consists of four stories. Each of the four sections of the book begins with a prologue, a brief narrative illustrative of the theme of that section. The Joy Luck Club is a monthly mahjong gathering to which the generation of the Chinese mothers has belonged for decades and with which the generation of the American daughters has grown up. Like four Chinese boxes, the complexity of the narrative structure is revealed through stories told within stories by the mothers to the daughters. In this manner, Tan directly puts forward the views, feelings, emotions, and thoughts of her characters, stressing the mixture of action, consciousness, and subconsciousness. In the chapter "Without Wood," a daughter tells about a dream she once had as a child that reveals subconsciously the daughter's strong desire to resist the clutching influence of the mother on her. In this dream, the daughter finds herself in a playground filled with rows of sandboxes. In each sandbox there is a doll. Haunted by the feeling that her mother knows exactly which doll she will pick, the daughter deliberately chooses a different one. When the mother orders the guardian of the gate to the dreamworld to stop her, the little girl becomes so frightened that she remains frozen in place.
Tan's storytelling technique reveals the complexity of the dark, invisible mind of cultural consciousness and subconsciousness best portrayed by the stories within stories. In The Joy Luck Club, Tan moves with swiftness and ease from one story to another, from one symbol or image to another. In a sense, The Joy Luck Club can be properly called a collection of intricate and haunting memories couched in carefully wrought stories. Tan has purposely externalized the eight characters' mental world by allowing each of them to tell her own story in a deceptively simple manner, thus allowing the reader to plunge into the mind of the characters. The motives, desires, pains, pleasures, and concerns of the characters are thereby effectively dramatized. This particular writing strategy allows Tan to transcend the conventional novelistic dichotomy of preferred "showing" and undesirable "telling." The stories thus tell us a great deal about individual characters, their reaction to each other, and their activities together. Because the stories are all told in the mothers' and the daughters' own voices, we are spared the pressing question with which the reader of a conventional novel is constantly bombarded with: Am I dealing with a "reliable" or "unreliable" narrator? While immersed in particular and individual perspectives, the reader of The Joy Luck Club also confronts the more general and lasting concerns of many generations. Unlike Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which relates the life experience of one woman and concentrates on one single family, the stories in The Joy Luck Club, with its characters and circumstances skillfully interwoven, presents a continuous whole more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
In The Joy Luck Club, Tan probes the problematic mother-daughter relationship in sixteen separate stories spanning two generations of eight women. Though the eight characters are divided into four families, the book itself is concerned more with an unmistakable bifurcation along generational lines: mothers, whose stories all took place in China, and daughters, whose stories deal with their lives in America. Though the mothers all have different names and individual stories, they seem interchangeable in that they all have similar personalities—strong, determined, and endowed with mysterious power—and that they all show similar concerns about their daughters' welfare. As a result, the mothers are possessively trying to hold onto their daughters, and the daughters are battling to get away from their mothers. The four mothers and four daughters are different, but their differences remain insignificant as the action of the novel is focused on the persistent tensions and powerful bonds between them.
Tan's characters are seen in both detail and outline. The first-person testimonies allow the reader to examine each of the characters closely and to develop a sense of empathy with each of them; but, at the same time, the testimonies reveal a pattern, particularly in the way the mothers and daughters relate to one another. The purpose of this treatment is obvious: to portray the mother and daughter relationship as both typical and universal.
In Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club is a bridge uniting both space and time. The Joy Luck Club connects the sixteen intricately interlocking stories and helps to reveal and explain the infinite range and complexity of mother-daughter relationships. Within the narrative, it joins two continents and unites the experiences of the mothers and the daughters. The American daughters are alien to Chinese culture as much as they are to their mother's uncanny, Chinese ways of thinking. To the daughters, cultural and ethnic identity is possible only when they can fully identify themselves with their mothers through their maturation into womanhood. The sharing of cultural experiences between mothers and daughters through the device of storytelling transforms structurally isolated monologues into meaningful dialogues between mother and mother, daughter and daughter, and, more important, mother and daughter and coalesces the sixteen monologues into a coherent whole. While the mother and daughter relationships are unique in the ethnic context of Tan's novel, they also have a universal aspect. Indeed, all women share this experience, regardless of time and space. An-mei Hsu is puzzled by both the specific and universal qualities of the mother-daughter relationship. Raised traditionally, she was taught to swallow her desires, her bitterness, and the misery of others. Rejecting her upbringing, she tries to instill in her daughter a strong sense of self. Unfortunately, her daughter is a passive individual. An-mei Hsu is thus convinced that regardless of their respective upbringing, mothers and daughters are somehow condemned to being similar: "And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way."
Through her structural experiments with the elements of fiction and her storytelling device, and with the testimonial mode of characterization, Tan has pushed her novel beyond the merely conventional practice of the novel (to mimic the convention of the appearance of life, as done by many traditional novelists). Instead, she tries to do away with "his story" and present "her life" from the perspectives of the individual women characters in the form of loosely connected monologues. These monologues serve to translate as faithfully as possible the intricate relationship that can exist between a mother and her daughter.
Tan's extensive use of symbols and images creates a mood of expression that reveals and explains the infinite range and complexity of these mother-daughter relationships. Each of the four sections of The Joy Luck Club begins with a prologue, defining the theme of that section while disclosing certain aspects of the problem in the mother-daughter relationship. The first prologue contains a cluster of images that highlight the nature of this relationship in the book and summarize the whole novel. This prologue centers around an old woman who remembers that, while still in Shanghai, she bought a swan for a small sum. The swan, according to the vendor, was once a duck who had managed to stretch his neck in the hope of becoming a goose. On the boat sailing to America, the old woman swore to the swan that she would one day have a daughter whom no one would look down upon, for she would speak only perfect English. In order for this daughter to know her mother's meaning, she would give her the swan.
However, upon arriving in America, the swan is confiscated, and the old woman is left with only one of the swan's feathers. This feather is far too insignificant for her to convince anyone, least of all her daughter, how beautiful the swan was. Furthermore, the daughter she had hoped for has become an unsympathetic "stranger" who does not even speak her language. The prologue thus ends on a poignant note. Indeed, year after year, the mother waits for the moment when she would be able to tell her daughter in perfect American English that the feather is far from worthless, for it symbolizes all of her "good intentions."
The prologue sets the tone and the reasons for the tensions and conflicts in the mother-daughter relationship. The "swan" and the "old woman" who sailed across the ocean together, "stretching their necks toward America," are an emblem of the four mothers who came to the United States, hoping to give their daughters a better life than the one they had in China. The "good intentions" are clearly stated. But the mother, left with an almost worthless feather, is condemned to wait patiently many years until the daughter is finally mature enough to come back to her, to appreciate her, and to reconstruct the beautiful swan from the feather. The swan is therefore emblematic of both the mother's new life in America and, more important, her past one in China, an experience the mother wants to communicate to her daughter. However, only a mature daughter, who has overcome the psychological and cultural gap separating her from her mother is capable of coming to terms with this experience.
The mother-daughter relationship is the central issue and focal point in the dialogues between the mothers and daughters in Tan's book. The novel traces the psychological development of the American daughter and her final acceptance of the Chinese mother and what the Chinese mother stands for. Jing-mei Woo, who replaces her recently deceased mother at the mahjong table, is the first to tell a story on behalf of her mother; she is also the very last daughter to recount her own story. It is interesting to note that when she is asked by her three "aunts" to go to China in order to fulfill her mother's long-cherished wish to meet her lost twin babies, Jing-mei shocks and upsets them with her confused yet honest remark that she would not know what to tell her sisters because she did not really know her mother: "What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother?"
The mothers are all frightened by this response. Indeed, they sense in it the confusion of their own daughters. In Jing-mei, they recognize their own daughters, all as ignorant and as unmindful of the truths and hopes their mothers brought over with them from China. Ironically, the accomplishment of the mother's dream for her daughter, a dream that entailed her physical removal from the motherland, results in multifarious problems in the relationship with her daughter.
In Tan's novel, the Chinese mothers are all strong-willed, persistent, hard to please, and overly critical. They often make their presence and their goodwill look like outrageous impositions rather than tacit influences. When, for example, Jing-mei Woo describes her mother's New Year crab dinner, we learn that, although she does not like this dish, she is obliged to eat it since her refusal to do so would constitute a rejection of her mother's love. The food and the advice offered by the mothers are hard to refuse not only because they are a symbol of love but also because they tend to carry the full weight of maternal authority. That is why Waverly Jong is convinced that telling one's mother to be quiet would be tantamount to committing suicide. In another example, Waverly tries to make her mother accept her American boyfriend by showing her a fur coat that he has given her as a token of his love. Totally dejected by her mother's antagonism toward her boyfriend, whom the mother does not consider good enough for her daughter, Waverly Jong feels distressed at not being able to shake off her mother's clutching influence. When she looks once again at the coat her mother has just finished criticizing, she becomes convinced that it is, indeed, shabby.
The mother's wish for the daughter to live a better life than the one she had back in China is revealed in the conversation between the Chinese woman and her swan on her journey to America in the novel's first prologue. Ironically, this wish becomes the very source of the conflicts and tensions in their relationship. This is made perfectly clear by Jing-mei Woo when she half-jokingly, half-remorsefully recalls her ever-agonizing childhood, a period during which her mother unsuccessfully attempts to transform her into a child prodigy. In order to prepare Jing-mei for a future that she hopes will be brilliant, Suyuan Woo nightly submits Jing-mei to a series of tests while forcing her to listen to countless stories about amazing children. Mother and daughter finally settle on Jing-mei's becoming a concert pianist, and Jing-mei begins to take piano lessons from Mr. Old Chong, a retired piano teacher who happens to be deaf. As a result, the daughter manages to get away with playing more or less competently while her teacher conducts an imaginary piece of music in his head.
Another daughter, Rose Hsu Jordon, is married to a "foreigner" who wishes to divorce her. Her mother, An-mei Hsu, urges her to speak up in the hope of saving her marriage. She does this by juxtaposing the Chinese way with the American way. The Chinese way consists of not expressing one's desires, not speaking up, and not making choices. The American way consists of exercising choices and speaking up for oneself. An-mei Hsu raised Rose in the American way. She hoped that this would allow her daughter to lead a better life than the one she had in China. Indeed, in China people had no choice. Since they could not speak up, they were forced to accept whatever fate befell them. An-mei Hsu reminds Rose that by not speaking up, she "can lose her chance forever."
The frustration that Waverly's mother, Lindo Jong, feels is shared by all the mothers. This frustration is best summarized in her painful and poignant confession during the course of which she accuses herself of being responsible for the way Waverly has turned out. Her sense of responsibility stems from the fact that she is the one who wanted Waverly to have the best of both worlds, and it leads her to openly berate herself for not being able to foresee that her daughter's American circumstances would not necessarily mix well with her Chinese reality.
The alienation between mother and daughter often stems either from a lack of understanding or from various forms of miscommunication. While the daughters, all born in America, entirely adapt to the customs and language of the new land, the immigrant mothers still hold onto those of China. All the mothers feel their daughters' impatience when they speak Chinese and are convinced that their daughters think they are stupid when they attempt to communicate with them in broken English. If Jing-mei is initially reluctant to carry out her mother's long-cherished wish to be reunited with her two lost sisters, it is mainly because she believes that she and her mother have never understood one another. The language barrier that existed between them was such that both mother and daughter imperfectly translated each other's words and meanings.
In a tragicomic incident that exemplifies the futile attempt to bridge the mother-daughter gap, Lindo Jong is proudly speaking to her daughter about Taiyuan, her birthplace. Waverly mistakes Taiyuan for Taiwan and is subsequently visibly irritated when her mother loudly corrects her. The daughter's unintentional mistake, combined with the mother's anger, destroys their attempt to communicate. Consequently, they are both plunged, once again, into a steely silence. In another example of Tan's lightness of touch straining with ambivalence, Lena St. Clair defines her mother as a "displaced person" who has difficulties expressing herself in English. Born in Wushi, near Shanghai, she speaks Mandarin and only a little English. Lena's father, who spoke only a few canned Chinese expressions, always insisted that his wife learn English. Unable to express herself clearly in English, she communicates through gestures and looks and sometimes in a broken English punctuated by hesitations and frustration. Her husband thus feels justified in putting words in her mouth.
The mothers' inability to speak perfect American English has multiple ramifications. For one thing, as they themselves have not lived in a foreign country, the daughters are left with the false impression that their mothers are not intelligent. As a result, the daughters often feel justified in believing that their mothers have nothing worth-while to say. Furthermore, when mother and daughter share neither the same realm of experience and knowledge nor the same concerns, their differences are not marked by a slip of the tongue or the lack of linguistic adroitness or even by a generational gap, but rather by a deep geographical and cultural cleft. When the mother talks about American ways, the daughter is willing to listen; when the mother shows her Chinese ways, the daughter ignores her. The mother is thus unable to teach her daughter the Chinese ways of obeying parents, of listening to the mother's mind, of hiding her thoughts, of knowing her own worth without becoming vain, and, most important of understanding why "Chinese thinking is best."
The gulf between the Old World and the New, between Chinese mother and American daughter, is exacerbated by the ethnic and racial biases against the Chinese that the young daughter has to deal with on a regular basis. A conversation between Waverly and her mother, Lindo Jong, shows that even as a young child, the daughter is fully aware of the hurtful effect these prejudices have had on the Chinese mother, who has not adjusted well to the life and customs of the new land. One night, while Lindo Jong is brushing her daughter's hair, Waverly, who has overheard a boy in her class discuss Chinese torture, wickedly asks her the following question: "Ma, what is Chinese torture?" Visibly disturbed by this question, Lindo Jong sharply nicks her daughter's skull with a hairpin. She then softly but proudly answers that Chinese people are proficient in many areas. They "do business, do medicine, do painting … do torture. Best torture."
While the Chinese mother seems able readily to shrug off the detrimental influence of ethnic and racial biases, she cannot help but feel the effect of them upon her daughter. Lindo Jong is unable to overcome the painful reality that sets her apart from her daughter. She is ashamed because she knows that the daughter she is so proud of is ashamed of her and of her Chinese ways. The constantly growing cleavage of ethnic and national identity drives the daughter to make persistent efforts to Americanize herself in order to lessen her mother's commanding influence.
The daughters' battles for autonomy and independence from powerful imposing mothers are relentless, and the confrontations between mothers and daughters are fierce. In the chapter "Without Wood," daughter Rose Hsu Jordan describes the decision she made as a child in her dream to pick a different doll from the one her mother expected her to choose. Another daughter, Jing-mei, adopts a self-defensive strategy against her mother's expectation that she be a child prodigy by disappointing her whenever she can. She does this by getting average grades, by not becoming class president, by not being accepted into Stanford University, and finally by dropping out of college. By consistently failing her mother, Jing-mei manages to assert her own will.
The struggle between mother and daughter is equally ferocious. It often takes the form of psychological warfare between the two. Waverly Jong, a child prodigy chess player, envisages this struggle as a chess game in which her mother is transformed into a fierce opponent whose eyes are reduced to "two angry black slits." The struggle is also expressed in physical and verbal fights. When, for example, the daughter Lena St. Clair overhears a mother and daughter who live next door shouting and fighting, she is not overly surprised when she learns from the daughter that both of them "do this kind of stuff all the time."
This type of painful and dramatic confrontation also characterizes the relationship between Jing-mei Woo and her mother, Suyuan. Following a rather violent physical fight, Jing-mei Woo accuses her mother of wanting her to be someone she is not. Suyuan responds to this accusation by telling her that only two types of daughters exist: obedient daughters and disobedient daughters. Following this pronouncement, the daughter screams that she wishes that she was not her mother's daughter. When Suyuan reminds her that this is something that cannot be changed, Jing-mei utters the worst possible thing that a Chinese daughter could ever say to her mother: "Then I wish I'd never been born! I wish I were dead! Like them." This "them" refers to the twin babies whom her mother was forced to abandon in China while attempting to escape the invading Japanese troops. Before Jing-mei realizes what a mindless thing she has just said, Suyuan, badly hurt, falls silent, backs out of the room, and like a small leaf in the wind, appears "thin, brittle, lifeless."
In spite of the daughters' successful resistance and rejection of their influence, the mothers valiantly refuse to give up. After having tried many different strategies throughout their lives, the mothers finally discover that storytelling is the best way to reach the hearts and minds of their daughters. Realizing that sharing her past with her daughter might be the last and only trump card she has in order to "save" her daughter, Ying-ying St. Clair decides to give it a try. Her decision, nevertheless, reflects her awareness of the nature of the clash—the daughter's lack of ethnic and cultural identity, which Ying-ying is convinced will lead to her daughter's unhappiness. By telling her past to a daughter who has spent all of her life trying to slip away from her, Ying-ying St. Clair hopes to reclaim her, "to penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved." Jing-mei Woo's dying mother also realizes that her daughter's problem similarly stems from her refusal to embrace her Chinese roots. Indeed, before her trip to China, Jing-mei relentlessly denies her Chinese heritage. On the train to China from Hong Kong, Jing-mei finally comes to terms with her true identity. Reflecting on her past, she admits to feeling different. Furthermore, she is now prepared to concede: "[M]y mother was right. I am becoming Chinese."
The device of storytelling by women to women is employed extensively throughout the novel as a means to achieve various ends. For instance, it is the means by which Lindo Jong is physically set free. As a young girl, Lindo managed to get out of an arranged marriage. She accomplished this feat by inventing stories about her husband's ancestor's wish for him to marry a servant girl. The mothers also resort to storytelling when trying to impart daily truths and knowledge to the daughters. Through storytelling, they hope to help their daughters rise above negative circumstances or simply avoid unknown dangers. Waverly Jong remembers her mother's telling her a story about a girl who carelessly ran into a street and was subsequently killed by a taxi. Lena St. Clair remembers the story her mother made up about a young woman who fell in love with an irresponsible man and had a baby out of wedlock. After her mother's maid tells the child Anmei Hsu about the rape that led to her mother's shameful position as the third concubine of a wealthy man, An-mei Hsu realizes that she is now better able to grasp the meaning of many of the things that previously escaped her. For the mother, Ying-ying St. Clair, telling her daughter about her past is a tangible proof of her love. In sharing her past with her daughter, she hopes to counter the fact that her daughter has no chi, no spirit. Lena's lack of chi is Ying-ying's greatest shame, and her stories become a means by which she hopes to help her submissive daughter regain her "tiger spirit."
Telling Lena about her past is absolutely necessary because both mother and daughter are "tigers" and both are "lost … unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing." By learning about her mother's past, Lena becomes better equipped to fight back and restore her happiness (marital happiness, in her case) in much the same way her mother did in the course of her own life. For Ying-ying St. Clair, who has already waited far too long to tell Lena her story, storytelling is also a positive experience since it allows her to find herself, to remember that long ago she "wished to be found."
Through the sharing of personal experiences, a reconciliation between mothers and daughters is reached. The daughters realize that their mothers have always had their best interests at heart. Echoing the old woman and the swan in the first prologue at the beginning of the novel, mother Lindo Jong explains her feelings most poignantly: "I wanted everything for you to be better. I wanted you to have the best circumstances, the best character. I didn't want you to regret anything." Because their own lives in China had been circumscribed by social and parental constraints that invariably led to pain, humiliation, and tragedy, the mothers all came to America to give their daughters a better life. However, daughters must first understand the real circumstances surrounding their mothers: how they arrived in their new country, how they married, how hard they tried to hold onto their Chinese roots. Once they have understood this, the daughters are better able to understand why they themselves are the way they are. Ultimately, this understanding will also lead them to finally appreciate their mothers. The mothers try very hard to leave an imprint of themselves on their daughters through various means. For the mother Lindo Jong, names carry a symbolic significance. She tells her daughter that the reason she named her Waverly is that, when she gave birth to her, they lived on a street with the same name. In naming her thus, she was convinced that her daughter would feel that she belonged on that street and that when it would come time for her to leave home, she would take with her a "piece" of her mother. While Waverly is left with a "piece" of her mother in her name, An-mei Hsu inherits from her mother a ring of watery blue sapphire, and Jing-mei receives a necklace with a jade pendant from hers. These pieces of jewelry are also symbolic of their mothers' continued presence in their lives. However, the daughters' acceptance of, and identification with, their mothers does not take place until all of them come into contact with their mothers' past through stories. Thus, after her mother's death, when she sets foot on Chinese land for the first time in her life, Jing-mei learns about her mother's long-cherished wish. Also during this trip, she discovers the meaning of her mother's name as well as the meaning of her own name: her mother's, Suyuan, means "Long-cherished Wish," and hers, Jing-mei, means "Younger Sister of Pure Essence." After learning the hidden meanings of these names, Jing-mei is full of remorse: "I think about this. My mother's long-cherished wish. Me, the younger sister who was supposed to be the essence of the others. I feed myself with the old grief, wondering how disappointed my mother must have been."
The sharing of cultural experience between mother and daughter through the device of storytelling transforms the naive, self-protective daughters, who try hard to move away from, or surpass, their ethnic roots, into the mature daughters who are appreciative of their mother's Chinese ways. Through storytelling, the daughters come to accept their mothers' and their own race and are willing to seek their ethnic and cultural roots. Jing-mei goes to China and reunites with her twin sisters. Waverly and her American husband go to China together with her mother and spend their honeymoon there.
With a new consciousness, the mature daughter sees her mother in a new light. As Waverly Jong puts it: "[I]n the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in." The daughter's defiance turns out to be baseless, and the "scheming ways" of the mother who seemed relentless in her pursuit of her daughter's weakest spots prove to be unfounded. After her mother's death, Jing-mei Woo also realizes, for the first time, that Schumann's music, which as a child she had played at a fateful recital, is in fact, composed of two parts: "Pleading Child" and "Perfectly Contented." Interestingly, it is the former piece that she played so poorly. While in mourning for her mother, Jing-mei also comes to the realization that she has always been biased by a one-sided view of life and by a poor opinion of her mother. When she plays the two pieces of music together, she suddenly understands that they are "two halves of the same song." Schumann's music thus serves as a metaphor used by Tan to highlight the relationship between mother and daughter. This relationship encompasses, like Schumann's music, two phases of the human experience. At times, these phases may appear to be contradictory, but, in fact, they are really two natural and complementary stages of life. Tan thus seems to imply that a complete and holistic experience of life requires an understanding and an acceptance of both phases.
The novel ends with the arrival of Jing-mei Woo in China, the "motherland," where the three sisters are reunited and where Jing-mei finally accepts her Chinese identity. Jing-mei had to leave the West and travel all the way to China before she was able to realize that both her mother and China are in her blood. Only when she has reached maturity is she able to close the geographical gap and come to terms with her ethnic, cultural, and racial background. In doing so, she transcends the psychological gap that had alienated her from her mother and from herself. When the struggles and battles are over, when the daughter is mature enough to be able to accept the mother and identify with what she stood for, what was formerly considered a hateful bondage is revealed to be a cherished bond.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11832
SOURCE: "'Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon," in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 174-210.
[In the following essay, Wong analyzes the anthropological aspects of Tan's novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife and their place in literary tradition.]
The sensational success of Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is the stuff of publishing legend. Before the shrewd eye of agent Sandra Dijkstra spotted a potential winner, Tan was entirely unknown to the literary world. But lavish advance praise—the dust jacket of the hardcover edition bears enthusiastic blurbs by Alice Walker, Alice Hoffman, and Louise Erdrich—and postpublication rave reviews instantly propelled The Joy Luck Club onto the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for nine months. The hardcover edition was reprinted twenty-seven times and sold 275,000 copies; frenzied bidding by corporate publishers pushed the price for paperback rights from a floor of $100,000 to an astonishing $1.2 million. The Joy Luck Club was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a recipient of the 1990 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction.
Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, has not duplicated Joy Luck's blockbuster success. However, it too is a highly acclaimed best-seller, with most reviewers declaring it as good as, if not better than, its predecessor. The $4 million advance that Putnam reputedly paid on it has apparently been money well spent. The Amy Tan phenomenon continues its momentum with a new children's book, The Moon Lady, spun off from an episode in The Joy Luck Club; a third novel in the works; and a film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club made by noted Chinese American director Wayne Wang.
Like Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club is a crossover hit by a female ethnic writer; it also straddles the worlds of "mass" literature and "respectable" literature, stocking the shelves of airport newsstands as well as university bookstores, generating coffee table conversations as well as conference papers. Tan's stellar status in the publishing world, further assured by The Kitchen God's Wife, causes one to wonder: wherein does the enormous appeal of her fiction lie?
To say that book buyers and readers are simply responding to Tan's good writing—briskly paced, easy to follow, by turns poignant and hilarious—is to give a naive and decontextualized, if partially true, answer. It goes without saying that the history of literary reputations abounds with instances of "good" writing belatedly recognized, or else of "bad" writing amply rewarded in the marketplace. (Without getting into a general disquisition on the social construction of taste, I use the "good"/"bad" distinction here to refer to either a disjuncture between academic/critical opinion and popular success, or else a revision of judgment over time.) To narrow the consideration to contemporaneous Asian American Women's writing alone, the year The Joy Luck Club appeared also saw the polished novelistic debut of another young writer, Cynthia Kadohata (The Floating World), as well as new books by two established figures: Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine. All three works show remarkable artistry and garnered strong reviews, but none became a commercial triumph. That elusive element, "timing" or "luck," usually summoned to explain cases of overnight celebrity, must be restored to historicity: What is it about the subject matter of The Joy Luck Club and its treatment that somehow "clicked" with the times? What prompts Tan's following to come back loyally to The Kitchen God's Wife? Where is her fiction positioned in the multiple discourses that make up American writing? What discursive traditions does it participate in, and to what ideological effect, to create Tan's trademark fictional world and a niche market?
Tan has often been presented in the media as a meteoric individual talent, bursting full-blown from obscurity onto the literary scene. She has even been implicitly credited with single-handedly ushering in an Asian American literary renaissance, even though Tan herself takes pains to point out that many of the writers of the 1991 "wave" named by the mainstream media (David Wong Louie, David Mura, Gish Jen, Gus Lee, Laurence Yep, Frank Chin) had been writing and publishing before—some, like Chin and Yep, long, long before—she became known, and that they represent very different, unique voices. The media account of Tan's singularity, based on tacit meritocratic assumptions and a late twentieth-century variation on the myth of the original romantic artist, obscures the role of politics in the making (and breaking) of Asian American and other ethnic minority writers. Demythologizing this kind of portrayal, this essay situates the appeal of Amy Tan's fiction in its sociohistorical context and analyzes the discursive demands and contradictions experienced by Chinese American (and to some degree other Asian American) writers at this juncture in American history.
Feminist/Matrilineal Discourse and China Mama's Revenge One of the most obvious reasons for the success of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife is the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in these books. This subject matter places them squarely in a tradition of matrilineal discourse that has, as a part of the feminist movement, been gathering momentum in the United States over the last ten to fifteen years. In 1976, Adrienne Rich wrote that the "cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story." In 1984, Tillie Olsen was still able to lament, "Most of what has been, is, between mothers, daughters, and in motherhood, daughterhood, has never been recorded." But a scant five years later, as Mickey Pearlman notes, the profusion of creative writing as well as social-science scholarship on the "linked lives" of mothers and daughters had become overwhelming.
That the success of Amy Tan's fiction is a product of, and testimony to, the strength of the feminist movement is easy to see. Both her books capture the contradictions that have been identified as characteristic of the "literature of matrilineage" in Nan Bauer Maglin's simple but convenient schema:
- the recognition by the daughter that her voice is not entirely her own;
- the importance of trying to really see one's mother in spite of or beyond the blindness and skewed vision that growing up together causes;
- the amazement and humility about the strength of our mothers;
- the need to recite one's matrilineage, to find a ritual to both get back there and preserve it;
- and still, the anger and despair about the pain and the silence borne and handed on from mother to daughter.
Any number of pithy quotations from The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife can be culled to illustrate these interconnected themes. What is harder to determine than Tan's place in American matrilineal discourse is the reason why her fiction has so conspicuously eclipsed works by Euro-American writers on similar subject matter, as Kingston's Woman Warrior did over a decade ago. The white feminist reading public appears to have an unusually keen appetite for mother-daughter stories by and about people of color. In particular, as one British reviewer wryly observes from across the Atlantic, "Whether by a quirk of literary fate or because it is their psychological destiny, Chinese American women seem to have won the world rights to the mother/daughter relationship." Why? Why this privileging of Chinese American mothers and daughters in literature while no equivalent is forthcoming in the realm of, say, employment opportunities or provision of child care?
I suggest it is neither literary fate nor psychological destiny that has conferred favored status on the Chinese American mother-daughter relationship, but rather a convergence of ethnic group-specific literary tradition and ideological needs by the white-dominated readership—including the feminist readership—for the Other's presence as both mirror and differentiator.
Contrary to popular belief, Kingston did not invent Chinese American matrilineal discourse, and Tan, creating something of an accessible "Woman Warrior without tears" in Joy Luck, is not so much revisiting Kingston territory as sharing a concern long of interest to many other Chinese American women writers. Antecedents for Kingston's strong Chinese women can be found in the female-centered household in Su-ling Wong and Earl Cressy's little-known collaborative autobiography, Daughter of Confucius. Even propatriarchal Chinese American autobiographies from the pre-1965 period, such as Helena Kuo's I've Come a Long Way and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, like Daughter of Confucius, show occasional inruptions of matrilineal consciousness, as in Kuo's anecdote of mother-daughter complicity in novel reading, or Jade Snow Wong's descriptions of hours spent with her grandmother and mother learning about Chinese customs—at once mother-daughter bonding and induction into the woman's submissive role in the culture. That is to say, even earlier male-identified Chinese American women writers are, at some level, aware of the precariousness of their place in a patriarchal society—an awareness also reflected in the virtually obligatory opening explanations of how they come to receive a decent education, thanks to generous fathers willing to mitigate prevailing gender norms. Chinese American interest in matrilineage continues in the post-1965 period; examples range from Chuang Hua's recurrent image of the majestic matriarch in Crossings (again in spite of an overt obsession with the father's approval): to Alice P. Lin's combined ethnic/matrilineal root-seeking journey in Grandmother Has No Name; to the fiction of younger writers like Sarah Lau, Wen-Wen C. Wang, and Fae Myenne Ng, who, like Kingston, explore their bond with immigrant mothers simultaneously tough and vulnerable.
Chinese American preoccupation with the mother-daughter bond can be further situated in a broader Asian American discourse of matrilineage, both pre- and post-Woman Warrior. Hisaye Yamamoto's classics, "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake," predate The Woman Warrior by over two decades; apparent inspiration for "The Handkerchief" and "Songs My Mother Taught Me" by Wakako Yamauchi, Yamamoto's literary disciple; these stories depict the ambivalent and largely unspoken emotional exchanges between unhappily married mothers and daughters on the verge of womanhood, in ways again reminiscent of Maglin's schema. Despite the protagonists' expressed yearning for the father's love, the presence of abrasive, abusive, but irrepressibly vigorous grandmothers is indelible in Burmese American Wendy Law-Yone's Coffin Tree as well as Japanese American Cynthia Kadohata's Floating World; the grandmother/matriarch figure, coupled again with an absent mother, resurfaces in Singaporean American writer Fiona Cheong's Scent of the Gods. The resilient spirit of female ancestors embodied in the Vietnamese legend of the woman warrior, along with the support of living women relatives, is lovingly recalled in Le Ly Hayslip's account of her life during and after the Vietnam War, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Merle Woo's "Letter to Ma" articulates a radical, lesbian perspective on Asian American mother-daughter relationships. Ronyoung Kim's Clay Walls chronicles the strong ties between a Korean immigrant woman and her daughter. Short fiction such as South Asian Appachana's and Dhillon's, and Japanese American Sasaki's, continue the exploration of matrilineage. If we broaden the Asian-American canon to include Asian Canadian works, then Joy Kogawa's Obasan offers a distinctly matrilineal text, in which themes like the search for the absent mother, surrogate motherhood (or maternalistic aunthood), silence breaking, and rituals of reclamation are woven into an account of the uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. More recently, South-Indian Canadian writer Mara Rachna's Of Customs and Excise places the story of the "immigrant daughter's revolt" in a multigenerational, postcolonial global context to deepen one's understanding of matrilineage.
This quick survey of the literature of matrilineage in the Chinese-American and Asian-American traditions is meant to contextualize Tan's work more precisely: to dispel the notion that her fiction is simply riding on the coattails of white feminism, tapping directly into "universal" concerns from the vantage point of individual insight. Even if there had been no white buyers of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, there would still have been a readership for these books among Asian American women, many of whom are hungry for validation of their own experiences as daughters of immigrant mothers.
Identifying a matrilineal Asian American tradition is important in terms of not only racial politics within feminism, but also gender politics within cultural nationalism. The kind of rehabilitation of Asian American literary patrilineage undertaken by the Aiiieeeee group, essential as it is, is attained at the expense of the female perspective. In the influential Introduction to Aiiieeeee! the numerical superiority of Asian American women writers is categorically denounced as a sign of the literature's emasculation by white society, while not one living Chinese American woman writer is included in The Big Aiiieeeee! the sequel to the first anthology. Frank Chin's Year of the Dragon, a play about a disintegrating Chinatown family in the 1960s, is emblematic of this suppression of the woman's voice. In addition to a scatterbrained American-born mother humming inherent snatches of song, the play features China Mama, the patriarch's first wife left in China because of immigration restrictions and suddenly transported to San Francisco to assuage the dying man's cultural and familial guilt. This gum sahn paw (Cantonese for "Gold Mountain wife") is portrayed as totally devoid of subjectivity: a recalcitrant, alien presence unceremoniously deposited in the Eng family's living room, mute except for sporadic attempts to communicate with the children in gibberish-like Cantonese. In Chin's play, the old immigrant woman from China is just a convenient symbol, not a human being with decades' worth of experiences and grievances to recount. In this context, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife are China Mama's revenge: the Joy Luck aunties get not only their own voices back but equal time with their American offspring. And when Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife holds forth about her past, she is allowed to do so endlessly, for more than 330 pages, until her daughter Pearl nearly falls off the chair from surprise at revealed secrets, and we the readers from sheer fatigue.
It is vital to recognize the Asian American discursive context for Amy Tan's fiction, but the Asian American readership for matrilineal discourse is simply not large enough to support the kind of sales that Tan's fiction has enjoyed. Today's book-buying readers of literature are predominantly white and female. The question thus remains: what do these readers—some with conscious feminist leanings, some without—find so engrossing in Tan's stories of the mother-daughter bond?
"Sugar Sisterhood": The Persistent Allure of Orientalism
This brings me to the odd-sounding title of this essay, "Sugar Sisterhood," derived from the phrase "sugar sister" used by Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife. Winnie is explaining to Pearl, her English-speaking daughter, her closeness to cousin Peanut. Peanut has found a face-saving way to reveal that she has given up Wen Fu, a charming, wealthy, but as it turns out abusive, young man, for Winnie to marry; the emotionally orphaned Winnie is grateful for Peanut's generosity:
And that's how we came to be as close as sisters once again for the rest of the time I had left with my family. In fact, from that day forward, until I was married, we called each other tang jie, "sugar sister," the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin.
Tang jie, again presented with the "sugar sister" translation for Pearl's benefit, is repeated in a later scene, when Winnie and Peanut are temporarily reunited. The phrase "sugar sister" is an egregious mistranslation based on Amy Tan's confusing two Chinese homophones, while the accompanying explanation of how the two young women come to address each other by that term betrays a profound ignorance of the Chinese kinship system. What is most remarkable about this passage is its very existence: that Amy Tan has seen fit to include and elaborate on such a "gratuitous" detail—gratuitous in the sense of not functioning to advance the plot or deepen the characterization, of which more later—on something of which she has little knowledge. Furthermore, this putative clarification issues from the mouth of Winnie, a native Chinese-speaker born and raised in China for whom it should be impossible to make such mistakes.
I use the term "sugar sisterhood," then, to designate the kind of readership Amy Tan has acquired, especially among white women, through acts of cultural interpreting and cultural empathy that appear to possess the authority of authenticity but are often products of the American-born writer's own heavily mediated understanding of things Chinese. By examining the "sugar sister" solecism and related uses of Chinese or Chinese-seeming details, by analyzing the stylistic features and narratological design in both of Tan's works, and by uncovering the culturalist reading practices that such novelistic elements encourage, I argue that the "Amy Tan phenomenon" must ultimately be situated in quasi-ethnographic, Orientalist discourse. Occasional anti-Orientalist statements made by the characters, and the opportunities for anticulturalist interpretation provided by Tan's keen observations of Chinese American life, do not negate my assessment. In fact, they are functional in that they enable Orientalism to emerge in a form palatable to middle-class American readers of the 1980s. Specifically, for the feminist audience, the Chinese American mother/daughter dyad in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife allegorizes a Third World/First World encounter that allows mainstream American feminism to construct itself in a flattering, because depoliticized, manner—an outcome unlikely to be delivered by mother-daughter stories penned by writers from Euro-American traditions.
Since the "sugar sister" phrase provides the entering wedge for my thesis, I will dwell a moment longer on its significance. Besides the confusion of two different characters for tang, there are several other implausibilities in this passage. The term tang jie does exist and can be used in the relationship between Winnie and Peanut. (Peanut is the daughter of the younger brother of Winnie's father.) But tang jie is a descriptive label and a term of address defined stringently by one's position in a patrilineal system of blood ties; it is not, as Tan suggests, a friendly term of endearment, to be assumed at will when two girl cousins feel close to each other. Moreover, in the thoroughly hierarchical, age-conscious Chinese kinship system, jie, or "older sister," is always complemented by mei, or "younger sister": two women cannot simultaneously be the jie—not even in "courtesy" situations where blood ties are not involved, such as xuejie/xuemei (fellow students) or qijie/qimei ("sworn sisters") relationships.
In citing the "sugar sister" passage, I am not practicing an idle and mean-spirited "Gotcha!" school of criticism. Something larger is at issue: what is sought is a more precise determination of Tan's stance toward her audience(s) and the types of discourses her works participate in, leading to a clearer understanding of her popularity. To readers who protest that Tan is just writing fiction, I concede that a phrase like "sugar sister" does little to detract from her overall achievements as a writer—from the page-turning narrative drive of her novels, or the general contours of Winnie's vivid character. Given this, the question arises, then, of what function is served by this kind of detail—a romanized Chinese phrase with an appositive explanation, tossed off as an aside by a Chinese-speaking character to her English-dominant daughter—or other similar details of language and custom, minimally warranted by the immediate narrative context but providing occasions for elucidating an exotic Chinese culture.
A list can easily be compiled of such highly dubious or downright erroneous details: Lindo Jong's first husband in Taiyuan is described as yanking off her red veil at the wedding ceremony—a suspiciously Western practice, since traditionally the bride's red veil is removed only in the privacy of the wedding chamber, before the consummation of the marriage; in Ying-ying St. Clair's childhood reminiscences, the customs that are allegedly part of Moon Festival celebrations—burning the Five Evils and eating zong zi—actually belong to the Duanwu or "Dragon-Boat" Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month; the operatic version of the Moon Lady-Hou Yi story witnessed by Ying-ying includes a detail from another legend about another festival—the annual meeting of two star-crossed lovers on the seventh night of the seventh month; the mother-in-law's rebuke to the young bride Lindo, "Shemma bende ren!" rendered in English as "What kind of fool are you!" sounds like a concoction by some first-year Chinese student and necessitates a quiet emendation by the Chinese translator of The Joy Luck Club; the warning Rose Hsu Jordan remembers from her mother, shortly before her younger brother's drowning, likewise sounds gratingly unidiomatic in Chinese—"Dangsying tamende shenti," translated by Tan as "Watch out for their bodies"; except for the first one, the characters used for the Chinese version of McDonald's name, mai dong lou, are not what Lindo Jong says they are, "wheat," "east," and "building"; in The Kitchen God's Wife, the Chinese pilots allegedly give General Chennault a good Chinese name, shan, "lightning," and nao, "noisy," but his name actually has a well-known standard Chinese translation, Chen Naide. The list goes on.
The function of such insertions of "Chinese" cultural presence is worth investigating not only because a history of controversy exists in Asian American cultural politics concerning issues of authenticity, but also because Tan's books have been showered with praise precisely for their details.
Detail and Myth
The Joy Luck Club is repeatedly applauded by reviewers for the specificity of its descriptions—entire "richly textured worlds" evoked by details "each … more haunting and unforgettable than the one before." The book is called "dazzling because of the worlds it gives us"; the word "tapestry" is used to describe this effect of intricacy and richness. This view of Tan's distinctive gift is carried over to reviews of The Kitchen God's Wife: "The power of literature over sociology lies in particularization, and it is in details that The Kitchen God's Wife excels"; "it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm"; "what fascinates in The Kitchen God's Wife is not only the insistent storytelling, but the details of Chinese life and tradition"; The Kitchen God's Wife's "convincing detail" is said to give her fiction "the ring of truth," and Dew urges her readers to give themselves over to Tan's "Tolstoyan tide of event and detail."
This emphasis on details as a main source of Tan's appeal is intriguing because it coexists with a seemingly opposite type of commendation: that details do not matter that much in The Joy Luck Club, and to a lesser extent The Kitchen God's Wife, since they are lyrical, mythical, dreamlike: "full of magic," "rich in magic and mystery." Of Tan's second book, Perrick writes, "There is something dizzyingly elemental about Tan's storytelling; it melds the rich simplicities of fairytales with a delicate lyrical style." Fairy tales, we may note, are "generic" stories stripped of historical particulars, and lyricism is generally associated with moments of inwardness set apart from the realm of quotidian social facts.
The Joy Luck Club draws comparisons with myth even more readily. One reviewer calls it "almost mythic in structure, like the hypnotic tales of the legendary Scheherazade." In the eyes of some readers, the lack of differentiation between the rapidly alternating narrative voices in Joy Luck, far from betraying a limited artistic repertoire, is in fact an asset: the mark of universal appeal to women or a more capacious sensibility. Orville Schell, who wrote a widely quoted glowing review of The Joy Luck Club, acknowledges that the book's segmented structure, with its abrupt transitions in time and space, may be confusing, but argues that "these recherches to old China are so beautifully written that one should just allow oneself to be borne along as if in a dream." Juxtaposed with the daughters' "upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone and Americanized world," the mothers' vanished world in China seems "more fantastic and dreamlike than real," a product of "memory" and "revery"—and herein, Schell seems to suggest, lies its peculiar charm.
Is there any necessary incompatibility between these two views of Tan's fiction, one lauding her mastery of details, the other deeming them relatively inconsequential in its overall effect? Not at all, if one takes into account another recurrent theme in reviews of the two novels: their value as anthropological documents, giving the non-Chinese reader access to an enigmatic culture. A review of The Kitchen God's Wife finds it a convenient lesson in Chinese history and sociology:
As a backdrop … we learn more about the nature of arranged marriages in Chinese societies and also about the kind of inter-wifely accommodation arranged by second or third wives and their offspring. It is like being invited into a dusty room full of castoffs, and being given a chance to reapprehend them in their former richness. We get to understand how, why, and from where Chinese-American society evolved…. Tan is handing us a key with no price tag and letting us open the brass-bolted door.
In view of the inaccurate cultural details we have seen, this coupling of Tan's fiction with anthropological discourse, which carries with it implicit claims of credibility and factual verifiability, may be ironic. But the issue is not so much how Tan has failed as a cultural guide; it is, rather, the text-and reception-oriented question of how and why the American reading public has responded so eagerly to her writings as faithful chronicles of things Chinese. Tan's fiction has apparently been able to hold in colloidal suspension two essential ingredients of quasi-ethnographic Orientalist discourse on China and the Chinese, which both have a long genealogy in this country. These ingredients are "temporal distancing" and "authenticity marking." Tan's ability to somehow keep both details and "nondetails," as it were, in busy circulation allows readers with culturalist propensities—that is to say, a large proportion of the American reading public—to recognize the genre and respond accordingly, with enthusiastic purchases as well as a pleasurable mixture of respect and voyeurism, admiration and condescension, humility and self-congratulation.
Temporal Distancing and Other "Othering Maneuvers
Johannes Fabian, in his Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, suggests that "temporal distancing" is a means of constructing the Other widely employed in ethnographic discourse. He proposes the term "Typological Time" to refer to a use of time "almost totally divested of its vectorial, physical connotations": "instead of being a measure of movement, it may appear as a quality of states" presumably "unequally distributed among human populations of this world." The concept of Typological Time produces familiar distinctions attributed to human societies such as preliterate versus literate, traditional versus modern, peasant versus industrial, the term with which the anthropologist identifies himself/herself invariably being the privileged one. The contrast between some such binary states—traditional versus modern, superstitious versus secular, elemental versus materialistic, communal enmeshment versus anomie—is, we may note, precisely what The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife are engaged in exploring.
Whereas the ethnographer relies on the temporalized protocols of the "field method" to achieve Othering—field notes in the past tense, subsequent generalizations about the culture in the "ethnographic present" tense—Tan's two novels effect it through a number of narratological and stylistic means. (Whether Tan consciously employed them is another matter: means here refers not to goal-oriented artistic choices but an after-the-fact reconstruction of how the reader is affected.) Chief among these is the way the stories about old China are "framed" by reference to the present time of America. In The Joy Luck Club, except for the short chapter entitled "Scars," all the mothers' narratives open with some kind of time signature in the United States of the 1980s, in the form of a silent addressing of the daughter as "you" or some mention of "my daughter" in her present predicament. In The Kitchen God's Wife, of course, Winnie's entire tale is framed by the "now" of Pearl's dealings with her mother in connection with cousin Bao Bao's wedding and Grand Aunt Du's funeral; periodically, too, within what amounts to a lengthy monologue, Winnie supplies answers to queries (unrecorded), rhetorical questions, proleptic allusions, and philosophical musings for the benefit of her daughter.
The temporal distancing that makes possible the Othering of the Chinese mothers does not consist in locating their stories in elapsed time—after all, the daughters too tell about their childhood. Instead, it works through a subtle but insistent positioning of everything in the mothers' lives to a watershed event: arrival in the United States. Like using the arrival of the white man to demarcate two modes of being, the later one redeeming the earlier from cyclical repetition as a matter of inevitable "progress," this practice bears the unmistakable traces of a hegemonic cultural vantage point vis-à-vis a "backward" Third World. The Typological Time in both novels revolves around an unstated aporetic split between the static, ritual-permeated, mythical Time of a China past, where individuals' lives are deprived of choice, shaped by tradition and buffeted by inexorable "natural" circumstances (in terms of which even wars are described), and the unfolding, enlightened, rational, secular Time of contemporary America, where one can exercise decision making and control over one's life and where learning from the past is possible. The mothers, who are portrayed as fixated on old hurts and secrets and obsessed with cultural transmission in the form of aphorisms, and whose transformation in America from young refugees to stolid matrons is never delineated, belong to the mythical time so beloved of many a non-Chinese reader.
The Othering accomplished by temporal distancing is augmented by the stylistic uniformity of the Joy Luck mothers' voices when recounting their lives in China, which has the effect of constructing the Third World women's experiences as interchangeable and predictably constrained, because so overwhelmingly determined by culture. As Renato Rosaldo observes, "social analysts commonly speak … as if 'we' have psychology and 'they' have culture." The content of one set of stories is no doubt distinguishable from the next, but the manner of presentation is not. In The Kitchen God's Wife, despite Tan's claim of a new departure, her stylistic range can hardly be said to be noticeably extended, and Winnie's voice inevitably recalls Lindo Jong's or An-mei Hsu's.
Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife contrast a "low- resolution" picture of the mothers' lives in China with descriptions of high material specificity or informational density in the daughters' sections. The American-born and -bred daughters—whose world Tan shares—are able to name things in their world to a high degree of topical and local precision: a scroll-length calendar from the Bank of Canton hangs on Auntie Hsu's wall; candy is not just candy but See's Nuts and Chews or M&M's; Shoshana's outing is to not just any science museum but to the Exploratorium; the trendy restaurants Rose dreams of asking Ted to go to are Cafe Majestic and Rosalie's. In contrast, the items in the mothers' stories are much more "generic": the fish in the Fen River are not identified; the variety of lanterns at the Moon Festival is not differentiated; the bicycle on which An-mei Hsu's little brother rides has no brand name.
This lack of elaboration cannot be explained away as merely a realistic mirroring of the mothers' memory lapses. In the minds of many older people, recollections of remote childhood events often surpass, in clarity and specificity, those of more proximate occurrences. And young children are not nearly as oblivious to culturally meaningful distinctions as retrospective idealization makes them out to be. Finally, while the consumer orientation of present-day American society may partly account for the profusion of named objects in the daughters' narratives, it would be ignorant and condescending to attribute a preindustrial simplicity to the mothers' China. Whether uneven distribution of authorial knowledge about the two worlds is a factor in the textural fluctuation in the novels, or whether Tan is consciously manipulating the degree of resolution, remains an open, perhaps unanswerable, question. However, from the point of view of reception analysis, the leveling of descriptive details in the "Chinese" segments is an important source of pleasure for white readers, who accept and appreciate it as a "mythic" treatment of a remote but fascinating China.
Markers of Authenticity: "The Oriental Effect"
Are the reviewers simply misguided then when they laud Tan's "convincing details"? Not at all. The details are there, but their nature and function are probably not what a "commonsense" view would make them out to be: evidence of referential accuracy, of the author's familiarity with the "real" China. Rather, they act as gestures to the "mainstream" readers that the author is familiar with the kind of culturally mediated discourse they have enjoyed, as well as qualified to give them what they expect. I call these details "markers of authenticity," whose function is to create an "Oriental effect" by signaling a reassuring affinity between the given work and American preconceptions of what the Orient is/should be.
The term "Oriental effect" borrows from "the reality effect" posited by Roland Barthes. In an essay of that name, Barthes investigates the function of apparently "useless" descriptive details in realist fiction—details that are "scandalous (from the point of view of structure)" or "allied with a kind of narrative luxury," lacking "predictive" power for plot advancement, and salvageable only as a cumulative indicator of "characterization or atmosphere." Citing epideictic discourse in classical rhetoric, in which "plausibility [is] not referential, but overtly discursive"—"it [is] the rules of the discourse genre which laid down the law"—Barthes goes on to argue that in the modern aesthetic of vraisemblance, the function of apparently superfluous details is to announce "we are the real" and produce a "reality effect." "It is the category of the 'real,' and not its various contents, which is being signified." Extending Barthes's analysis, I argue that, in both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, there are many details whose existence cannot be justified on structural or informational grounds, but whose function seems to be to announce "We are Oriental" to the "mainstream" reader. These are the details for which reviewers have praised Tan. Marking the discourse as "authentic," but in a discursive rather than referential dimension, they are in a sense immune to revelations that "real" Chinese cultural practices are otherwise.
An important class of such details is made up of romanized words of limited, at times nonexistent, utility in structural or informational terms. Their usage ranges from "redundant" romanization (such as the appearance of pai in the same sentence where the standard English name for mahjong pieces, tiles, also appears; or adding "bad pichi" to "bad temper," when the latter is a perfectly serviceable equivalent of the Chinese term); to correct renditions of Chinese based on a sophisticated knowledge of the language and culture (such as the clever pun on Suyuan's name); to plausible and justifiable uses of Chinese for concepts without full English equivalents (such as shou for filial piety), or for representing the Americanized daughters' cultural gropings (as when Rose remembers the term hulihudu during her postdivorce disorientation). Errors of the "sugar sister" type, like the ones listed earlier in this essay, actually constitute only a small percentage of Tan's handling of Chinese matters. But whether "gratuitously" deployed or not, whether informed or not, the very insertion of italicized words in a page of roman type, or of explanatory asides about what the Chinese do and think in a story, is a signal that the author has adopted a certain stance toward the audience. She is in effect inviting trust in her as a knowledgeable cultural insider and a competent guide familiar with the rules of the genre in question: quasi ethnography about the Orient.
We can extend the concept of authenticity marking to a peculiar variety of prose Amy Tan has developed, which has the effect of announcing "Chineseness" in the speakers. The preponderance of short, choppy sentences and the frequent omission of sentence subjects are oft-used conventions whereby the Chinese can be recognized as Other. In addition to these, Tan employs subtle, minute dislocations of English syntax and vocabulary—jolting the language out of whack just enough—to create an impression of translation from the Chinese even where no translation has taken place. For example, in Ying-Ying's recollections of her childhood trauma at the Moon Festival, an old woman's complaint about her swollen foot takes this form: "Both inside and outside have a sour painful feeling." This is neither an idiomatic English sentence nor a direct English equivalent of an idiomatic Chinese sentence; it cannot be attributed to Ying-Ying's poor command of English, for the mothers' laborious, grammatically mangled, often malapropric English appears only in "real life," that is, when they are in the United States, speaking with their daughters. Elsewhere, when telling their own stories, they are given a different kind of English, fluent if simple, by Tan's own avowal designed to better articulate their subjectivities, do full justice to their native intelligence, and restore them to the dignity they deserve. This cause is decidedly not well served by such slight linguistic skewings, which in the American popular imagination have been associated with the "comic," pidginized "Asian English" found in Anglo-American writing on Asians. However, reading exactly like the kind of quaint, circumlocutious literal translations, or purported literal translations, in the tradition of self-Orientalizing texts, they indicate the comforting presence of cultural mediation to the "mainstream" reader. Thus it is not surprising to find white reviewers like Miner and Schell praising the authenticity of the immigrant women's diction. This valorized "Oriental effect" exists independent of Tan's sincerity in wanting to give voice to first-generation Chinese women, which we have no cause to doubt.
If, as Todorov maintains in The Poetics of Prose, verisimilitude in literature is less a relation with "reality" than "what most people believe to be reality—in other words, with public opinion," and with "the particular rules of [a] genre," then the reviewers' satisfaction with Tan's details is entirely consistent with their assessment of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife as "mythic" or "lyrical." Tan's details may lack referential precision, but what shapes the reviewers' expectations is verisimilitude in Todorov's second and third senses. The reviewers' dual emphases—on a timeless mythic realm and on presumably authentic details—are ultimately Orientalist in spirit. It is a certain image of what China must be like ("public opinion"—here defined, of course, as the opinion of the "mainstream") and familiarity with a certain type of writing about China ("rules of the genre") that have influenced their estimation of Tan's fiction. Paradoxical as it may seem, an author with more direct historical knowledge about China than Amy Tan may well be less successful in convincing the American reading public of the "truthfulness" of her picture, since, in such a case, the element of cultural mediation would be correspondingly weaker.
It is fair to say that gestures of cultural mediation are an important component in Amy Tan's novels and are responsible, in no small part, for their popularity. But it is also fair to say that the variety of Orientalism informing The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife is far from simple-minded or unproblematized. It is not the knowingly exploitative misrepresentation described by Peanut in The Kitchen God's Wife:
They sell Chinese garbage to the foreigners, especially people from America and England…. They sell anything that is broken, or strange, or forbidden…. The broken things they call Ming Dynasty. The strange things they say are Ching Dynasty. And the forbidden things—they say they are forbidden, no need to hide that, (italics in original)
After all, Tan, born in racially heterogeneous Oakland, California, in 1952 (albeit in a predominantly white neighborhood), grew up in the 1960s; however peripherally or obliquely, her works cannot but bear traces of the ethnic consciousness movement of that era. These traces range from relatively inconsequential information about the characters or satirical observations on ethnic chic (and its cousin, prole chic), to the pervasive, if often implicit, presence of the vocabulary and concepts of identity politics in The Joy Luck Club—what does it mean to be Chinese? to be an ethnic minority? to be American? The white middle-class book-reading and book-buying public of the post-civil rights era, likewise touched, has learned to enjoy its exotica flavored by the rhetoric of pluralism and an awareness of domestic and global interethnic connectedness. An unself-consciously ingratiating invitation to the cultural sightseer, such as the tourist brochure-style, zoom-in description of San Francisco Chinatown in the opening paragraph of Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, has a decidedly old-fashioned ring to it and no longer carries the persuasiveness it once possessed. Indeed, this type of writing is no longer produced by any Asian American writers of note. A credible cultural middleman for the contemporary "mainstream" reader needs to demonstrate, in addition to access to an authentic originary culture (or the appearance thereof), some sophistication regarding the limitations of monologism.
On this score Amy Tan fits the bill well. Again, whether by design or not, she manages to balance on a knife edge of ambiguity, producing texts in which Orientalist and counter-Orientalist interpretive possibilities jostle each other, sometimes within the same speech or scene. The complex, unstable interplay of these possibilities makes for a larger readership than that enjoyed by a text with a consistently articulated, readily identifiable ideological perspective. The nonintellectual consumer of Orientalism can find much in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife to satisfy her curiosity about China and Chinatown; at the same time, subversions of naive voyeurism can be detected by the reader attuned to questions of cultural production.
Contending Interpretative Possibilities
That Tan's works have a little bit of something for everyone can be illustrated by a few examples from The Joy Luck Club. (The Kitchen God's Wife, which is fashioned from the same range of elements as its predecessor but contours them differently, will be discussed at greater length in a later section.) Waverly Jong's first chapter, "Rules of the Game," contains a portrayal of the young Chinatown girl as hit-and-run cultural guerrilla: to get back at a Caucasian tourist who poses her with roast ducks, Waverly tries to gross him out with the disinformation that a recommended restaurant serves "guts and duck's feet and octopus gizzards." An anti-Orientalist impulse animates this incident; in Tan's account of daily routines among bakeries, sandlots, and alleyways, one recognizes a desire to demystify the tourist mecca and evoke a sense of Chinatown as home, not spectacle. However, this effect is undermined by what appears to be a retroactive exoticizing reading of an everyday detail: Waverly, now seeming to have adopted the tourist's mentality, recalls that her meals used to begin "with a soup full of mysterious things I didn't want to know the names of." Furthermore, the chapter opens with language highly reminiscent of fortune cookie wisdom, Charlie Chan aphorisms, and the kind of Taoist precepts scattered throughout Lin Yutang's Chinatown Family:
I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength…. [S]he said, "Wise guy, he not go against wind. In Chinese we say, Come back from South, blow with wind—poom!—North will follow. Strongest wind cannot be seen."… My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above our circumstances.
At times, the characters in The Joy Luck Club articulate a historicized understanding of their situation and an awareness of the perils of essentializing ethnicity. For example, as her marriage deteriorates, Lena St. Clair begins to appreciate the advice of her friend Rose, herself a disappointed divorcée:
"At first I thought it was because I was raised with all this Chinese humility," Rose said. "Or that maybe it was because when you're Chinese you're supposed to accept everything, flow with the Tao and not make waves. But my therapist said, Why do you blame your culture, your ethnicity? And I remembered reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it's all diminishing returns after a certain age."
Coexisting with such insights into Chinese American exigencies, and indeed outnumbering them, are statements encouraging a culturalist view of Chinese American life. Much is made of the so-called Chinese horoscope with the twelve animal signs: Ying-Ying St. Clair emphasizes the mystical, quasi-genetic cultural transmission from her "tiger lady" self to her "tiger girl" daughter, while Waverly Jong attributes her conflicts with her mother to incompatible horoscope signs, horse and rabbit.
Given the mutually subverting and qualifying copresence of contradictory tendencies in The Joy Luck Club—Orientalist, culturalist, essentialist, and ahistorical on the one hand, and counter-Orientalist, anticulturalist, constructionist, and historicist on the other—the same narrative detail may yield widely divergent readings. Lindo Jong's mother, in response to her daughter's mock-innocent question about "Chinese torture," answers, "Chinese people do many things…. Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture." How is this statement, delivered "simply," to be read? Is it a straightforward expression of the mother's ethnocultural pride? Or is it an ironic gesture of exasperation at, and resistance against, the daughter's early induction into hegemonic discourse? Has she already seen through the daughter's "wickedness" in transforming a personal irritation and minor filial rebellion into an ideological struggle? (If so, then even the mother's air of matter-of-factness is suspect; Waverly could have been simply insensible of her parodic inflection.)
The reader's quandary parallels Jing-mei Woo's puzzlement in the face of her mother's explanation about Jewish versus Chinese mah jong: "Jewish mah jong, they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes…. Chinese mah jong, you must play using your head, very tricky." For all intents and purposes, Mrs. Woo could be just describing the difference between novice and expert playing—in which case the scene affords an intriguing glimpse of culturalism in action: the mother mobilizing ethnicity xenophobically to reinforce the exclusivity of her cultural authority. But if, like Jing-mei, one is brought up on reified ethnic categories and has an emotional investment in believing the speaker's cultural knowledgeability, the purported insider's explication might leave one in a curious state of suspended judgment (which could be mistaken for cultural sensitivity and respect for the mysteries of the Other's life).
The temptation to galvanize this uncertainty into a definite interpretation is strong, and, given the current voguishness of multiculturalist rhetoric, the safest course for the befuddled non-Chinese reader might be to take the fictional "insider" speaker at face value. This spells the ultimate, if circuitously achieved, victory of Orientalist readings at the expense of other approaches. A handful of scholars of Asian American literature have argued emphatically against a one-dimensional view of The Joy Luck Club as a tale of intergenerational cultural confrontation and resolution. Melani McAlister, for example, has provided compelling evidence that socioeconomic class is as much a factor as culture in the mother-daughter conflicts in The Joy Luck Club—that, in fact, "cultural difference" can function as a less volatile or more admissible surrogate term for class anxieties. When the yuppie daughters are embarrassed by their mother's color-mismatched outfits or "un-American" restaurant manners, McAlister observes, they are consumed by the fear of being déclassé, even though they may, in all sincerity, be experiencing their distancing from the mothers in terms of cultural conflict. Like McAlister, Lisa Lowe, as part of a larger theoretical project on the "heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity" of Asian American identity, has warned against reductionist readings of The Joy Luck Club that leave out class concerns. Nevertheless, voices such as McAlister's or Lowe's, already a minority in the academy, are unlikely to reach the "airport newsstand" readership of Tan's works.
Furthermore, McAlister's thesis that culturalist readings of The Joy Luck Club are misreadings—implying that a class-informed reading is somehow closer to Tan's intentions—may itself be a simplification. It is true that, as McAlister points out, when reviewer Orville Schell poses the Americanized daughters against the Joy Luck mothers wearing "funny Chinese dresses with stiff stand-up collars and blooming branches of embroidered silk sewn over their breasts," he is betraying a binarist mind-set. (The Joy Luck mothers have been wearing slacks, print blouses, and sturdy walking shoes for years. "Tonight, there is no mystery.") Schell's telescoping of historical moments—the late 1940s and the late 1980s—freezes the mothers at their moment of immigration, absolutizes the foreign-American distinction, and reproduces the American myth that intergenerational strife is the inevitable price of assimilation. To that extent, one is justified in speaking of a misreading. However, in another sense, Schell is not "wrong," for The Joy Luck Club, as we have seen, is filled with features that would amply support the spirit if not the letter of his reading. The ending of the novel itself offers a powerful essentialist proposition: despite much wavering throughout the crisscrossing narratives, "family" and "blood" eventually triumph over history. When Jing-mei travels to China to meet her long-lost half sisters, she discovers "what part of [her] is Chinese" and is able to "let [it] go." This ostensible reconciliation presupposes the reality of a self-alienating ethnic malaise (without considering how it could be an ideological construction in the service of monoculturalism), then locates redemption in origin, thus in effect nullifying or at least discounting the "American" temporality of the Chinese American experience.
The Joy Luck Club is not a misunderstood, co-opted ethnic text that has been unfortunately obscured by a culturalist haze and awaits recuperation through class- or gender-based readings. To suggest so risks explaining away the persistence of Orientalism as a matter of the individual reader's ignorance, inattention, or misguidedness. It is more defensible to characterize The Joy Luck Club as a multidimensional cultural product, one whose many ideological layerings, reflections, and refractions are aligned, for a broad cross section of the American reading public, with the contending needs and projections of the times. The book's popular success—and the "Amy Tan phenomenon" in general—cannot be fully understood apart from its equivocation vis-à-vis issues of culture and identity, allowing a profusion of interpretive claims to be made with seemingly equal cogency.
The "Declaritive Modality" and Its Implications
Many of the issues raised in the foregoing discussion of how to "read" Amy Tan recall the controversy surrounding Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. Some Chinese American critics have accused Kingston of distorting traditional myths and cultural practices to capitalize on the Orientalist inclinations of the white reader. Indeed, The Woman Warrior, like its successor The Joy Luck Club, has excited many reviewers who single out its picturesque details about old China for praise. The tacit assumption, as Kingston notes in an exasperated complaint about many of her so-called admirers, is that the author's Chinese blood is a natural and sufficient guarantor of reliable knowledge; thus the questions Kingston raises in the book about the very cultural ignorance and confusion of the American-born Chinese are casually brushed aside. The question of Kingston's possible complicity in her own misreading is too vast to examine here; her relationship to Orientalism cannot be summed up in a few sentences. And in a way, any ethnic writer who takes on the issue of stereotyping is caught in a bind: like the man in the Zen parable who holds on to a tree branch with his teeth and is asked the way by a straying passer-by, he is lost whatever he does. If he opens his mouth to give the "right" answer, he falls and gets hurt; but if he keeps silent he only deepens the surrounding confusion. How does one protest a problem without mentioning it? But in mentioning it, does one not risk multiplying its visibility and potency, through reiteration if nothing else? Generalization aside, confining ourselves to The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, we may note a crucial difference between the two works: in modality of presentation.
According to Elliott Butler-Evans, The Woman Warrior is distinguished by an "interrogative modality"—it ceaselessly deconstructs its own narrative authority and overtly thematizes the epistemological difficulties of the American-born Chinese. Its governing rhetorical trope is the palinode, or the taking back of what is said. In other words, despite the first-person form, the narrator/protagonist lays no claim to referential advantage: the negotiations of her consciousness are foregrounded. In Naomi Schor's terms, she is an interpretant (interpreting character; as opposed to the interpreter, or interpreting critic/reader of the book), constantly aware of the hazards of under- or over-reading, yet unable to refrain from trying to wrest cultural meanings from bewildering details. Through the interpretant, the author Kingston "is trying to tell the interpreter something about interpretation." In contrast, The Joy Luck Club is epistemologically unproblematized—in Butler-Evans's view, its narrative modality is "declarative." The mothers' narratives about their Chinese life are displayed as immediate, coming directly from the source, and, for that reason, are valorized as correctives to the daughters' unenlightened or biased outlook. The intervention of a narrating consciousness is thus erased. This is what creates the space for equivocation about culture and identity: one is never entirely sure when a reinsertion of this mediation is necessary, and whether attribution of a Chinese American cast to such mediation is justified. Whereas the conflation of Chinese and Chinese American is explored in The Woman Warrior as a perilous legacy of Orientalism—the need to sort out the conflation defines the narrator/protagonist's lifelong act of self-creation—it is never actively interrogated in The Joy Luck Club.
The "declarative modality" of The Joy Luck Club is arguably appropriate for the project of giving voice to the immigrant mothers. Of course, this project is not the only one inferable from Tan's first novel. The "four-by-four" structure of the work—four sections each with four chapters, so that, except for the deceased Mrs. Woo (whose story is told through Jing-mei), each mother-daughter set gets to speak twice—allows the alternating accounts to resonate with, balance out, and qualify each other. The daughters' worlds, if depicted as flawed by greed and small-mindedness, are at least fleshed out enough to be counterpoised against the mothers'. Despite the compromised nature of the voice Tan assigns to the mothers, with its many Orientalist stylistic maneuvers, the narrative design does not draw overwhelming attention to the issue of the voice's truthfulness.
The Valorization of Origin
Yet a question remains, one whose ramifications do not become fully evident until The Kitchen God's Wife. Unlike The Woman Warrior, whose narrator/protagonist has to outgrow the illusion that talking to mother will resolve cultural disorientation and crystallize truth, The Joy Luck Club, while posing subjectivities "declaratively" against each other, does not push the relativistic implications of this move to their limit. The ending of The Joy Luck Club, as well as the tentative dramas of mother-daughter reconciliation within the body chapters, suggest there is indeed a locus of truth, and that locus is origin. The daughter's task is to break through the obfuscation caused by her American nativity and upbringing. Certainly there is poignancy in the picture of the mother whose voice is not heard by her daughter:
Because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me. She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid.
But there is also an asymmetry in the poignancy of this isolation à deux: the burden is on the daughter to educate herself into truth, to put aside her fears and needs, so that she can see her mother for what she is. The China trip—planned by Waverly, actually undertaken by Jing-mei—is in some ways an extended trope for this embrace of origin. Origin stays put, long-suffering but autotelic, awaiting rediscovery and homage.
But if there is a privileging of origin—which, in the context of Tan's books, means privileging China and the Chinese (whether "native" or diasporic)—does it not run counter to the colonialist tenor of Orientalism?
This question becomes even more pertinent when we examine The Kitchen God's Wife, in which both the "declarative modality" of narration and the valorization of the mother's life in China are far more pronounced than in The Joy Luck Club. The broad shape of characters and story types from the first novel is preserved—the assimilated, upwardly mobile daughter married to a white husband and living in the suburbs; the immigrant mother in Chinatown with a thing or two to teach her daughter about life; sufferings in China recounted; secrets revealed, old grievances banished, blood ties reaffirmed. But much more explicitly than in The Joy Luck Club, the daughter's role is ancillary. The staggered framework has given way to a sandwiching of the mother's tale, which forms the bulk of the novel, between two thin slices of the daughter's life. The daughter's presence, its countervailing function almost reduced to irrelevance, is now little more than a conduit for the True Word from mother, a pretext for Winnie's outpouring.
What is accomplished by this accordion-like redistribution of narrative and thematic priorities? Judging from the way they concentrate on Winnie, most reviewers of The Kitchen God's Wife would probably answer "Not much." Humphreys considers Pearl's opening segment merely a "long prologue" making for a "late start" of the "central story," which gathers "energy and momentum" only when Winnie begins speaking. Dew bemoans the novel's "slow start," and Howe feels that whenever Pearl and her husband appear the novel "bogs down." To these critics, Pearl's presence might be the result of an artistic miscalculation, a nuisance one has to get past to reach the good stuff, or else a residue from the successful formula of The Joy Luck Club. Yet in the context of repackaging Orientalism—considered again as de facto impact on the reader—this apparently awkward or primitive narrative convention in fact serves useful functions for The Joy Luck Club and especially for The Kitchen God's Wife.
The Americanized Daughter's Functions
The Americanized daughter, who needs to be enlightened on things Chinese, serves as a convenient, unobtrusive stand-in for the mainstream reading public. White readers, their voyeurism concealed and their curiosity indulged by "naturalized" explanations, are thus relieved of possible historical guilt, free to enjoy Chinese life as a depoliticized spectacle. In such a spectacle, the interesting localness of nomenclature and custom overshadows larger historical issues. The "sugar sister" statement, besides being a "marker of authenticity" establishing the author's credentials, is thus also a cultural demonstration addressed simultaneously to the Americanized daughter and the mainstream American reader, overtly in one case, covertly in the other. Working in much the same way are Winnie's asides about linguistic trivia, such as her remarks on the formulaic expression yi wan (ten thousand) ("That is what Chinese people always say … always an exaggeration"), or the distinction between syin ke (literally, "heart liver"), a Chinese term of endearment, and English gizzard. The phrase taonan elicits the following from Winnie:
This word, taonan? Oh, there is no American word I can think of that means the same thing. But in Chinese, we have lots of words to describe all kinds of trouble.
The English language can hardly be guilty of lacking words for "all kinds of trouble"—a quick flip through Roget's Thesaurus would show that readily. What Winnie gives Pearl is not empirically grounded contrast but the kind of cultural tidbits Orientalist readers enjoy—decontextualized, overgeneralized, speculative, and confirmative of essential difference.
In the larger scheme of China on display, the propositional content of any specific comparison is relatively immaterial. At times the United States seems to come out ahead, portrayed as institutionally more advanced, such as when Lindo Jong of The Joy Luck Club speaks of flood damage: "You couldn't go to an insurance company back then and say, Somebody did this damage, pay me a million dollars." At other times commonality seems to be stressed, such as when Lindo compares herself to an American wife on a TV detergent commercial in terms of eagerness to please the husband. What matters more is that, by setting up the Americanized daughter as the one to whom Chinese life has to be explained, while at the same time endowing the mother with ancestral wisdom born of the sheer vastness of her life experiences, the edge is taken off the suffering of the Chinese people (in particular, Chinese women). The enormity of Chinese suffering is now made safe for literary consumption. As Rey Chow remarks of what she calls the "King Kong syndrome," the "Third World," as the "site of the 'raw' material that is 'monstrosity,' is produced for the surplus-value of spectacle, entertainment, and spiritual enrichment for the 'First World.'"
This is the process that enables Newsweek reviewer Pico Iyer to apply an adjective like glamorous to Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife: "the dowdy, pinchpenny old woman has a past more glamorous than any fairy-tale, and more sad." The American-born daughters and the readers they stand in for, from the secure distance of their material privilege, can glamorize suffering as ennobling. They can have their cake and eat it too, constructing the Chinese woman—as a type of Third World woman—in such a way that their own fundamental superiority vis-à-vis the foreigner, the immigrant, is not threatened. The Third World woman is simultaneously simpleminded and crafty, transparent and unfathomable, capable of surviving unspeakable victimization but vulnerable in the modern world. She may be strong and resourceful in privation—a suitable inspiration for those grown soft from the good life—but ultimately she still needs the validation and protection of the West (in the form of immigration, a white husband, or, in the case of Winnie, Jimmy Louie—an American-born Chinese who speaks perfect English, dances, wears an American uniform, and has God on his side). Superficially, to concede that women such as Winnie, Lindo Jong, even Ying-Ying St. Clair could hold the key to truth and be teachers to the Westernized or Western woman may seem a sign of humility before the Third World. But such a concession does not really threaten the Western(ized) woman's image of herself as "secular, liberated, and having control of their own lives." Rather, the mothers' repeated message to the daughters is that the latter have frittered away their chance to enjoy what women in the West take for granted—freedom, choice, material plenty. The harrowing accounts of arranged marriages, sadistic mothers-in-law, sexual humiliation, floods and famines, bombings and dead babies, government corruption, technological backwardness, and other assorted bane for the Third World woman are meant to bolster, not undermine, the incontrovertible desirability attributed to the Western(ized) woman's station. (The exaltation of origin is not incompatible with this message, for it removes the Chinese American's proper arena of struggle from material and political concerns in the United States, relocating in privatized psychology and dehistoricized geography.) In fact, to those readers with feminist sympathies, the books' emphasis on sexist oppression as the basis for cross-cultural, cross-generational female bonding invites a facile sense of solidarity. A reassuring projection of universal Woman obscures the role of the West in causing the very historical catastrophes from which Tan's mothers so gladly escape.
In setting tales of personal tribulation against a Chinese historical backdrop, the mothers' chapters in The Joy Luck Club and Winnie's recitation in The Kitchen God's Wife overlap the discursive space occupied by a proliferating number of English-language works in which the upheavals of "recent"—meaning post-Western contact (Fabian's Typological Time is again at work here)—Chinese history are used as a foil for personal dramas, often those of women from prominent, Westernized families, or women marrying prominent white Americans. Constituting a subgenre that might be called "the Chinese Gone with the Wind," these works are billed sometimes as memoirs (of varying degrees of fictionalization), sometimes as historical fiction. Virtually all involve a multigenerational family saga interwoven with violent historical events (the "Boxer Rebellion," the Republican Revolution, the Nationalist-Communist Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre), as well as a culminating personal odyssey across the ocean to the West, signaling final "arrival" in both a physical and an ideological sense. From these works of epic sweep about China in turmoil. American readers can derive the concomitant satisfaction of self-congratulation and limited self-flagellation: "Thank heavens we natives of the democratic First World don't have to go through that kind of suffering; but then again, we miss out on the opportunity to build character and we lose touch with the really important things in life—Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil." So the equation is balanced after all.
The "Psychospiritual Plantation System" in the Reagan Era
Thus the daughters' presence in the narratological apparatus of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife serves another vital purpose: it tempers the novels' critique of Reagan-era rapacity and hedonism, rendering it temporarily chastening but ultimately undemanding. After listening with appropriate awe, empathy, and "culture envy" to her mother, the daughter returns to yuppiedom (to which Chinese Americans have been allowed qualified access) and continues to enjoy the fruits of assimilation. In the same manner, the "sugar sisterhood" among Tan's readership returns edified from the cathartic literary excursion, but its core of historical innocence remains undisturbed.
A kind of "psychospiritual plantation system"—a stratified world of privileged whites and colored servers/caregivers—is at work in Amy Tan's novels as well as films from roughly the same period such as Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy, Woody Allen's Alice, and Jerry Zucker's Ghost. All these products of popular culture make indictments against the shallow, acquisitive, image-conscious (read "middle- and upper-middle-class white") world of wealth and institutional power by putting selected members of this world in physical and/or emotional crisis, and by engineering their education/rescue by a person of color. Tan's mothers, the African American chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, the Chinese herbalist in Alice, and the African American medium in Ghost all surpass their uptight, disaffected protégés in vitality, vividness of personality, instinctual wisdom, integration of self, cultural richness, interpersonal connection, and directness of contact with elemental presences (love, death, spirituality). At the same time, these Third World healers, like loyal Black slaves of the past, are remarkably devoid of individual ambition and content with a modest piece of the American pie. If, like the frugal Joy Luck mothers or the flamboyant small-time crook in Ghost, they value money, that interest has an almost childlike forthrightness to it, dissociated from the "rational" pursuit of status that is the forte of their overcerebral, impeccably schooled charges. In short, the world is neatly stratified into those who have wealth and power but no soul, and those who have soul but neither wealth nor power. The latter group nurtures the former but is not interested in displacing or replacing it.
What Renato Rosaldo says of the discipline of anthropology is a good gloss on "psychospiritual plantation" discourse:
Social analysts … often assert that subordinate groups have an authentic culture at the same time that they mock their own upper-middle-class professional culture. In this view, subordinate groups speak in vibrant, fluent ways, but upper-middle-class people talk like anemic academics. Yet analysts rarely allow the ratio of class and culture to include power. Thus they conceal the ratio's darker side: the more power one has, the less culture one enjoys, and the more culture one has, the less power one wields.
Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife tacitly subscribe to a worldview in which the inverse relationship between political power and cultural visibility is deemed natural. Despite its chatty, upbeat tone and inspirational effectiveness, Tan's fiction, too, has a darker side.
Judging from the frequency with which The Joy Luck Club has been anthologized and adopted for courses during the brief period since its publication, and the way Amy Tan has been chosen to perform the Asian American spokeswoman/figurehead function once assigned to Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan currently occupies a place of substantial honor in the "mainstream" literary canon. The movement for curricular diversification in the academy has created a demand for fairly accessible ethnic works of a multiculturalist, preferably also feminist, bent, and The Joy Luck Club, whatever its other complexities, fits the bill well. Tan's place in the Asian-American canon is less clear: there has been some academic interest in The Joy Luck Club (less so for The Kitchen God's Wife), but hardly comparable in amount and intensity to what The Woman Warrior generated. Only time will tell what the staying power of the "Amy Tan phenomenon" is.
The fortunes of once-popular, now overlooked cultural interpreters in Chinese American literary history, such as Lin Yutang and Jade Snow Wong, suggest that cultural mediation of the Orient for the "mainstream" readership requires continual repackaging to remain in sync with changing times and resultant shifts in ideological needs. It will be interesting to see whether Tan will be superseded by another "flavor of the month," and if so, when, how, and to what degree. Unlike Lin Yutang's and Jade Snow Wong's, Amy Tan's books appeared after the Asian American consciousness movement, at a time when Asian American cultural production is burgeoning, Asian American literary studies has been instituted as a force (albeit still a weak one) in cultural politics, and Asian American critics are busily engaged in defining a canon dissociated as much as possible from Orientalist concerns, through teaching, practical criticism, and other professional activities if not conscious, explicit theorizing. Although there is obviously no end point in the canon-formation process, there are already signs that the "Asian American" canon, the one arising from contestations within the community, differs considerably from the one shaped by the publishing industry and the critical establishment. It would be intriguing to study how these two canons are related and how they act upon each other.
Whatever the future holds, the extent of Amy Tan's sensational success becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we see her works as standing at the confluence of a large number of discursive traditions, each carrying its own history as well as ideological and formal demands: "mainstream" feminist writing; Asian American matrilineal literature; quasi ethnography about the Orient; Chinese American "tour-guiding" works; post-civil rights ethnic soul-searching; the "Chinese Gone with the Wind" genre; multiculturalist rhetoric; and Reagan-era critiques of materialism—to name only those touched on in this essay. (The literature of immigration and Americanization is an obvious tradition that has been omitted in this discussion; the literature of New Age self-healing might be another.) This heteroglossic situation, where discourses press against each other, generating now synergy, now conflict, is what makes possible the intriguing equivocation in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife and allows readers of differing persuasions to see what they expect (or desire) in the texts.
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SOURCE: "Ghost Story," in New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Messud praises the characterization of Kwan in Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, but says that the novel fails to convince.]
The tremendous success of Amy Tan's two previous novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, lay in her capacity to evoke, vividly and with subtle humor, the cultural dislocation of America's Chinese community. She has conjured the tortuous lives of an older generation of women whose fate brought them from China to this country, as well as the frustration and fascination of their American-born daughters. It is not surprising, then, that in her latest book, The Hundred Secret Senses, she should offer an apparent reworking of this theme.
However, rather than focusing again on the mother-daughter bond, Ms. Tan has shifted her attention slightly, choosing this time an exploration of sisterhood. Olivia Bishop, a commercial photographer, is the novel's primary narrator. She is the child of an irresponsible American mother and a Chinese father who died when Olivia was almost 4. Kwan, her half sister, is 12 years her senior, the product of their father's first marriage in China; she appeared in Olivia's life when Olivia was still a small child. Theirs is not, from the younger sister's perspective, an easy relationship: Kwan is eccentric, naive and annoying. She "believes she has yin eyes," Olivia tells us. "She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin." She also holds conversations with these ghosts, a habit that landed her in a mental institution not long after her arrival in America.
Now in her late 30's, Olivia—priggish, cynical and wholly American in her perspective—has never ceased to be embarrassed by her sister's behavior, and to be consumed with guilt for that embarrassment. "She's like an orphan cat, kneading on my heart," she says of Kwan. "She's been this way all my life, peeling me oranges, buying me candy, admiring my report cards…. Yet I've done nothing to endear myself to her…. I can't remember how many times I've lied to get out of seeing her."
Despite all this, Kwan remains fiercely loyal to her recalcitrant sister. She is intent on reuniting Olivia with her estranged husband, Simon, and luring the pair to China, to her native village of Changmian. But her most ambitious goal is a spiritual one: to encourage her sister to acknowledge the reality of the World of Yin and the truth of reincarnation. Thus the novel is threaded with a second narrative, Kwan's story of her fate in a former life, when she was a one-eyed servant girl named Nunumu in the employ of a group of Western missionaries in Changmian in the 1860's, and specifically of Nunumu's friendship with Miss Nelly Banner, an American with a complicated love life and a tragic destiny.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Kwan's fidelity to Olivia and Nunumu's to Miss Banner are not unconnected: the past lives on in the present. Thanks to a handy assignment from a travel magazine, Olivia, Simon and Kwan are able to go to Changmian. And as their visit is transformed into its own bittersweet tragedy, Olivia abandons her cynicism and embraces, with rather sticky sentimentality, Kwan's faith in the shadow world of the secret senses. At the novel's conclusion, Olivia gushes: "The world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true…. And believing in ghosts—that's believing that love never dies."
The dislocation Ms. Tan exposes here is not so much between the Chinese and the American experience—although Olivia initially assumes it to be so—as between a mystical and a pragmatic world view. (Upon her arrival in China, Olivia discovers that while Kwan's friends there may be more tolerant of her communion with the spirits, they don't necessarily believe in it.) In appealing to Olivia's—and the reader's—unacknowledged mystical urges, Ms. Tan taps a rich but risky source: our relationship to the dead is also a measure of our connection to life itself, and Kwan's belief in eternal cosmic renewal is enticing.
The difficulty arises from Ms. Tan's determination to make actual the links between past and present lives. In the face of physical evidence, Olivia comes to believe not only in the spiritual truth of Kwan's visions but in their literal truth: hence her cringe-making exclamations about love, the soul and ghosts. To accept the novel as anything more than a mildly entertaining and slightly ridiculous ghost story, the reader must also make this demanding leap of faith, turning a blind eye to rash improbabilities and a host of loose ends. For this reader, at least, that leap was not possible. Even Olivia's conversion fails to convince.
Nonetheless, Kwan, in particular, is a memorable creation. Of her belief in the World of Yin there can be no doubt. She emerges as a character at once innocent and wise, the relative Olivia both suffers and relies upon. Kwan gently forces Olivia to face the worst in herself and, in so doing, to find her strengths. We could all do with such a sister.
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SOURCE: "Sisterly Bonds," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 1, 11.
[In the following review, Mesic praises Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses stating, "She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever."]
Down in Birmingham, Alabama, under a sign that says Ollie's, there's a circular stainless-steel structure like a just-landed flying saucer. It seats 400 and is always full. Only two things are served there, barbecue and pie. Clearly, Ollie, whoever he was, realized that no third thing could ever be as good and quit while he was ahead. It may seem that this has nothing to do with Amy Tan's latest novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, which is about two Chinese half-sisters, but there is a marked similarity. The novel is like Ollie's in combining three qualities almost never found together: popularity, authenticity and excellence. And like that wonderful restaurant, this book is going to pull a crowd that includes both sophisticates and the simple-hearted, not by being bland but by offering sharp flavors—the prose equivalent of vinegar, pepper and wood smoke.
Tan's novel shows us a pair of women whose peculiarities, whose resentments, whose tactless truth telling, odd beliefs, jokes and quirks and annoyances, give them a pretty much universal appeal. One sister, the narrator Olivia, grows up Chinese-American in San Francisco. The other, Kwan, comes from mainland China in her late teens to join her father's second family.
Waiting at the airport, the family expects a timid, scrawny waif, but Kwan is "like a strange old lady, short and chubby … her broad brown face flanked by two thick braids." "Anything but shy," Olivia tells us, Kwan "bellowed, 'Hall-oo! Hall-oo!" Still hooting and laughing she jumped and squealed the way our new dog did whenever we let him out of the garage."
The description brilliantly captures Kwan's lack of self-consciousness, her eagerness. And it suggests, too, Olivia's cruel distaste for a loud and clumsy interloper.
Throughout Olivia's childhood, a pattern persists. Kwan is humble, tender, always striving to please Olivia. But Olivia, much younger, is resentful at having to share her mother's love; resentful that her older half sister takes her mother's place in caring for her; resentful that Kwan, ignorant of American ways, appears to "come from Mars."
We see the nature of their relationship perfectly expressed when Olivia recalls seizing the shining length of Kwan's beautiful hair. "I'd grab her mane and yank it like the reins of a mule, shouting, 'Giddyap, Kwan, say hee-haw!'" Years later, their attitudes are still the same. Kwan invites her sister to dinner, Olivia refuses. Kwan persists. "Feel sick?" "No." "You want me come over, bring you orange? I have extra, good price, six for one dollar." "Really, I'm fine."
The elder is unfailingly loyal, blind to insult, generous. When Olivia can't restrain her irritation and says something unforgivable, Kwan of course forgives her. Even more irritating, Olivia realizes, is the fact that after such an outburst, "The wound Kwan bears heals itself instantly. Whereas I feel guilt forever."
These are characters more than plausible. They have all the awful, wonderful vitality of fact. As Tan structures the narrative, the reader is drawn in, feeling the sympathy for Kwan her sister withholds. Even so, readers are far more likely to identify with the grudging Olivia.
Kwan is in almost every way a very ordinary woman, no one it would be the fulfillment of a fantasy to identify with. She's unstylish, scarcely educated, a tireless advice-giver and boringly down to earth in her preoccupation with family, ailments and bargains ("Guess how much I don't pay!" she cries triumphantly). Nevertheless, it is in exactly such humble vessels that mysteries are contained, and Kwan possesses some uncanny abilities.
Chief among them is her power to see and hear yin spirits, or ghosts. The wonderful thing about Tan's novel as ghost story is that in a kind of mental jujitsu, Tan makes us take her ghosts seriously precisely because she makes no apparent effort to convince us that these visitors are particularly spooky or, indeed, real.
Kwan herself takes their visits for granted. In trying, for example, to convince Olivia they should journey to China to set the spirit of their dead father to rest, Kwan's arguments are not metaphysical but comically practical. "Virgie can cook for Georgie, and Georgie can take care of your dog, no need to pay anyone."
Olivia does her best to regard Kwan as crazy. "Kwan is wacky, even by Chinese standards, even by San Francisco standards. A lot of what she says and does would strain the credulity of most people who are not on anti-psychotic drugs or living on a cult farm." But Tan's shrewd abstention from the usual brooding, mysterious atmosphere of the spirit world makes Kwan's ghosts, with their vigorous bickering about marriage, food and money, particularly convincing.
What gradually emerges from dreamlike passages set 100 years ago in China, during the fierce struggles between bandits and foreign traders in the opium wars, is that two of the spirits Kwan listens to are previous incarnations of Olivia and Kwan. The older sister's determination to serve the younger, her humility and her love arise directly from the experiences of a former life.
Eventually, after much prodding by Kwan, the two women pay their visit to China, taking with them Simon, the ex-husband for whom Olivia feels a lingering tenderness. If there is anyone who seems faint and improbable, it is this male character. The world of the book is a woman's world. Men are flickering presences, like candle flames invisible in daylight.
The China they visit is real enough modern China, where pursuit of a fast buck is rapidly supplanting Maoist doctrine and villages previously kept quaint by poverty are losing their looks to modern conveniences. But their family's town is largely unchanged, familiar to Olivia because of all the stories Kwan has told her. And yet there's no chance to drown in its loveliness. The first words out of Kwan's mouth, when, gasping, she catches sight of a beloved childhood friend, are, "Fat! You've grown unbelievably fat!"
Beneath this banter lie the tragedy of a childhood accident, the bloodshed of the opium wars and the discovery of a few battered 19th-century objects that give substance to Kwan's stories. Increasingly the narrative reverts to a century back. Kwan's mental visits to the past are as credible and as vivid as the present. For example, when the Kwan of a former life is trying to escape a Manchu raiding party and pulls clothes off a line before she departs, she thinks of "all the terrible things that happened during the time the laundry had changed from wet to dry."
In such details there is the effortless mix of invention and reliance on reality that makes Tan's fiction so engrossing—a kind of consistency of action that suggests one could ask anything about a character and Tan could answer. She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever.
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SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 45, November 6, 1995, p. 85.
[In the following review, Nurse asserts, "Kwan's dreams comprise the most skillfully realized sections of [The Hundred Secret Senses], mingling elements of gothic romance and folktale with historical chronicle."]
In Amy Tan's earlier novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, individual personal histories powerfully influence future family dynamics. Even though traditional Chinese superstitions about luck and fate shape both stories, neither work strays far from the realistic mode. In Tan's latest novel, however, ghosts replace memories as the link between past and present. With The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan ventures into the realm of spirits and reincarnation through her favorite character type: a Chinese-American woman who is ill at ease with her racial makeup. Olivia Bishop, a 38-year-old commercial photographer, feels that her life is devoid of meaningful ties. She still longs for the attention of a neglectful mother who was too busy seeking husbands to meet her daughter's needs. Olivia has recently separated from her husband, Simon Bishop, with whom she shares a small freelance business, and whom she accuses of providing her with nothing but "emotional scraps."
Olivia was born to a Chinese father and an American mother. She has spent all of her life in California, but she lacks satisfying attachments to either American or Chinese tradition. Her adoring half-sister, Kwan, tries to introduce her to the richness of her Chinese heritage. But from childhood, Olivia has felt mostly embarrassment about and contempt for Kwan, who is 12 years her senior and was born and raised in China. Olivia resents the way Kwan's foreign attitudes and beliefs uncomfortably highlight her own racial differences. She especially loathes hearing Kwan speak of her "yin" eyes, which she invokes with her "hundred secret senses" in order to see and communicate with spirits. Nevertheless, Kwan's ghost-filled visions eventually invade Olivia's psyche. Olivia complains that her half-sister has "planted her imagination into mine."
Kwan's dreams comprise the most skillfully realized sections of the novel, mingling elements of gothic romance and folktale with historical chronicle. Tan summons remote landscapes and lifetimes with incomparable ease. According to Kwan, the dreams reveal her former life as a one-eyed maiden named Nunumu who lived with foreign missionaries in China during the mid-19th century. The book is utterly mesmerizing when Kwan recites the events surrounding the opium trade and the rule of the Manchus.
Tan moves back and forth between Kwan's past life experiences and Olivia's story. Unfortunately, after Kwan's dream passages, Olivia's speeches often strike a discordantly mundane note. Even so, Olivia's story contains several memorable episodes, many of which involve hilarious cultural clashes between the two sisters. Tan also displays a talent for pointing out the absurdities of exuberant Americanism: she describes how Olivia's mother once won "a county fair prize for growing a deformed potato that had the profile of Jimmy Durante."
The two stories come together after Simon and Olivia travel to China on a final joint assignment, bringing along Kwan as an interpreter. In Asia, Olivia's desires and Kwan's ghosts progress towards a startling climax. In The Hundred Secret Senses, the spirit world proclaims the existence of a collective, living past. And, in a way, for Tan, storytelling accomplishes the same end. It helps forge a shared mythology and creates a sense of belonging to a past and a people.
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SOURCE: "Voice, Mind, Self: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 208-27.
[In the following essay, Booth Foster discusses the importance of daughters listening to their mothers' voices in order to discover their own voices in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]
In The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan uses stories from her own history and myth to explore the voices of mothers and daughters of Chinese ancestry. Each woman tells a story indicative of the uniqueness of her voice. Mary Field Belensky, in Women's Ways of Knowing, argues that voice is "more than an academic shorthand for a person's point of view … it is a metaphor that can apply to many aspects of women's experience and development…. Women repeatedly used the metaphor of voice to depict their intellectual and ethical development;… the development of a sense of voice, mind, and self were intricately intertwined." In Tan's fiction, the daughters' sense of self is intricately linked to an ability to speak and be heard by their mothers. Similarly, the mothers experience growth as they broaden communication lines with their daughters. Tan's women are very much like the women Belensky portrays in Women's Ways of Knowing: "In describing their lives, women commonly talked about voice and silence: 'speaking up,' 'speaking out,' 'being silenced,' 'not being heard,' 'really listening,' 'really talking,' 'words as weapons,' 'feeling deaf and dumb,' 'having no words,' 'saying what you mean,' 'listening to be heard.'" Until Tan's women connect as mothers and daughters, they experience strong feelings of isolation, a sense of disenfranchisement and fragmentation. These feelings often are a result of male domination, as Margery Wolf and Roxanne Witke describe in Women in Chinese Society.
A photo that is in part a pictorial history of Tan's foremothers is the inspiration for many of her portrayals of women. Tan writes in "Lost Lives of Women" of a picture of her mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins:
When I first saw this photo as a child, I thought it was exotic and remote, of a faraway time and place, with people who had no connection to my American life. Look at their bound feet! Look at that funny lady with the plucked forehead. The solemn little girl was in fact, my mother. And leaning against the rock is my grandmother, Jing mei…. This is also a picture of secrets and tragedies…. This is the picture I see when I write. These are the secrets I was supposed to keep. These are the women who never let me forget why stories need to be told.
In her remembrances, Tan presents Chinese American women who are forging identities beyond the pictures of concubinage and bound feet, women encountering new dragons, many of which are derived from being "hyphenated" American females. She views mother-daughter relationships in the same vein as Kathie Carlson, who argues, "This relationship is the birthplace of a woman's ego identity, her sense of security in the world, her feelings about herself, her body and other women. From her mother, a woman receives her first impression of how to be a woman."
The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife are studies in balance—balancing hyphenation and the roles of daughter, wife, mother, sister, career woman. In achieving balance, voice is important: in order to achieve voice, hyphenated women must engage in self-exploration, recognition and appreciation of their culture(s), and they must know their histories. The quest for voice becomes an archetypal journey for all of the women. The mothers come to the United States and have to adapt to a new culture, to redefine voice and self. The daughters' journeys become rites of passage; before they can find voice or define self they must acknowledge the history and myth of their mothers—"her-stories" of life in China, passage to the United States, and assimilation. And each must come to grips with being her mother's daughter.
The Joy Luck Club is a series of stories by and about narrators whose lives are interconnected as a result of friendship and membership in the Joy Luck Club: Suyuan and Jing-mei Woo, An-mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan, Lindo and Waverly Jong, and Ying-ying and Lena St. Clair. The stories illuminate the multiplicity of experiences of Chinese women who are struggling to fashion a voice for themselves in a culture where women are conditioned to be silent. The stories are narrated by seven of the eight women in the group—four daughters and three mothers; one mother has recently died of a cerebral aneurysm. Jing-mei, nicknamed June, must be her mother's voice. The book is divided into four sections: Feathers from a Thousand Li Away, The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, American Translation, and Queen Mother of the Western Skies. Each chapter is prefaced with an introductory thematic tale or myth, all of which tend to stress the advice given by mothers.
Tan tells her mother's stories, the secret ones she began to tell after the death of Tan's father and brother in The Kitchen God's Wife. Patti Doten notes that Tan's mother told stories of her marriage to another man in China and of three daughters left behind when she came to the United States in 1949, a story that is in part remembered in The Joy Luck Club with An-mei's saga. In The Kitchen God's Wife, a mother and daughter, Winnie Louie and Pearl Louie Brandt, share their stories, revealing the secrets that hide mind and self—and history—and veil and mask their voices. Winnie Louie's tale is of the loss of her mother as a young girl, marriage to a sadistic man who sexually abused her, children stillborn or dying young, a patriarchal society that allowed little room for escape from domestic violence (especially against the backdrop of war), and her flight to America and the love of a "good man." Daughter Pearl Louie Brandt's secrets include her pain upon the loss of her father and the unpredictable disease, multiple sclerosis, that inhibits her body and her life.
Tan's characters are of necessity storytellers and even historians, empowered by relating what they know about their beginnings and the insufficiencies of their present lives. Storytelling—relating memories—allows for review, analysis, and sometimes understanding of ancestry and thus themselves. The storytelling, however, is inundated with ambivalences and contradictions which, as Suzanna Danuta Walters argues, often take the form of blame in mother-daughter relationships.
Voice balances—or imbalances—voice as Chinese American mothers and daughters narrate their sagas. Because both mothers and daughters share the telling, the biases of a singular point of view are alleviated. Marianne Hirsch writes, "The story of female development, both in fiction and theory, needs to be written in the voice of mothers as well as in that of daughters…. Only in combining both voices, in finding a double voice that would yield a multiple female consciousness, can we begin to envision ways to live 'life afresh.'" Tan's fiction presents ambivalences and contradictions in the complicated interactions of mothers' and daughters' voices.
Regardless of how much the daughters try to deny it, it is through their mothers that they find their voice, their mind, their selfhood. Voice finds its form in the process of interaction, even if that interaction is conflict. "Recognition by the daughter that her voice is not entirely her own" comes in time and with experiences (one of the five interconnecting themes referred to by Nan Bauer Maglin in The Literature of Matrilineage as a recurring theme in such literature). The experiences in review perhaps allow the daughters to know just how much they are dependent upon their mothers in their journey to voice. The mothers do not let them forget their own importance as the daughters attempt to achieve self-importance.
As Jing-mei "June" Woo tells her story and that of her deceased mother, the importance of the mother and daughter voices resonating, growing out of and being strengthened by each other, is apparent in her state of confusion and lack of direction and success. Perhaps her name is symbolic of her confusion: she is the only daughter with both a Chinese and an American name. As she recalls life with her mother, Jing-mei/June relates that she is constantly told by her mother, Suyuan Woo, that she does not try and therefore cannot achieve success. June's journey to voice and balance requires self-discovery—which must begin with knowing her mother. June has to use memories as a guide instead of her mother, whose tale she tells and whose saga she must complete. She must meet the ending to the tale of life in China and daughters left behind that her mother has told her over and over again, a story that she thought was a dark fairy tale.
The dark tale is of a previous life that includes a husband and daughters. Suyuan's first husband, an officer with the Kuomintang, takes her to Kweilin, a place she has dreamed of visiting. It has become a war refuge, no longer idyllic. Suyuan Woo and three other officers' wives start the Joy Luck Club to take their minds off the terrible smells of too many people in the city and the screams of humans and animals in pain. They attempt to raise their spirits with mah jong, jokes, and food.
Warned of impending danger, June's mother leaves the city with her two babies and her most valuable possessions. On the road to Chungking, she abandons first the wheelbarrow in which she has been carrying her babies and her goods, then more goods. Finally, her body weakened by fatigue and dysentery, she leaves the babies with jewelry to provide for them until they can be brought to her family. America does not make Suyuan forget the daughters she left as she fled. June Woo secretly views her mother's story as a fairy tale because the ending always changed. Perhaps herein lies the cause of their conflict: neither mother nor daughter listens to be heard, so each complains of not being heard. June Woo's disinterest and lack of knowledge of her mother's history exacerbate her own voicelessness, her lack of wholeness.
At a mah jong table where, appropriately, June takes her mother's place, she is requested by her mother's friends to go to China and meet the daughters of her mother. Thus her journey to voice continues and begins: it is a journey started at birth, but it is only now that she starts to recognize that she needs to know about her mother in order to achieve self-knowledge. She is to tell her sisters about their mother. The mothers' worst fears are realized when June asks what she can possibly tell her mother's daughters. The mothers see their daughters in June's response, daughters who get irritated when their mothers speak in Chinese or explain things in broken English.
Although it startles her mother's friends, June's question is a valid one for a daughter whose relationship with her mother was defined by distance that developed slowly and grew. According to June, she and her mother never understood each other. She says they translated each other's meanings: she seemed to hear less than what was said, and her mother heard more. It is a complaint leveled by mothers and daughters throughout The Joy Luck Club and later in The Kitchen God's Wife. Both women want to be heard, but do not listen to be heard. They must come to understand that a voice is not a voice unless there is someone there to hear it.
Jing-mei is no longer sitting at the mah jong table but is en route to China when she summons up memories of her mother that will empower her to tell the daughters her mother's story. In the title story and in the short story "A Pair of Tickets," she occupies her mother's place in the storytelling, much as she occupies it at the mah jong table, and she is concerned with the responsibilities left by her mother. In her own stories, "Two Kinds" and "Best Quality," she is concerned with her selves: Jing-mei and June—the Chinese and the American, her mother's expectations and her belief in herself. Her stories are quest stories, described by Susan Koppelman in Between Mothers and Daughters as "a daughter's search for understanding" of her mother and herself. As June makes soup for her father, she sees the stray cat that she thought her mother had killed, since she had not seen it for some time. She makes motions to scare the cat and then recognizes the motions as her mother's; the cat reacts to her just as he had to her mother. She is reminded that she is her mother's daughter.
According to Judith Arcana in Our Mothers' Daughters, "we hold the belief that mothers love their daughters by definition and we fear any signal from our own mother that this love, which includes acceptance, affection, admiration and approval, does not exist or is incomplete." It does not matter to Jing-mei that she is not her mother's only disappointment (she says her mother always seemed displeased with everyone). Jing-mei recalls that something was not in balance and that something always needed improving for her mother. The friends do not seem to care; with all of her faults, she is their friend. Perhaps it is a "daughter's" expectations that June uses to judge her mother. Suyuan tells the rebellious June that she can be the best at anything as she attempts to mold her child into a piano-playing prodigy. She tells June she's not the best because she's not trying. After the request by the Joy Luck Club mothers, June, in really listening to the voice of her mother as reserved in her memory, discovers that she might have been able to demonstrate ability had she tried: "for unlike my mother I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me." But she does not recognize that the "me" is the one who has made every attempt to escape development. The pendant her late mother gave her is symbolic. It was given to her as her life's importance. The latter part of the message is in Chinese, the voice of wisdom versus the provider of American circumstances.
In archetypal journeys, there is always a god or goddess who supports the "traveler" along his or her way. In The Kitchen God's Wife, Lady Sorrowfree is created by Winnie Louie, mother of Pearl, when the Kitchen God is determined by her to be an unfit god for her daughter's altar, inherited from an adopted aunt. The Kitchen God is unfit primarily because he became a god despite his mistreatment of his good wife. A porcelain figurine is taken from a storeroom where she has been placed as a "mistake" and is made into a goddess for Pearl, Lady Sorrowfree. Note Winnie's celebration of Lady Sorrowfree:
I heard she once had many hardships in her life…. But her smile is genuine, wise, and innocent at the same time. And her hand, see how she just raised it. That means she is about to speak, or maybe she is telling you to speak. She is ready to listen. She understands English. You should tell her everything…. But sometimes, when you are afraid, you can talk to her. She will listen. She will wash away everything sad with her tears. She will use her stick to chase away everything bad. See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world.
Perhaps Tan's mothers want to be like Lady Sorrowfree; they are in a sense goddesses whose altars their daughters are invited to come to for nurturance, compassion, empathy, inspiration, and direction. They are driven by the feeling of need to support those daughters, to give to them "the swan" brought from China—symbolic of their her-stories and wisdom, and the advantages of America, like the mother in the preface to the first round of stories. In the tale, all that is left of the mother's swan that she has brought from China after it is taken by customs officials is one feather; the mother wants to tell her daughter that the feather may look worthless, but it comes from her homeland and carries with it all good intentions. But she waits to tell her in perfect English, in essence keeping secrets. The mothers think that everything is possible for the daughters if the mothers will it. The daughters may come willingly to the altar or may rebelliously deny the sagacity of their mothers.
The mothers struggle to tell their daughters the consequences of not listening to them. The mother in the tale prefacing the section "Twenty-six Malignant Gates" tells her daughter not to ride her bike around the corner where she cannot see her because she will fall down and cry. The daughter questions how her mother knows, and she tells her that it is written in the book Twenty-six Malignant Gates that evil things can happen when a child goes outside the protection of the house. The daughter wants evidence, but her mother tells her that it is written in Chinese. When her mother does not tell her all twenty-six of the Malignant Gates, the girl runs out of the house and around the corner and falls, the consequence of not listening to her mother. Rebellion causes conflict—a conflict Lady Sorrowfree would not have to endure, June Woo and Waverly Jong seem to be daughters who thrive on the conflict that results from rebellion and sometimes even the need to win their mother's approval. June trudges off every day to piano lessons taught by an old man who is hard of hearing. Defying her mother, she learns very little, as she reveals at a piano recital to which her mother has invited all of her friends. June notes the blank look, on her mother's face that says she has lost everything. Waverly wins at chess, which pleases her mother, but out of defiance she stops playing until she discovers that she really enjoyed her mother's approval. As an adult she wants her mother to approve of the man who will be her second husband; mother and daughter assume the positions of chess players.
Tan's mothers frequently preach that children are to make their mothers proud so that they can brag about them to other mothers. The mothers engage in fierce competition with each other. Suyuan Woo brags about her daughter even after June's poorly performed piano recital. All of the mothers find fault with their daughters, but this is something revealed to the daughters, not to the community.
Much as Lindo Jong credits herself with daughter Waverly's ability to play chess, she blames herself for Waverly's faults as a person and assumes failures in raising her daughter: "It is my fault she is this way—selfish. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these things do not mix?" Waverly knows how American circumstances work, but Lindo can't teach her about Chinese character: "How to obey parents and listen to your mother's mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities…. Why Chinese thinking is best." What she gets is a daughter who wants to be Chinese because it is fashionable, a daughter who likes to speak back and question what she says, and a daughter to whom promises mean nothing. Nonetheless, she is a daughter of whom Lindo is proud.
Lindo Jong is cunning, shrewd, resourceful: Waverly Jong is her mother's daughter. Waverly manages to irritate her mother when she resists parental guidance. Judith Arcana posits that "some daughters spend all or most of their energy trying futilely to be as different from their mothers as possible in behavior, appearance, relations with friends, lovers, children, husbands." Waverly is a strategist in getting her brother to teach her to play chess, in winning at chess, in gaining her mother's forgiveness when she is rude and getting her mother's acceptance of the man she plans to marry. Lindo proudly reminds Waverly that she has inherited her ability to win from her.
In literature that focuses on mother/daughter relationships, feminists see "context—historical time and social and cultural group" as important. Lindo relates in "The Red Candle" that she once sacrificed her life to keep her parents' promise; she married as arranged. Chinese tradition permits Lindo's parents to give her to Huang Tai for her son—to determine her fate—but Lindo takes control of her destiny. On the day of her wedding, as she prepares for the ceremony, she schemes her way out of the planned marriage and into America, where "nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives to you."
It takes determination to achieve voice and selfhood, to take control of one's mind and one's life from another, making one's self heard, overcoming silence. Lindo does not resign herself to her circumstances in China. Waverly reveals that she learns some of her strategies from her mother: "I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games." Therein lies Lindo's contribution to her daughter's voice.
Lindo uses the same brand of ingenuity to play a life chess game with and to teach her daughter. Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born: "Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are there for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement." Lindo has to contend with a headstrong daughter: "'Finish your coffee,' I told her yesterday. 'Don't throw your blessings away.' 'Don't be old-fashioned, Ma,' she told me, finishing her coffee down the sink. 'I'm my own person.' And I think, how can she be her own person? When did I give her up?"
Waverly is champion of the chess game, but she is no match for her mother in a life chess game. She knows her chances of winning in a contest against her mother, who taught her to be strong like the wind. Waverly learns during the "chess years" that her mother was a champion strategist. Though she is a tax attorney able to bully even the Internal Revenue Service, she fears the wrath of her mother if she is told to mind her business: "Well, I don't know if it's explicitly stated in the law, but you can't ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up. You could be charged as an accessory to your own murder." What Waverly perceives as an impending battle for her mother's approval of her fiancé is nothing more than the opportunity for her mother and her to communicate with each other. She strategically plans to win her mother's approval of her fiancé, Rick, just as if she is playing a game of chess.
She is afraid to tell her mother that they are going to be married because she is afraid that her mother will not approve. The conversation ends with her recognition that her mother also needs to be heard and with her mother's unstated approval of her fiancé. Waverly Jong recognizes her mother's strategies in their verbal jousts, but she also recognizes that, just like her, her mother is in search of something. What she sees is an old woman waiting to be invited into her daughter's life. Like the other mothers, Lindo views herself as standing outside her daughter's life—a most undesirable place.
Sometimes Tan's mothers find it necessary to intrude in order to teach the daughters to save themselves; they criticize, manage, and manipulate with an iron fist. An-mei Hsu and Ying-ying St. Clair play this role. "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time," says Rose Hsu during her first story, "Without Wood." "She said that I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people. She knew this because she had almost become this way." Suyuan Woo tells June Woo that such weaknesses are present in the mother, An-mei Hsu: "Each person is made of five elements…. Too little wood and you bend too quickly to listen to other people's ideas, unable to stand on your own. This was like my Auntie An-mei." Rose's mother tells her that she must stand tall and listen to her mother standing next to her. If she bends to listen to strangers, she'll grow weak and be destroyed. Rose Hsu is in the process of divorce from a husband who has labeled her indecisive and useless as a marriage partner. She is guilty of allowing her husband to mold her. He does not want her to be a partner in family decisions until he makes a mistake in his practice as a plastic surgeon. Then he complains that she is unable to make decisions: he is dissatisfied with his creation. Finding it difficult to accept divorce, she confusedly runs to her friends and a psychiatrist seeking guidance.
Over and over again her mother tells her to count on a mother because a mother is best and knows what is inside of her daughter. "A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you heimongmong." The psychiatrist leaves her confused, as her mother predicts. She becomes even more confused as she tells each of her friends and her psychiatrist a different story. Her mother advises her to stand up to her husband, to speak up. She assumes the role of Lady Sorrowfree. When Rose does as her mother advises, she notices that her husband seems scared and confused. She stands up to him and forces him to retreat. She is her mother's daughter. She listens to her mother and finds her voice—her self.
Like the other mothers, An-mei demonstrates some of the qualities of "Lady Sorrowfree." An-mei is concerned that her daughter sees herself as having no options. A psychologist's explanation is "to the extent that women perceive themselves as having no choice, they correspondingly excuse themselves from the responsibility that decision entails." An-mei was "raised the Chinese way": "I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness." She uses the tale of the magpies to indicate that one can either make the choice to be in charge of one's life or continue to let others be in control. For thousands of years magpies came to the fields of a group of peasants just after they had sown their seeds and watered them with their tears. The magpies ate the seeds and drank the tears. Then one day the peasants decided to end their suffering and silence. They clapped their hands and banged sticks together, making noise that startled and confused the magpies. This continued for days until the magpies died of hunger and exhaustion from waiting for the noise to stop so that they could land and eat. The sounds from the hands and sticks were their voices. Her daughter should face her tormentor.
An-mei tells stories of her pain, a pain she does not wish her daughter to endure. Memory is, in part, voices calling out to her, reminding her of what she has endured and of a relationship wished for: "it was her voice that confused me," "a familiar sound from a forgotten dream," "she cried with a wailing voice," "voices praising," "voices murmuring." "my mother's voice went away." The voices of her mothers confused her. She was a young girl in need of a mother's clear voice that would strengthen her circumstances and her context. The voices remind her, in "Scar," of wounds that heal but leave their imprint and of the importance of taking control out of the hands of those who have the ability to devour their victims, as in the story "Magpies." A scar resulting from a severe burn from a pot of boiling soup reminds her of when her mother was considered a ghost: her mother was dead to her family because she became a rich merchant's concubine. With time the scar "became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain." It is also the way of persons attempting to assimilate—the wounds of getting to America, the wounds of hyphenation, close in on themselves and then it is difficult to see where it all began.
An-mei remembers the scar and the pain when her mother returns to her grandmother Poppo's deathbed. Upon the death of Poppo, she leaves with her mother, who shortly afterward commits suicide. Poppo tells An-mei that when a person loses face, it's like dropping a necklace down a well: the only way you can get it back is to jump in after it. From her mother An-mei learns that tears cannot wash away sorrows; they only feed someone else's joy. Her mother tells her to swallow her own tears.
An-mei knows strength and she knows forgetting, Perhaps that is why her daughter tells the story of her loss. It is Rose Hsu who tells the story of her brother's drowning and her mother's faith that he would be found. She refuses to believe that he is dead; without any driving lessons, she steers the car to the ocean side to search once more for him. After her son Bing's death, An-mei places the Bible that she has always carried to the First Chinese Baptist Church under a short table leg as a way of correcting the imbalances of life. She gives her daughter advice on how to correct imbalances in her life. The tale prefacing the section "Queen of the Western Skies" is also a fitting message for Rose Hsu. A woman playing with her granddaughter wonders at the baby's happiness and laughter, remembering that she was once carefree before she shed her innocence and began to look critically and suspiciously at everything. She asks the babbling child if it is Syi Wang, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, come back to provide her with some answers: "Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever."
Like all the other daughters, Lena must recognize and respect the characteristics of Lady Sorrowfree that are inherent in her mother, Ying-ying. Ying-ying describes her daughter as being devoid of wisdom. Lena laughs at her mother when she says "arty-tecky" (architecture) to her sister-in-law. Ying-ying admits that she should have slapped Lena more as a child for disrespect. Though Ying-ying serves as Lena's goddess, Lena initially does not view her mother as capable of advice on balance. Ying-ying's telling of her story is very important to seeing her in a true mothering role; her daughter's first story makes one think that the mother is mentally unbalanced.
Evelyn Reed in Woman's Evolution writes: "A mother's victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates her daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. Like the traditional foot-bound Chinese woman, she passes on her affliction. The mother's self-hatred and low expectations are binding rags for the psyche of the daughter." Ying-ying, whose name means "Clear Reflection," becomes a ghost. As a young girl she liked to unbraid her hair and wear it loose. She recalls a scolding from her mother, who once told her that she was like the lady ghosts at the bottom of the lake. Her daughter is unaware of her mother's previous marriage to a man in China twenty years before Lena's birth. Ying-ying falls in love with him because he strokes her cheek and tells her that she has tiger eyes, that they gather fire in the day and shine golden at night. Her husband opts to run off with another woman during her pregnancy, and she aborts the baby because she has come to hate her husband with a passion. Ying-ying tells Lena that she was born a tiger in a year when babies were dying and because she was strong she survived. After ten years of reclusive living with cousins in the country, she goes to the city to live and work. There she meets Lena's father, an American she marries after being courted for four years, and continues to be a ghost. Ying-ying says that she willingly gave up her spirit.
In Ying-ying's first story, "The Moon Lady," when she sees her daughter lounging by the pool she realizes that they are lost, invisible creatures. Neither, at this point, recognizes the importance of "listening harder to the silence beneath their voices." Their being lost reminds her of the family outing to Tai Lake as a child, when she falls into the lake, is rescued, and is put on shore only to discover that the moon lady she has been anxiously awaiting to tell her secret wish is male. The experience is so traumatic that she forgets her wish. Now that she is old and is watching her daughter, she remembers that she had wished to be found. And now she wishes for her daughter to be found—to find herself.
Lena, as a young girl, sees her mother being devoured by her fears until she becomes a ghost. Ying-ying believes that she is already a ghost. She does not want her daughter to become a ghost like her, "an unseen spirit." Ying-ying begins life carefree. She is loved almost to a fault by her mother and her nursemaid, Amah. She is spoiled by her family's riches and wasteful. When she unties her hair and floats through the house, her mother tells her that she resembles the "lady ghosts … ladies who drowned in shame and floated in living people's houses with their hair undone to show everlasting despair." She knows despair when the north wind that she thinks has blown her luck chills her heart by blowing her first husband past her to other women.
Lena, Ying-ying's daughter, is a partner in a marriage where she has a voice in the rules; but when the game is played, she loses her turn many times. Carolyn See argues that "in the name of feminism and right thinking, this husband is taking Lena for every cent she's got, but she's so demoralized, so 'out of balance' in the Chinese sense, that she can't do a thing about it." In the introductory anecdote to the section "American Translation," a mother warns her daughter that she cannot put mirrors at the foot of the bed because all of her marriage happiness will bounce back and tumble the opposite way. Her mother takes from her bag a mirror that she plans to give the daughter as a wedding gift so that it faces the other mirror. The mirrors then reflect the happiness of the daughter. Lena's mother, as does Rose's mother, provides her with the mirror to balance her happiness; the mirror is a mother's advice or wisdom. It is Lena's mother's credo that a woman is out of balance if something goes against her nature. She does not want to be like her mother, but her mother foresees that she too will become a ghost; her husband will transform her according to his desires. Ying-ying recalls that she became "Betty" and was given a new date of birth by a husband who never learned to speak her language. Her review of her own story makes her know that she must influence her daughter's "story" that is in the making. Lena sees herself with her husband in the midst of problems so deep that she can't see where the bottom is. In the guise of a functional relationship is a dysfunctional one. Her mother predicts that the house will break into pieces. When a too-large vase on a too-weak table crashes to the floor, Lena admits that she knew it would happen. Her mother asks her why she did not take steps to keep the house from falling, meaning her marriage as well as the vase.
The goddess role becomes all important to Ying-ying as she becomes more determined to prevent her daughter from becoming a ghost. She fights the daughter that she has raised, "watching from another shore" and "accept[ing] her American ways." After she uses the sharp pain of what she knows to "penetrate [her] daughter's tough skin and cut the tiger spirit loose," she waits for her to come into the room, like a tiger waiting between the trees, and pounces. Ying-ying wins the fight and gives her daughter her spirit, "because this is the way a mother loves her daughter." Lady Sorrowfree helps her "charge" achieve voice.
From the daughter with too much water, to the mother and daughter with too much wood, to the tiger ghosts and just plain ghosts, to the chess queens, Tan's women in The Joy Luck Club find themselves capable of forging their own identities, moving beyond passivity to assertiveness—speaking up. They are a piece of the portrait that represents Amy Tan's family history—her own story included; they are, in composite, her family's secrets and tragedies. Tan is unlike some Asian American writers who have had to try to piece together and sort out the meaning of the past from shreds of stories overheard or faded photographs. As in her stories, her mother tells her the stories and explains the photographs. Bell Gale Chevigny writes that "women writing about other women will symbolically reflect their internalized relations with their mothers and in some measure re-create them." From Tan's own accounts, her interaction with her mother is reflected in her fiction.
Tan's women with their American husbands attempt often without knowing it to balance East and West, the past and the future of their lives. A level of transcendence is apparent in the storytelling, as it is in The Kitchen God's Wife. Mothers and daughters must gain from the storytelling in order to have healthy relationships with each other.
In The Kitchen God's Wife, Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl Louie Brandt are both keepers of secrets that accent the distance that characterizes their relationship. Pearl thinks after a trip to her mother's home: "Mile after mile, all of it familiar, yet not this distance that separates us, me from my mother." She is unsure of how this distance was created. Winnie says of their relationship: "That is how she is. That is how I am. Always careful to be polite, always trying not to bump into each other, just like strangers." When their secrets begin to weigh down their friends who have known them for years, who threaten to tell each of the other's secrets, Winnie Louie decides that it is time for revelation. The process of the revelation is ritual: "recitation of the relationship between mother and daughter," "assessment of the relationship," and "the projection of the future into the relationship." At the same time revelation is a journey to voice, the voice that they must have with each other. Again, voice is a metaphor for speaking up, being heard, listening to be heard. No longer will stories begin as Pearl's does: "Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument." That they argue or are in conflict is not problematic; it is the "talks to" that should be replaced with "talks with." As much as Pearl needs to know her mother's secrets, Winnie Louie needs to tell them in order to build a relationship that is nurturing for both mother and daughter.
Pearl's secret is multiple sclerosis. At first she does not tell her mother because she fears her mother's theories on her illness. What becomes her secret is the anger she feels toward her father, the inner turmoil that began with his dying and death. Sometimes the mother's voice drowns the voice of the daughter as she attempts to control or explain every aspect of the daughter's existence. "If I had not lost my mother so young, I would not have listened to Old Aunt," says Winnie Louie as she begins her story. These might also be the words of her daughter, though Pearl's loss of mother was not a physical loss. The opportunity for the resonating of mother and daughter voices seems to be the difference between balance and imbalance. American circumstances are to be blamed for the distance; the need to keep secrets grows out of the perceived necessity of assimilation and clean slates. Because her mother was not there, Winnie "listened to Old Aunt." Winnie Louie's dark secret begins with her mother, who disappeared without telling her why; she still awaits some appearance by her mother to explain. Her mother's story is also hers: an arranged marriage—in her mother's case, to curb her rebelliousness; realization that she has a lesser place in marriage than purported; and a daughter as the single lasting joy derived from the marriage. The difference is that Winnie's mother escaped, to be heard from no more.
Winnie's family abides by all of the customs in giving her hand in marriage to Wen Fu: "Getting married in those days was like buying real estate. Here you see a house you want to live in, you find a real estate agent. Back in China, you saw a rich family with a daughter, you found a go-between who knew how to make a good business deal." Winnie tells her daughter, "If asked how I felt when they told me I would marry Wen Fu, I can only say this: It was like being told I had won a big prize. And it was also like being told my head was going to be chopped off. Something between those two feelings." Winnie experiences very little mercy in her marriage to the monstrous Wen Fu.
Wen Fu serves as an officer in the Chinese army, so during World War II they move about China with other air force officers and their wives. Throughout the marriage, Winnie knows abuse and witnesses the death of her babies. She tries to free herself from the tyranny of the marriage, but her husband enjoys abusing her too much to let her go. Her story is a long one, a lifetime of sorrow, death, marriage, imprisonment, lost children, lost friends and family. Jimmie Louie saves her life by helping her to escape Wen Fu and to come to the United States. She loves Jimmie Louie and marries him. The darkest part of her secret she reveals to Pearl almost nonchalantly: Pearl is the daughter of the tyrant Wen Fu.
The daughter asks her mother: "Tell me again … why you had to keep it a secret." The mother answers: "Because then you would know…. You would know how weak I was. You would think I was a bad mother." Winnie's actions and response are not unexpected. She is every mother who wants her daughter to think of her as having lived a blemish-free existence. She is every mother who forgets that her daughter is living life and knows blemishes. Secrets revealed, the women begin to talk. No longer does Winnie have to think that the year her second husband, Jimmie Louie, died was "when everyone stopped listening to me." Pearl knows her mother's story and can respect her more, not less, for her endurance. She is then able to see a woman molded by her experiences and her secrets—a woman who has lived with two lives. With the tiptoeing around ended, the distance dissipates. By sharing their secrets, they help each other to achieve voice. The gift of Lady Sorrowfree is symbolic of their bonding; this goddess has all of the characteristics of the nurturing, caring, listening mother. Her imperfections lie in her creation; experiences make her. She has none of the characteristics of the Kitchen God.
The story of the Kitchen God and his wife angers Winnie Louie; she looks at the god as a bad man who was rewarded for admitting that he was a bad man. As the story goes, a wealthy farmer, Zhang, who had a good wife who saw to it that his farm flourished, brought home a pretty woman and made his wife cook for her. The pretty woman ran his wife off without any objection from the farmer. She helped him use up all of his riches foolishly and left him a beggar. He was discovered hungry and suffering by a servant who took him home to care for him. When he saw his wife, whose home it was, he attempted to hide in the kitchen fireplace; his wife could not save him. The Jade Emperor, because Zhang admitted he was wrong, made him Kitchen God with the duty to watch over people's behavior. Winnie tells Pearl that people give generously to the Kitchen God to keep him happy in the hopes that he will give a good report to the Jade Emperor. Winnie thinks that he is not the god for her daughter. How can one trust a god who would cheat on his wife? How can he be a good judge of behavior? The wife is the good one. She finds another god for her daughter's altar, Lady Sorrowfree. After all, she has already given her a father.
Even as Winnie tells her story, one senses that the women are unaware of the strength of the bond between them that partly originates in the biological connection and partly in their womanness. Storytelling/revealing secrets gives both of them the opportunity for review; Winnie Louie tells Pearl that she has taught her lessons with love, that she has combined all of the love that she had for the three she lost during the war and all of those that she did not allow to be born and has given it to Pearl. She speaks of her desire "to believe in something good," her lost hope and innocence: "So I let those other babies die. In my heart I was being kind…. I was a young woman then. I had no more hope left, no trust, no innocence." In telling her story, she does not ask for sympathy or forgiveness; she simply wants to be free of the pain that "comes from keeping everything inside, waiting until it is too late."
Perhaps this goddess, Lady Sorrowfree, to whom they burn incense will cause them never to forget the importance of voice and listening. On the heels of listening there is balance as both Winnie and Pearl tell their secrets and are brought closer by them. East and West, mother and daughter, are bonded for the better. Arcana notes that "mother/daughter sisterhood is the consciousness we must seek to make this basic woman bond loving and fruitful, powerful and deep…." It ensures that women do not smother each other and squelch the voice of the other or cause each other to retreat into silence.
In exploring the problems of mother-daughter voices in relationships, Tan unveils some of the problems of biculturalism—of Chinese ancestry and American circumstances. She presents daughters who do not know their mothers' "importance" and thus cannot know their own; most seem never to have been told or even cared to hear their mothers' history. Until they do, they can never achieve voice. They assimilate; they marry American men and put on American faces. They adapt. In the meantime, their mothers sit like Lady Sorrowfree on her altar, waiting to listen. The daughters' journeys to voice are completed only after they come to the altars of their Chinese mothers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 9, No. 390, p. 38.
[In the following review, Pavey considers Tan's unifying device in The Hundred Secret Senses unconvincing, but asserts that, "this does not detract from the great appeal of her character, Kwan (who combines saintly good humour with wit, practicality and guile), or the enjoyable liveliness of her style."]
Kwan, the co-heroine of The Hundred Secret Senses, has yin eyes, second sight. At least she thinks she has, which is why she talks of relating to ghosts as an everyday experience. There is nothing fey about Kwan. Having spent the first 18 years of her life in rural China, she takes uncomplainingly to being uprooted to join her dead father's new family in San Francisco. But how is her much younger half-sister to accommodate Kwan's hotline to the past? From the first sentence of this novel, Amy Tan sets up a tension between Kwan's Chinese-born certainties and the distancing ironies of Olivia's San Francisco inheritance.
To begin with, Olivia, or Libby-ah, has a firm grip on the narration, which begins when she is already well over 30 and married to Simon. There seems little chance of her, or the reader, getting caught by Kwan's fancies. It is not long, however, before Kwan muscles in. She takes us back to a former life, in 1864, when she was a servant to an English missionary, Miss Banner, at the time of the Taiping rebellion. For the reader this is initially fine, a good story into which we dip. But for Libby-ah herself, Kwan's stories have always represented a strain—a long childhood of traction away from her own reality, back to the culture her father left.
Not only does Olivia have Kwan's past, or pasts, to put into the balance of her brittle, first-generation American life. There is another ghost. Before meeting her, Simon was in love with a girl who died young. Elsie, adopted by Mormon parents, had been convinced she was really Elza, of Polish-Jewish descent. Her unquiet presence has always disturbed Olivia's marriage.
By halfway through the novel, when Kwan, Olivia and Simon set off for China, there are already more than enough spirits clamouring to be put to rest. At this point, the strain Libby-ah has always felt about Kwan's unusual gifts starts to affect the reader. Apprehensions of a detour to Auschwitz prove unfounded, but it becomes clear that we too are being asked to accept the possibility that Kwan was indeed the servant girl and Olivia was Miss Banner. Like Kwan in the caves of Guilin, the last part of this story gets a little lost before returning to a favourite theme of Tan's: hope for the future, embodied in the relationship between mother and daughter.
As a device for meshing several different periods into one fiction, yin eyes may not be as convincing as the straightforward use Tan made of memory in The Kitchen God's Wife. But this does not detract from the great appeal of her character, Kwan (who combines saintly good humour with wit, practicality and guile), or the enjoyable liveliness of her style.
In a thoughtful book about being an orphan, the American writer Eileen Simpson observes that most Americans are more or less orphans, immigrants missing their past. The persistent themes of Amy Tan's novels seem to bear that out. In this one alone there are at least six orphans, and hardly anyone leading a settled, secure life.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127
Greenlaw, Lavinia. A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in Times Literary Supplement 4846 (16 February 1996): 22.
A review in which Greenlaw concludes that "The Hundred Secret Senses is fast-paced but ultimately aimless."
Houston, Marsha. "Women and the Language of Race and Ethnicity." Women and Language XVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-7.
Houston traces the importance of multiple languages in Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.