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."