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Tan's two best-known novels, The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), both showcase the complex and often difficult relationships between mothers and daughters—specifically immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Focusing on the nuances of culture and language—issues she discusses explicitly in her essay "Mother Tongue" (1990)—Tan uses humor and traditional oral conventions to explore generational disconnections among women.
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATIONTan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, to parents who had immigrated to the United States from China separately in 1947 and 1949. Tan was strongly influenced by her mother's storytelling about the family's Chinese heritage, and she later used oral storytelling as a narrative device in her fiction. Tan's older brother and her father both died of brain cancer in the late 1960s. After their deaths, her mother moved the family to Europe to escape what she believed to be the evil of their "diseased house" in California. The family settled first in the Netherlands and then in Montreux, Switzerland. Tan finished high school at the College Monte Rosa Internationale, where she was considered an outsider among the children of ambassadors, tycoons, and princes. Filled with anger and resentment at the loss of her father and brother, Tan rebelled and fell in with a group of drug-dealing social outcasts; she was arrested when she was sixteen years old. She later planned to elope to Australia with a mental patient who claimed to be a German army deserter. Shortly thereafter, her mother moved the family back to the United States.
Tan entered Linfield College in Oregon, where she intended to study medicine but decided to pursue a degree in English instead, much to her mother's dismay. She transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1973. The following year she received a master's degree in English and linguistics. Tan enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, but withdrew from the program in 1976 after the murder of her best friend and a subsequent relapse into a period of anger and depression. 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 in the 1980s.
Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, brought her acclaim, and rose quickly on The New York Times bestseller list. She followed her initial success with another critically and popularly admired novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. Her other novels include The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001). Tan has also written a collection of essays and several children's works.
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. An important theme in the novel is the impact of past generations on the present. The structure, in which the daughters' eight stories are interwoven with 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 also concerns mother-daughter relationships, but focuses on only one family and the tension between a woman named Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl, who have persistently kept secrets from each other. Once they begin to reveal their secrets, they establish a connection. In The Hundred Secret Senses Tan delineates 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 first marriage. Kwan's mystical belief in the existence of ghosts and previous...
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lives clashes with Olivia's pragmatic attachment to the concrete and real. InThe Bonesetter's Daughter an American-born Chinese woman named Ruth finds two packets of writings in Chinese calligraphy, and learns that they are the memoirs of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and has written down events of her life before her disease renders her incapable of doing so. Ruth works with a translator to decipher her mother's writing, and discovers details concerning her mother's past in the remote mountains of China.
Tan's work has achieved both popular and critical acclaim, and appeals to her largely female readership because of her ability to illustrate the common breakdown in communication that occurs between women of different generations. Critics have praised her complex narratives and storytelling as well as her poetic use of language in the evocation of a woman's search for identity within languages and stories that are often not of her own making.
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SOURCE: Chen, Victoria. "Chinese American Women, Language, and Moving Subjectivity." Women and Language 13, no. 1 (31 March 1995): 3-9.
In the following essay, Chen discusses the effects on Chinese American women of "dual cultural enmeshment," particularly where language is concerned, as it is explored in works by Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.
It was not until the 1970s that Asian American literature became recognized as a separate canon and a "new tradition" of writing. While this "new" form of expression created a new political consciousness and identity, the images and stories that abound in pioneer literature such as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and China Men are paradoxically located in "recovered" ethnic history (Lim, 1993, p. 573). More recently, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club also takes the reader through a journey back to a specific set of ethnic memories as the mothers in the stories interweave their experiences struggling for survival and dignity in China and for coherence and hope in America. Part of the reason for the celebration of Asian American women's literature is that it provides an alternative way to think about issues such as language, subjectivity, cultural voice, and ethnic/gender identity.
For Chinese American women such as Kingston, Tan, and the female characters in The Joy Luck Club, speaking in a double voice and living in a bicultural world characterize their dual cultural enmeshment. While striving to maintain a relationship with their Chinese immigrant parents, the Chinese American daughters also live in a society where one is expected to speak in a "standard" form of English and to "succeed" in the middle class Euro-American way. For Kingston and Tan, writing about their immigrant mothers' neglected pasts and their own tumultuous presents becomes a powerful way to create their own identities as Chinese Americans and to confront the dilemma of living biculturally in a society that insists on a homogeneous identity. If a language indeed is instrinsically connected with a form of life, and speaking and writing in a given language necessitates one to participate in that cultural world, how then do these Chinese American women authors position themselves in linguistic/cultural borderlands through the use of language? What are some forms of language and life that make their storytelling possible and intelligible? How do different languages function in their own lives and in their storytelling? How do they use languages to interweave and mediate their, multiple identities? This essay attempts to address some of these issues. I will draw upon essays written about Kingston and Tan as well as narratives from The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior in my discussion.
Amy Tan (1991) in her essay "Mother Tongue" discusses that as someone who has always loved language, she celebrates using "all the Englishes I grew up with" (p. 196) in her living and her writing. The English that she hears from her mother, despite it's "imperfection," has become their "language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with" (p. 197). There is a discrepancy, both linguistically and culturally, between the "standard" English that she learns from school and uses in her professional world and the "simple" and "broken" English (p. 201) that is used in her interaction with her mother. However, as Tan points out, speaking her mother's version of English gives her bicultural insight and strength, and she sees the beauty and wisdom in her mother's language: "Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery" (p. 198); "I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts" (p. 202). Kingston also grew up in two languages, her family's Chinese dialect and the public American English in which she was educated. The Woman Warrior reveals the disjunction that Kingston experienced in moving between these two languages. While her mother marked her growing up with stories of nameless Chinese women, multiple cultural ghosts, Kingston wrote, "To make my waking life American-normal … I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories" (Kingston, 1977, p. 102). The entire book is devoted to Kingston's ongoing struggle to enter the Chinese cultural world composed of impossible stories and to figure out what it meant to be a Chinese American woman in this society.
Tan's The Joy Luck Club is a segmented novel, set in San Francisco in the 1980s, powerfully blending the voices of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. The book opens with story of a swan and a woman sailing across an ocean toward America saying, "In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there … nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning …" (Tan, 1989, p. 17). The tale symbolizes not only the geographic separation from the woman's motherland but also the alienation later felt by both the mother and daughter in America. The woman's desire for her daughter to speak perfect American English foregrounds the problems and difficulties of communicating and translating between the different languages that they speak. The American dream eventually eludes the immigrant woman beyond her best intentions. Mastering this imaginary perfect English for the American-born daughter turns out not to be a simple ticket to American success. This linguistic competency, ironically, signifies her departure from her mother (and her motherland), deepening the chasm between generations and cultures. Moreover, learning to speak perfect American English may also entail the complex journey of "successful" acculturation which often masks the racism and sexism that belie the American dream.
Although Tan's essay celebrates the two Englishes with which she grew up, and that dual languages and cultures can indeed enrich and enlighten one's life, coherence and double voice do not always come without personal struggle and emotional trauma. As we enter the hyphenated world of the "Chinese-American" women in The Joy Luck Club, much of the mothers' and daughters' conversations seem to be focused on debating, negotiating, and wandering between the two disparate cultural logics. Lindo shared her daughter's concern that she cannot say whether her Chinese or American face is better: "I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? if you show one, you must always sacrifice the other" (Tan, 1989, p. 266). Tan (1990), in her essay "The Language of Discretion," pointed out a special kind of double bind attached to knowing two languages and vehemently rebelled against seeing cultural descriptions as dichotomous categories: "It's dangerous business, this sorting out of language and behavior. Which one is English? Which is Chinese?… Reject them all!" (p. 28). "Having listened to both Chinese and English, I also tend to be suspicious of any comparisons between Chinese and English languages." Tan argued: "Typically, one language—that of the person doing the comparing—is often used as the standard, the benchmark for a logical form of explanation" (p. 29).
Speaking a language is inherently political. In the case of Chinese American women, while straddling and juggling along the fault lines of gender and culture, the truth is that the two Englishes that Tan cherished are not valued equally in this society. Despite the creative use of imaginative metaphors in her English, as Tan humorously presented, her mother would never score high in a standard English test that insists on one correct way of linguistic construction. It is no secret that in much of our social discourse and communication practice, the myth persists that what counts as the "normal" standards and criteria for comparing and discussing cultural difference is still the mainstream Eurocentric mode of thinking and doing. In her writing about Asian American women's experience of racism, Shah (1994) said, "For me, the experience of 'otherness,' and formative discrimination in my life, has resulted from culturally different people thinking they were culturally central; thinking that my house smelled funny, that my mother talked weird, that my habits were strange. They were normal; I wasn't" (pp. 151-152). Similarly, in a discussion of the difficult dialogues between black and white women, Houston (1994) points out that when a white woman says "We're all alike," she usually means "I can see how you, a black woman, are like me, a white woman." She does not mean "I can see how I am like you." In other words, whether explicitly or implicitly, "just people" often means "just white people" (p. 137).
Language and identity are always positioned within a hierarchical power structure in which the Chinese American immigrants' form of life has never been granted a status equal to that of their European counterparts in the history of this country. It is one thing to embrace the philosophical wisdom of "having the best of both worlds" but another to confront the real ongoing struggle between languages and identities that most Chinese Americans experience. Bicultural identity cannot be reduced to two neutral, pristine, and equal linguistic domains that one simply picks and chooses to participate in without personal, relational, social, and political consequences. We need to understand the tension and conflict between generations of Chinese American women within the ideological cultural context of racial and sexual inequality and their ongoing contestation of their positions in it.
Through Tan's storytelling in The Joy Luck Club, the meaning of "perfect English" is transformed from the mother's naive American dream to the daughter's awakening bicultural disillusionment, as the daughter June laments: "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" (Tan, 1989, pp. 33-34), and later, "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" (p. 37). The lack of shared languages and cultural logics remains a central theme throughout all the narratives in Tan's book. This absence transcends the simple linguistic dichotomies or cultural misunderstandings; both mothers and daughters are negotiating their relational and social positions and contesting their identities as Chinese American women in the languages that can enhance or undermine their power, legitimacy, and voice.
In a similar vein, in The Woman Warrior Kingston describes "abnormal" discourse as constructed and experienced by both parents and children in her family. The children in Kingston's family often spoke in English language which their parents "didn't seem to hear"; "the Chinese can't hear American at all; the language is too soft and Western music unhearable" (Kingston, 1977, p. 199). Exasperated and bemused by their Chinese aunt's behavior, the children told each other that "Chinese people are very weird" (p. 183). Angry at the fact that the Chinese were unable, unwilling, or did not see the need to explain things to the children, Kingston writes, "I thought talking and not talking made the differences between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves" (p. 216). While the Chinese American children were frustrated by the impenetrable wisdom spoken or unspoken in the Chinese language, the parents teased the children about the way they spoke in the "ghosts" language and of the craziness and absurdity of doing things in American ways. Insane and absurd in what language(s) and from what cultural perspective(s)? Who has the authority to tell Kingston that Chinese girls are worthless growing up in a society that is supposed to be more egalitarian and liberating for women? What constitutes "normal" and "abnormal" discourse for Chinese American women? What price do they have to pay for being a full participant in either or both cultural worlds?
One intriguing feature in learning to speak and hear incommensurate languages is the process of adjudicating conflicting voices. In Chinese American families, communication can often be characterized by a lack of a shared universe of discourse or a set of mutually intelligible vocabularies. For Kingston, even attempting to engage in a meaningful dialogue with her parents about her confusions and their conflicts became a problem, as she told us, "I don't know any Chinese I can ask without getting myself scolded or teased" (Kingston, 1977, p. 238). Silent and silenced, Kingston was angry at the sexist trivialization of her intellectual interests and academic accomplishment. She writes, "I've stopped checking 'bilingual' on job applications. I could not understand any of the dialects the interviewer at China Airlines tried on me, and he didn't understand me either" (p. 239). Family language almost became a "burden" as Kingston strived to make sense of what it meant to occupy two linguistic and cultural spaces as a Chinese American woman in a patriarchal system. Could her surrender allude to the disappointment and frustration that Chinese Americans as a group feel within the larger society?
In Tan's novel, when one of the daughters, June, did not comply with her mother's wishes, her mother shouted at her in Chinese: "Only two kinds of daughters. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!" (Tan, 1989, p. 142). The mother's injunction is an enactment of her personal power within the family structure, and in this language and cultural logic, June is powerless even if she could speak "perfect" American English, which would give her positional power in a different situation.
Toward the end of the book when Kingston finally confronted her mother with her long list of feelings of guilt being a Chinese American daughter, the linguistic gap and cultural intranslatability resonated throughout their shouting match. Angry, frustrated, hurt, sad, and disappointed, Kingston realized that the confrontation was futile: "And suddenly I got very confused and lonely because I was at the moment telling her my list, and in the telling, it grew. No higher listener. No listener but myself" (Kingston), p. 237). Once again, their voices did not intermesh, and neither could enter the cultural logic that was specifically structured within the primary language that they spoke. There was no possibility for Kingston to articulate her silence, nor was there space for displaying her mother's good intentions. The celebration of the multiple languages and polyphonic voices seemed elusive. Two generations of women were ultimately torn apart and yet inextricably bonded by the unspeakable cultural tongue. Each in their own way sounded strange, incoherent, crazy, abnormal, and stubborn to the other.
The end of the story of the swan in The Joy Luck Club says, "Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, 'This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.' And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English" (Tan, 1989, p. 17). As one of the mothers, Lindo, lamented, "I wanted my children to have the best combination, American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?" (Tan, p. 265).
If indeed Chinese Americans are steeped in two languages and two forms of life, one public and dominant, another private and submerged, what is the symbolic significance of using these languages, as constructed from various social positions? For the immigrant parents, educating their American-born children to speak the family language is a way to continue the cultural tradition and to instill ethnic pride. Speaking a private language is also an attempt to mark one's difference from the mainstream culture and to resist racism, hegemony, and the overwhelming power of homogenization in this society. In Tan and Kingston's storytelling, speaking Chinese also becomes simply functional for the older immigrants who do not want to participate or/and are not perceived as full participants in the public language. As a result, they remain outsiders within the system: their use of private language marks the central feature of their identity.
Although for many American-born Chinese, using family language can affirm their cultural ties to their ancestors, Kingston also grew up hearing all the derogatory comments about girls in Chinese, the language of foreign and impossible stories to her ear. While speaking her family dialect gives her a sense of connection and intimacy, the private language also symbolizes the oppression, confusion, frustration, madness, and silence that were associated with her coming of age. Using English to speak and write signifies Kingston's rebellion against the patriarchal tradition; it forced her to take a non-Chinese and non-female position in her family and community. For Chinese identity and gives them a legitimate cultural voice to claim for a space in this society. English gives them a means to assert their independence and a tool to fight against sexism and racism that they encounter. Trinh Minh-ha, in an interview, insisted that identity remains as a political/personal strategy of resistance and survival; "the reflexive question asked … is no longer: who am I? but when, where, how am I (so and so)?" (Parmar, 1990, p. 72).
It is important to remember that a discussion of uses of language needs to be understood in a political context. Chinese Americans strive for polyphonic coherence within a society that celebrates conformity and homogeneity despite its rhetoric of diversity and pluralism. To mainstream ears, Chinese languages may sound a cacophony of unfamiliar tones and words; this unintelligibility can be associated with foreignness, exotic cultural others, lack of education, or powerlessness. This perceived absence of a shared language and culture (and therefore of disparate social and national interests) can lead to hostility or discrimination toward Chinese Americans.
Through the use of language we create and maintain our social relationships. We accomplish this goal only if an intersubjective discourse exists so that our words and actions are intelligible to others within the community. In Chinese American bicultural experience, this shared language often cannot be taken for granted. In The Woman Warrior, Kingston confronted her mother about telling her that she was ugly all the time, to which her mother replied, "That's what we're supposed to say. That's what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite" (Kingston, 1977, p. 237). Here in the mother's language, "truth" is characterized by the logic of the opposite; this "indirect" approach works only if one knows how to hear the statement within the context of a certain kind of relationship. Saying the opposite is what the mother felt obligated to perform; in fact, it was the only language that she could use in order to demonstrate her affection and care for her daughter. Unfortunately, lacking the cultural insight to reverse the logic of her mother's statement, Kingston felt shamed, outraged, and was in turn accused by her mother of not being able to "tell a joke from real life"; her mother shouts at her, "You're not so smart. Can't even tell real from false" (p. 235). Real from false in what language? Where does the humor of this apparent joke for the mother—and humiliation for the daughter—lie in perfect American English?
In The Joy Luck Club, the young women's innocence, ignorance, and apathy toward their mothers' language seemed to frighten the mothers. June tried to understand her three aunties at the mah jong table:
And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds "joy luck" is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.
(Tan, 1989, pp. 40-41)
Failure to translate between languages can cost emotional turmoil; it can also silence someone who depends on the English translation to negotiate or accomplish his/her goals. In one of the stories in The Joy Luck Club, the daughter Lena was unable to translate her mother's words to her Caucasian stepfather who did not speak Chinese. Since Lena understood the Chinese words spoken by her mother but not the implications, she made up something in her translation and as a result rewrote her mother's story in that episode. Tan intentionally constructed this scene to illustrate the nature of the mother-daughter relationship. Lena was ignorant of both the story that her mother was hinting at and of the Chinese language that her mother was speaking. Kingston's and Tan's writings are characterized by untold stories written in untranslatable language between the two generations of women. McAlister (1992) argued that by failing to translate between languages and stories, Chinese American daughters can participate in the silencing of their mothers. This position seems incongruous in view of Tan's overall agenda in her storytelling. By having all the women narrate their own stories, Tan treats language not just as a tool to reflect upon the past or to celebrate the present, but as a political means to allow Chinese American women to articulate their silenced lives, their otherwise voiceless positions in this society.
Tan writes The Joy Luck Club in a language that demands the reader recognize the distinctness of each character, each story and voice, and each mother-daughter relationship. The women in her creation are not just nameless, faceless, or interchangeable Chinese Americans. The interrelated narratives make sense only if readers can discern the specificities of each woman's story as located within the novel. Therefore, "Tan confronts an Orientalist discourse that depends on the sameness of Chinese difference" (McAlister, 1992, p. 110). By granting subjectivity to each woman, Tan compels each to tell her own story in her own words, thus (re)creating the meanings of her life. The mother-daughter tensions as constructed in their own discourse are fraught with complexities of racial, gender, and class issues, not just the simple binary opposition of Americanness and Chinesesness, mothers and daughters.
The ability to tell one's own story, to speak one's mind, is the best antidote to powerlessness. Tan's writing instills agency and visibility in Chinese American women. The silence is broken, and their new voices are constructed in collective storytelling, a language of community, without denying or erasing the different positions such collaboration encounters. In a similar vein, Kingston gave the no name woman in her mother's storytelling a voice and a life, a permanent place in American culture; she immortalized this silent woman through her writing: "My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her" (Kingston, 1977, p. 19). Both Tan and Kingston allow their female characters to reclaim and recreate their identity. "Storytelling heals past experiences of loss and separation; it is also a medium for rewriting stories of oppression and victimization into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment" (Heung, 1993, p. 607). It is possible to celebrate the present without forgetting the past. In an interview when Kingston was contrasting her own American voice in Tripmaster Monkey and her translation of Chinese voices in her previous two books, she said, "When I wrote The Woman Warrior and China Men, as I look back on it, I was trying to find an American language that would translate the speech of the people who are living their lives with the Chinese language. They carry on their adventures and their emotional life and everything in Chinese. I had to find a way to translate all that into a graceful American language, which is my language" (Chin, 1989-1990, p. 71). Perhaps the boundary between Kingston's two languages/voices is not so clear; of Tripmaster Monkey, [a Chinese poet] she said that "I was writing in the tradition of the past" (Chin, p. 64). "And I spent this lifetime working on roots. So what they were saying was that I was their continuity" (Chin, p. 65).
Both Kingston's and Tan's writings point to the multiplicity and instability of cultural identity for Chinese American women, oscillating and crisscrossing between different Englishes and Chinese dialects that they speak. Although cultural borderlands can be a useful metaphor for "home" for these individuals, we must realize that this home does not rest in a fixed location, nor is it constructed in any one unified language or perfect American English. Neither of the authors is searching for definitive Chinese American voice. Through interweaving their own bicultural tongues and multiple imaginative voices, Kingston and Tan focus on women's experiences in their writings and position their uses of languages as central to our understanding of Chinese American women's bicultural world.
Ultimately we see the transformation of double voice in both The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club. As Trinh put it nicely, "… the fact one is always marginalized in one's own language and areas of strength is something that one has to learn to live with" (Parmar, 1990, p. 71). Therefore, fragmentation in one's identity becomes "a way of living with differences without turning them into opposites, nor trying to assimilate them out of insecurity" (pp. 71-72). Chinese American women need to cultivate not simply multiple subjectivities but also the ability to move between different languages and positions. As Trinh suggested, this fluidity is a form of challenge and reconstruction of power relations, and women need to learn to use language as a poetic arena of struggle of possibility for transformation. "Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language" (Anzaldua, 1987, p. 59). Unless Chinese American women acknowledge and celebrate all the Englishes that they grew up with, they cannot accept the legitimacy of their bicultural identity. When asked if she still felt the same contradictions that the protagonist did in The Woman Warrior, Kingston said "No, no. I feel much more integrated … It takes decades of struggle. When you are a person who comes from a multicultural background it just means that you have more information coming in from the universe. And it's your task to figure out how it all integrates, figure out its order and its beauty. It's a harder, longer struggle" (Chin, 1989-1990, p. 63).
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SOURCE: Foster, M. Marie Booth. "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, pp. 208-27. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
In the following essay, Foster examines the importance of individual voice in the development of Chinese American women's identities, especially within the mother-daughter relationship as Tan portrays it in her novels.
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" (18). 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'" (18). 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 (1-11).
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" (xi).
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 (14), 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 (1).
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'" (161). 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 (xxii). 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" (5). 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" (154). 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 "Twentysix 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?" (289). 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" (289). 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" (9). 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 (Rosinsky, 285). 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" (289).
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" (89). 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" (226). 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?" (290).
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" (191). 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" (212). "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" (212). 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" (19). 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 psycheatricks will only make you hulihudu, make you heimongmong" (210). 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." Anmei 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" (Gilligan, 67). An-mei was "raised the Chinese way": "I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness" (241). 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" (41-45). 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" (40). 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" (159).
Like all the other daughters, Lena must recognize and respect the characteristics of Lady Sorrowfree that are inherent in her mother, Yingying. 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" (293). 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" (Maglin, 260). 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" (285). 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" (276). 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" (11). 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" (286). 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" (286). 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" (80). 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" (57). 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" (82). 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" (Koppelman, xxvii). 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: "When-ever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument" (11). 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 (65) 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" (65). 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" (134). 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" (136). 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" (398). 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" (81). 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" (152), 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" (312). 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" (88).
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 …" (34). 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.
Arcana, Judith. Our Mothers' Daughters. Berkeley: Shameless Hussy Press, 1979.
Belensky, Mary Field, et al. Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
Blicksilver, Edith. The Ethnic American Woman: Problems, Protests, Lifestyle. Dubuque, Ia.: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1978.
Carlson, Kathie. In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter's Search for Her Mother. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.
Chevigny, Bell Gale. "Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women's Biography." Feminist Studies 9 (1983): 79-102.
Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Doten, Patti. "Sharing Her Mother's Secrets." Boston Globe, June 21, 1991, E9-14.
Friday, Nancy. My Mother/My Self. New York: Delacorte Press, 1977.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. "Mind Mother: Psychoanalysis and Feminism." In Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn, 113-145. New York: Methuen, 1985.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Feller. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
Koppelman, Susan. Between Mothers and Daughters, Stories across a Generation. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1985.
Maglin, Nan Bauer. "The Literature of Matrilineage." In The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner, 257-267. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Marbella, Jean. "Amy Tan: Luck But Not Joy." Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1991, E-11.
"Mother with a Past." Maclean's (July 15, 1991): 47.
Reed, Evelyn. Woman's Evolution. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976, 1986.
Rosinsky, Natalie M. "Mothers and Daughters: Another Minority Group." In The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner, 281-303. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
See, Carolyn. "Drowning in America, Starving in China." Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12, 1989, 1, 11.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books, 1989.
——. The Kitchen God's Wife. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
——. "Lost Lives of Women." Life (April 1991), 90-91.
Walters, Suzanna Danuta. Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Wolf, Margery, and Roxanne Witke. Women in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.
Yamada, Mitsuye. "Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman." In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 35-40. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1982.
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The Joy Luck Club (novel) 1989
The Kitchen God's Wife (novel) 1991
The Moon Lady (juvenilia) 1992
The Joy Luck Club [with Ronald Bass] (screenplay) 1993
Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (juvenilia) 1994
The Hundred Secret Senses (novel) 1995
The Bonesetter's Daughter (novel) 2001
The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (essays) 2003
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2552
SOURCE: Tan, Amy. "Mother Tongue." In The Best American Short Stories 1991, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, pp. 196-202. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.
In the following essay, originally published in The Threepenny Review in 1990, Tan explains her youthful embarrassment of and adult pride in her Chinese mother's use of English.
I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.
I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all—all the Englishes I grew up with.
Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The nature of the talk was about my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never used with her. I was saying things like, "The intersection of memory upon imagination" and "There is an aspect of my fiction that relates to thus-and-thus"—a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.
Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used furniture and I heard myself saying this: "Not waste money that way." My husband was with us as well, and he didn't notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It's because over the twenty years we've been together I've often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.
So you'll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I'll quote what my mother said during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. During this conversation, my mother was talking about a political gangster in Shanghai who had the same last name as her family's, Du, and how the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. Later, the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother's family, and one day showed up at my mother's wedding to pay his respects. Here's what she said in part:
"Du Yusong having business like fruit stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong—but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn't look down on him, but didn't take seriously, until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way, came only to show respect, don't stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won't have to stay too long. He come to my wedding. I didn't see, I heard it. I gone to boy's side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen."
You should know that my mother's expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine's books with ease—all kinds of things I can't begin to understand. Yet some of my friends tell me they understand 50 percent of what my mother says. Some say they understand 80 to 90 percent. Some say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother's English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.
Lately, I've been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as "broken" or "fractured" English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than "broken," as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I've heard other terms used, "limited English," for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people's perceptions of the limited English speaker.
I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's "limited" English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.
My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New York. She had cashed out her small portfolio and it just so happened we were going to go to New York the next week, our very first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice that was not very convincing, "This is Mrs. Tan."
And my mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, "Why he don't send me check, already two weeks late. So mad he lie to me, losing me money."
And then I said in perfect English, "Yes, I'm getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived."
Then she began to talk more loudly. "What he want, I come to New York tell him front of his boss, you cheating me?" And I was trying to calm her down, make her be quiet, while telling the stockbroker, "I can't tolerate any more excuses. If I don't receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your manager when I'm in New York next week." And sure enough, the following week there we were in front of this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there red-faced and quiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan, was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.
We used a similar routine just five days ago, for a situation that was far less humorous. My mother had gone to the hospital for an appointment, to find out about a benign brain tumor a CAT scan had revealed a month ago. She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. Still, she said, the hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan and she had come for nothing. She said they did not seem to have any sympathy when she told them she was anxious to know the exact diagnosis, since her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. She said they would not give her any more information until the next time and she would have to make another appointment for that. So she said she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter. She wouldn't budge. And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English—lo and behold—we had assurances the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.
I think my mother's English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person's developing language skills are more influenced by peers. But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it affected my results on achievement tests, IQ tests, and the SAT. While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English could not be considered my strong suit. In grade school I did moderately well, getting perhaps B's, sometimes B-pluses, in English and scoring perhaps in the sixtieth or seventieth percentile on achievement tests. But those scores were not good enough to override the opinion that my true abilities lay in math and science, because in those areas I achieved A's and scored in the ninetieth percentile or higher.
This was understandable. Math is precise; there is only one correct answer. Whereas, for me at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience. Those tests were constructed around items like fill-in-the-blank sentence completion, such as, "Even though Tom was _____, Mary thought he was _____." And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of thoughts, for example, "Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming," with the grammatical structure "even though" limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn't get answers like, "Even though Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was ridiculous." Well, according to my mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have thought of him. So I never did well on tests like that.
The same was true with word analogies, pairs of words in which you were supposed to find some sort of logical, semantic relationship—for example, "Sunset is to nightfall as _____ is to _____." And here you would be presented with a list of four possible pairs, one of which showed the same kind of relationship: red is to stoplight, bus is to arrival, chills is to fever, yawn is to boring. Well, I could never think that way. I knew what the tests were asking, but I could not block out of my mind the images already created by the first pair, "sunset is to nightfall"—and I would see a burst of colors against a darkening sky, the moon rising, the lowering of a curtain of stars. And all the other pairs of words—red, bus, stoplight, boring—just threw up a mass of confusing images, making it impossible for me to sort out something as logical as saying: "A sunset precedes nightfall" is the same as "a chill precedes a fever." The only way I would have gotten that answer right would have been to imagine an associative situation, for example, my being disobedient and staying out past sunset, catching a chill at night, which turns into feverish pneumonia as punishment, which indeed did happen to me.
I have been thinking about all this lately, about my mother's English, about achievement tests. Because lately I've been asked, as a writer, why there are not more Asian Americans represented in American literature. Why are there few Asian Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering? Well, these are broad sociological questions I can't begin to answer. But I have noticed in surveys—in fact, just last week—that Asian students, as a whole, always do significantly better on math achievement tests than in English. And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as "broken" or "limited." And perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and science, which is what happened to me.
Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. I became an English major my first year in college, after being enrolled as pre-med. I started writing nonfiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents toward account management.
But it wasn't until 1985 that I finally began to write fiction. And at first I wrote using what I thought to be wittily crafted sentences, sentences that would finally prove I had mastery over the English language. Here's an example from the first draft of a story that later made its way into The Joy Luck Club, but without this line: "That was my mental quandary in its nascent state." A terrible line, which I can barely pronounce.
Fortunately, for reasons I won't get into today, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. So with this reader in mind—and in fact she did read my early drafts—I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as "simple"; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as "broken"; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as "watered down"; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.
Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing, I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: "So easy to read."
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8887
CATHERINE ROMAGNOLO (ESSAY DATE SPRING 2003)
SOURCE: Romagnolo, Catherine. "Narrative Beginnings in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: A Feminist Study."1Studies in the Novel 35, no. 1 (spring 2003): 89-107.
In the following essay, Romagnolo argues that the "master narratives" imposed on The Joy Luck Club have resulted in incomplete readings of the novel. She suggests that a return to the fundamental narrative beginning can result in a fuller reading of the novel's ideological implications.
Like virginity, literary introductions are often seen as an awkward embarrassment, an obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible in order to facilitate vital experiences. On the other hand, "the first time" is a supremely privileged moment, to be lingered over, contemplated, and cherished. Which is the more telling conception we can only begin to imagine.
—Steven Kellman, "Grand Openings and Plain"
Even feminist narratology … has tended to focus on women writers or female narrators without asking how the variables "sex," "gender," and "sexuality" might operate in narrative more generally.
—Susan S. Lanser, "Queering Narratology"
Few extensive studies of narrative beginnings exist, and not one takes a feminist perspective. Offering almost exclusively formalist readings, existing analyses neglect the ideological implications of beginnings, especially as they relate to gender, race, and cultural identity.2 Even as scholars overlook ideological valence in narrative beginnings, their own readings often indicate, perhaps unexpectedly, that social and cultural concerns adhere to any conception of beginnings. For example, Steven Kellman, one of the first to study narrative beginnings in an extended analysis, evokes ways that cultural bias is embedded in these studies. The sexualized metaphor he uses to illustrate the trouble inherent in starting a literary text testifies to this bias. The problem with his description arises when one considers the historical importance placed on female purity and virginity in numerous cultures. Not only is the conception of virginity as an "awkward embarrassment" a specifically heteronormatively masculinist perspective, but it also posits the proverbial pen-as-penis, page/text-as-female-body metaphor with whose ideological valences we are all familiar. Furthermore, the analogy obscures cultural differences that shape the relationship of a given individual to gendered sexuality. Similarly, A. D. Nuttall, while recognizing that his text on narrative beginnings is a "spectacle of alternating (male) authority and (male) sequence [that] will certainly be unpleasing to some people,"3 never interrogates this exclusively white male focus (vii). These studies serve as examples of the way gender concerns, however invisible, are often already linked to beginnings. They invite us to examine seriously the identificatory variables that have been elided and to take up the challenge identified by Susan S. Lanser to explore how social categories operate in narrative (250).
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is an ideal vehicle with which to begin such a project.4 It is suggestive of a new way to look at narrative beginnings, one that emphasizes a destabilization of conceptions of history that exclude women, particularly those of non-European descent. This way of reading narrative beginnings encourages an interrogation of the relevance of both European American and Asian American cultural and national origins for Asian American female subjects, as well as promoting a resistance to the notion of an alternatively authentic origin. If we attend to the ideological significance of beginnings in Tan's novel, a critique of the very concept of origins—especially in its relation to "American," "Chinese," and "Chinese American" identity—becomes apparent. Moreover, doing so illuminates the discursive constructedness of authenticity, origins, and identity, thereby problematizing reductive cultural representations of female, American, and Asian American subjectivity. Building on recent scholarship about Asian American literature and subjectivity, which has suggested that The Joy Luck Club has been misread,5 this essay attempts to extend, if not disrupt, the readings of many scholars from different disciplines who impose certain kinds of master narratives onto this novel.6 While these readings are not so much "wrong" as they are incomplete, an examination of this text's narrative beginnings can at once help us to theorize narrative with an attentiveness to difference and to recognize this help as integral to the cultural work Tan's novel performs.
Narrative beginnings, as suggested by the example of The Joy Luck Club, assume a symbolic primacy in relation to social identity. Because, as Tan's text demonstrates, they represent one way to conceptualize origins and contest the representational inadequacies of patriarchal, nationalist rhetoric, narrative beginnings often take on figurative status as metaphorical origins and embody the significance of origins in nationalist discourse. Origins and their relation to national identity and questions of authenticity are discussed by a wide variety of cultural and literary critics working in such diverse fields as post-colonial studies, U.S. minority discourse, and feminist theory. Such scholarship has interrogated the recovery of authentic cultural, literary, and historical origins, a nationalist recovery initially embarked upon in an effort to reveal the falsity of stereotypical conceptions of identity and to propose an "authentic" representation in their place. Although a thorough overview is beyond the scope of this essay, this scholarship broadly asserts that the importance placed upon authenticity can lead to discrimination and exclusion. Norma Alarcón et al., for example, explicate the problems associated with nationalism and the "denial of sexual or racial difference" within the nation-state (1). Etienne Balibar theorizes the ironic connection between racism and nationalism, even within what he calls "nationalism of the dominated" (45). And Dana Takagi, in the context of Asian American studies, contends that a fixation upon reclaiming authentic origins can occlude the experiences of marginalized members of a community: "At times, our need to 'reclaim history' has been bluntly translated into a possessiveness about the Asian American experience or perspectives as if such experiences or perspectives were not diffuse, shifting, and often contradictory" (33). In conjunction with such critiques of origins as grounds for social identity, many similarly oriented critics maintain the importance of narrative and narrative form to explicating gender, nation formation, national identity, and individual subjectivity. For example, Lisa Lowe argues that formal attributes of Asian American narratives express "an aesthetic of 'disidentification' and 'infidelity'" (32). Through formal and thematic "contradictions," she explains, this aesthetic critiques exclusionary conceptions of American and Asian American cultural identity. Contributing to such critical debates, my study of Amy Tan's novel demonstrates the importance of focusing on narrative beginnings, specifically, as sites at which these questions about origins, authenticity, and narrative converge.
Using Tan's text as a point of entry, I propose a more fully elaborated way of defining narrative beginnings in order to facilitate understanding of their ideological function and textual significance. Theorists such as Gerald Prince, Nuttall, and James Phelan have defined narrative beginnings in various ways. Prince, for example, defines them as "the incident[s] initiating the process of change in a plot or action … not necessarily follow[ing] but … necessarily followed by other incidents" (10). Nuttall, on the other hand, chooses to narrow his discussion to the actual opening lines and/or pages of a narrative text, claiming that these openings are "naturally rooted, are echoes, more or less remote, of an original creative act" (viii). Phelan, taking another approach, breaks his understanding of opening lines and/or pages into four separate categories: "exposition … initiation … introduction … entrance" (97). These definitions, while useful, fall short of distinguishing the different ways that beginnings may be conceptualized in narrative fiction. In effect, they have been unable to yield a discussion of the many ideological functions a beginning may serve within a narrative. The example of The Joy Luck Club, however, can serve as a source of critical insight from which we might generate a broader framework for the consideration of narrative beginnings. Working with Tan's novel, then, I schematize a critical paradigm for the study of four categories of narrative beginnings:
Structural Narrative Openings—The beginning pages or lines of a narrative, as well as the opening pages/lines of chapters or section breaks. This beginning is the most easily identified and most frequently studied.
Chronological Narrative Beginnings—The chronologically earliest diegetic moments in a narrative. Often there exist several simultaneously occurring textual moments that compete, in a sense, for the status of chronological beginning.
Causal Beginnings—The diegetic moment or moments that represent the catalyst for the main action within a narrative. They initiate or set into motion the conflict of the narrative.
Thematic Origins—The topic of origins or beginnings when it is interrogated or explored by the characters, narrator, or by the author her/himself. This beginning occurs on the story or content level of a narrative.
By working through this particularized framework that Tan's novel helps us to formulate, I propose that we can advance our understanding of both this text in particular and the broader narratological as well as cultural matters it thematizes.
Structural Narrative Openings: Repetition and Revision
The Joy Luck Club begins with what has been described by Asian American writer and cultural critic Frank Chin as a "fake" myth of origin:
Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: "In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for." (3)
This "fake Chinese fairy tale" is so described both because, according to Chin, it overstates the misogyny of Chinese society, and because it represents a misappropriation, a "faking," of Chinese culture (2). The implication of this misappropriation, Chin argues, is that Chinese Americans—particularly women—like Tan and her characters are so assimilated that they have lost touch with their "Chinese" cultural origins. Consequently, they have produced new feminized "versions of these traditional stories," which in trying to pass themselves off as authentic only represent a further "contribution to the stereotype," a stereotype which facilitates the emasculation of Asian American men (3).
We may take this myth to exemplify the structural opening, that is, the beginning lines/pages of Tan's novel. While other theories of narrative beginnings might identify this section of the text as the beginning, its purpose is not as self-evident as might be suggested. It is neither a "fake fairy tale" nor an "echo of an original creative act" (Nuttall viii). In fact, while the structural opening of The Joy Luck Club may initially appear to be trying (and failing, according to Chin) to establish and mythologize an authentic and originary moment of immigration from China to U.S.A. for the "Joy Luck aunties," it, in fact, disrupts the very notion of authenticity, especially in regards to origins. Although the first half of the myth seems to imply an unproblematic transition between Chinese and American cultures, by its ending, the contradiction between an idealized version of assimilation to "American" subjectivity and the fragmentation of identity that historically marks immigrant experiences becomes clear: "But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind." Instead of either idealizing an essential Asian origin or mythologizing a melting-pot ideology of U.S. immigration, Tan's structural narrative opening marks the way "America" strips the woman of her past, her idealized hopes for the future in the United States, and excludes her from an "American" national identity: the woman is still waiting "for the day she could tell her daughter this [narrative] in perfect American English" (3). By opening with a fabricated myth of origin, Tan's novel foregrounds the ideological implications of a search for beginnings and exemplifies the importance of narrative beginnings to an understanding of this text.
As Chin's response attests, Tan invokes a mythic sensibility in these opening lines, yet undermines the authority of nationalist myths of origin that attempt to uncover an uncorrupted past ethnic identity in which the members of the nation can "rediscover their authentic purpose" (Hutchinson 123). Through an ironic use of mythic form, language, and tone, Tan utilizes repetition for subversion. Repetition in this sense is a performance, which has "innovation," to use Trinh Minh-Ha's term, as its goal. Trinh explains:
Recirculating a limited number of propositions and rehashing stereotypes to criticize stereotyping can … constitute a powerful practice … Repetition as a practice and a strategy differs from incognizant repetition in that it bears with it the seeds of transformation … When repetition reflects on itself as repetition, it constitutes this doubling back movement through which language … looks at itself exerting power and, therefore, creates for itself possibilities to repeatedly thwart its own power, inflating it only to deflate it better.
Tan's opening myth utilizes mythic characters such as "The old woman" juxtaposed with historically rooted figures like immigration officials. It invokes mythic situations seemingly ungrounded in time such as a journey across an ocean "many thousands of li wide" contrasted by modern cultural icons like Coca Cola. Her myth, then, reflects upon itself as national mythology, revised. In its self-reflexivity and difference, this formal and generic repetition serves to deflate the power of the so-called original. That is, by mimicking supposedly authentic nationalist mythologies, the self-consciously illegitimate status of Tan's myth exposes the inability of any nationalist project to recover a genuinely original, pure cultural history. Like Homi Bhabha's concept of mimicry, Tan's myth "problematizes the signs of racial and cultural priority, so that the 'national' is no longer naturalizable" (87). Because culture is always hybrid, any project that asserts purity must necessarily be "fake." This "fakeness" should not, however, be read as inauthenticity, but as a de-construction of the very concept of authenticity.
The self-conscious repetition and revision of Tan's myth simultaneously destabilizes the notion of an authentic cultural origin (which gives rise to essentialist conceptions of gendered and racialized identities) and dislodges stereotypical representations of Chinese culture. For although the language of this structural opening might evoke a mythological aura, in its content, Tan's opening myth reflects the hybridity of immigrant subjectivity. That is, it signifies the historical "relationships of unequal power and domination" (Lowe 67) that accompany Chinese immigration to the United States. Moreover, it combines and interrogates stereotypically "Chinese" cultural symbols like the swan and "American" cultural emblems like Coca Cola: "Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca Cola than sorrow." In such cases, Tan utilizes overdetermined cultural symbols, which most readers would recognize as the trite, even clichéd, images that have come to signify the respective cultures. And yet, because of the way in which they are deployed, the repetition of these stereotypes cannot take hold as authentic representations; their authority is subverted. The symbol of the swan, stereotypically representative of Chinese women as graceful, silent, and docile, is hybridized and re-appropriated within Tan's narrative. It comes to symbolize both the woman's past ("the old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum") and her idealized hopes for the future as an American ("I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for"). In combining these contradictory impulses or desires (nativism and assimilation), the symbol becomes unstable, unfixed, never to be resolved within Tan's revisionist myth. Furthermore, as this symbol (the swan) is torn away from the old woman when she reaches the United States, we apprehend both the historical violence of immigration as well as the illusory nature of nativist and assimilationist mythology: "She forgot why she had come and what she had left behind" (3).
Tan also invokes a stereotypical emblem of Americanness in the materialistic and modern cultural icon, Coca Cola. Yet, like the symbol of the swan, this sign is already unstable and dislocated from its supposed referent. For, while Coca Cola has come to represent "Americanness," in fact, in this period of late-capitalism the corporation of Coca Cola is found throughout the world. The transnational character of this icon registers the economic and cultural imperialism entailed in the success of Americanization on a global scale, while contradicting its status as American; for, it both is and is not American. This instability continuously interrogates what it means to be "American." That is, the Coca Cola icon does not have as its referent some real originary "America," but alludes to a popular representation of Americanness as tied especially to diversity ("I'd like to buy the world a Coke"). This image is not only a cultural myth unto itself; it also points back to other media representations of America, which refer back yet again to the popular representation of America in "melting pot" ideology, a construction which has historically contributed to the elision of a United States that is, in reality, fraught with racial contradictions. Thus, through the chain of signifiers set in motion by the Coca Cola icon, Tan's myth not only subverts the authority of cultural symbols, but confirms cultural identity to be discursively constructed. Finally, through the placement of these icons in an opening narrative which undermines its own status as a myth of origin, The Joy Luck Club structurally reaffirms the inadequacy of such "authentic" cultural symbols to represent the "original essence" of their cultures. The final effect of this myth, then, is not a reconciliation of contradictions—assimilation and nativism—but a dialogic representation of an immigrant experience that struggles with both of these impulses.
By positioning an obviously spurious myth at the structural opening of The Joy Luck Club, Tan gives her own text a false originary moment and thus further critiques the notion of origins. The duplicity of this opening structurally and symbolically undermines the text's status as an "immigration novel" that could somehow refer to and represent the "authentic" female immigrant experience. That is, by placing a false myth of origin—which refers only to other illusory origins—in the inaugural pages of her text, Tan implies metaphorically that the novel can never be said to recover any sort of authentic, definitive experience. In searching for the originary moment of Tan's writing, contrary to the "original creative act" that Nuttall finds in his dynasty of white-male authors, one finds an obvious "fake," a performative, symbolic repetition of an originary moment, which itself is discursively constructed (viii). Through this self-conscious performance, the novel argues that any claims of ethnic and/or national authenticity are suspect; they can only be said to allude intertextually to other discursive constructions.
Tan's structural opening is additionally significant in that it acts as a synecdoche for the thematic concerns of the novel. Through its preoccupation with a search for authenticity, origin, and/or the defining moment of one's identity, the story helps us to recognize links between structure and thematic origins. This thematic interest in beginnings is placed in dialogue with the text's structural openings, reinforcing its cultural critique. For example, Suyuan Woo, who has already died as the novel opens, has spent her entire life in an unsuccessful quest to recover the fateful moment when she left her babies on the roadside in Kweilin while fleeing from the invasion of Japanese soldiers. Symbolically, she tells her daughter Jing Mei (June): "The East is where things begin,…thedirection from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from" (22). An-Mei Hsu is also preoccupied with a quest. Her narrative tells the story of an attempt to recover the source of her psychic pain as well as a search for a mother who was absent for much of her childhood. She speaks of this past as a wound: "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" (40). And Ying Ying St. Clair, who is similarly in search of a lost self, remembers the sense of loss that accompanied her youth: "The farther we glided, the bigger the world became. And I now felt I was lost forever" (79).7
Despite the almost compulsive search for origin and identity displayed by the stories within this novel, each quest in its own way repudiates the existence of its goal. For example, although Suyuan claims that the East is where all begins, we learn that this "East" is not static; in fact, it moves and changes just as her Kweilin story changes each time she tells it. Although June takes her mother's place on the East side of the mah jong table, the East shifts places: "Auntie Ying throws the dice and I'm told that Auntie Lin has become the East wind. I've become the North wind, the last hand to play. Auntie Ying is the South and Auntie An-Mei is the West" (23). Similarly, An-Mei learns that underneath the multiple layers of memory that compose one's sense of self, there is no authentic core: "you must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh" (41). And Ying Ying finds that although as she ages she feels closer and "closer to the beginning" of her life, that beginning, that origin is fluid—not fixed, but variable. She suggests this fluidity in speaking of the traumatic day in her childhood when she falls from a boat and is separated from her family. This moment in her life comes to represent, for her, the origin of her loss of self and the beginning, in a sense, of her adult life: "And I remember everything that happened that day because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness; the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself" (83). Further undermining any sense of fixed origins, Ying Ying's beginning also represents an end, a loss; for her, coming to a recognition of one's self entails a loss of a sense of wholeness.8 The quests embarked upon by these women, therefore, repudiate the ability to recover any type of static identity which might solidify exclusionary conceptions of gendered and racialized subjectivity; at the same time, however, they stress the importance of the histories of these characters to their ongoing sense of agency, highlighting an idea of history as not completely knowable, but nevertheless significant to the discursive construction of identity.
Alternative Structural Openings: Authenticity and Truth
Although Tan's introductory tale possesses great significance, it merely represents the first of the structural narrative openings in her novel. In fact, The Joy Luck Club is constructed in such a manner that it has at least four section openings and sixteen chapter openings (four sections each with four chapters). Moreover, each of the characters has at least two narratives (which with the exception of Suyuan, each narrates herself) and each of these narratives has at least one opening of its own, not necessarily coinciding with the opening pages of a section or a chapter; thus, the number of conceivable structural narrative openings is quite large. Although these separate stories are tied to one another through content and theme, each on its own arguably qualifies as a narrative with individual structure including an opening and a closing, however open that closing may be. (It seems to me that a reader could start this text at any one of these openings and still comprehend the narrative.) This proliferation of structural openings, in combination with the text's use of thematic origins, undermines the concept of an originary moment in obvious ways. That is, because each opening represents a new structural beginning, it signifies a challenge, contradicting any claim the first opening might make as the originary moment of the text. Thus, this repetition of openings symbolically represents the way in which a search for origins/authentic beginnings uncovers multiple possibilities, none clearly the most privileged, each possible origin continually displacing/deferring the privilege onto other possibilities.
Furthermore, it becomes clear in a close reading of these alternative openings that many are, in and of themselves, revisionist originary myths working to destabilize essentialist notions of authenticity and truth. The opening to the second section of the novel, "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates," for example, expresses a seemingly ambiguous message about cultural mythology and truth. For, while it exposes the book The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates as simply a fairy tale intended to keep young children obedient, this tale proves itself to be quite powerful. The mother in the opening narrative uses the myth in The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates to bolster her authority and support what she views to be best for her child—staying close to home: "'Do not ride your bicycle around the corner.'…'I cannot see you and you will fall down and cry and I will not hear you.' 'How do you know I'll fall?' whined the girl. 'It's in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house.'" If we read this opening as a comment on the use of mythology in nationalist projects, Tan's revisionist myth can be seen as illustrative of the way in which the invocation of an "authentic" mythology/past may be used to manipulate subjects of a nation into loyalty to the "mother" country:
"Let me see the book."
"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me."
"What are they, then?" The girl demanded. "Tell me the twenty-six bad things."
But the mother sat knitting in silence.
"What twenty-six!" shouted the girl.
The mother still did not answer her.
"You can't tell me because you don't know! You don't know anything!"
Similar to the recovery or enforcement of a national language and the naturalization of ethnic and national identity, the mother's use of the "mother-tongue" (Chinese) in her invocation of this myth implies that the daughter's ethnic purity is questionable while simultaneously reinforcing the legitimacy of the myth. Both uses, then, are attempts to prevent the daughter from questioning the authority of the myth and to assert the daughter's inferiority to the mother's authenticity. The daughter, in recognizing and rejecting this authority and authenticity, exposes the actual status and purpose of the myth and in the process suggests a goal of nationalist mythology.
Yet, while the first half of this narrative seems to subvert claims of originality and truth, the ending of the narrative appears, at first, to reinforce the power of the very myth the opening exposes. Although the daughter uncovers the constructed nature of The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, the prophecy her mother claims to extract from this myth comes to fruition: "And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner" (87). Clearly, we are not to suppose that the myth actually predicted this child's injury; instead, we understand this ending to represent the ability of the myth to enter the child's imagination and prompt her to attribute her fall to the story's premonitory power. Thus, the narrative argues that the power of national mythology lies in the subject's imagination, not in some intrinsic truth.
Chronological and Causal Beginnings: History and Time
While the numerous structural openings of this novel are, like the structural openings of all novels, clearly located in fixed textual positions, the chronological beginning of Tan's narrative is not. The earliest diegetic moment is, perhaps, easy to identify in a single linear narrative; but, a text like The Joy Luck Club is difficult to view as a single entity at all. It seems more appropriate to refer to the text's narratives. And yet, even when we recognize their plurality, the actual earliest moments, or chronological beginnings, of all of these narratives are elusive. This fact is represented structurally in the complex chronological arrangement of Tan's text, as well as thematically in each of the stories. The numerous flashbacks and concurrent narratives that characterize the chronological organization of The Joy Luck Club challenge the idea of history as linear and objectively knowable. Each section of the text is narrated from a different perspective, many of the incidents occurring simultaneously. For example, through flashbacks, we learn about Lindo Jong's first arranged marriage, which coincides with Suyuan Woo's experience in Kweilin. Both stories take place during the Japanese invasion of China, and yet the two experiences are markedly different. For Lindo, the war remains a backdrop to her personal experiences, while, for Suyuan, the war represents a catalyst for a personal tragedy from which she will never fully recover. We cannot choose one woman's experience as more representative than the other's, nor can we choose one view of the war's impact over another. In understanding these simultaneously occurring events and experiences as equally important, we as readers will find it impossible to choose one as the definitive chronological beginning of the novel. This non-linear structure, accordingly, undermines the teleology often associated with traditional narrative sequence, which, as feminist theorists like Margaret Homans, Nancy K. Miller, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis have asserted, is linked to restrictive conceptions of femininity.9 The novel combines what is traditionally seen as the "personal" history of women with the typically male-centered "public" history of war, destabilizing the hierarchical relationship between these seemingly opposing narratives. It undermines a nationalist conception of history as progress, as a "shared real or imagined past … [that] defines the present in the trajectory toward a common future" (Moallem and Boal 251).10 This conception of history is reinforced by nationalist narrative, which as Mary N. Layoun argues, strives "to give the impression of coherence" (251). And, as Alarcón, Kaplan, and Moallem explain, this coherence is enmeshed in patriarchy, engendering exclusion of women from participation in the nation-state, which according to these critiques, is the "central site of 'hegemonic masculinity'" (Alarcón et al. 1). Tan's structure counters this narrative by depicting the many disjointed trajectories that history takes through the stories of these individual women. Unlike national historical myths, which tend to imply progress toward either successful immigration/assimilation or a return to authentic cultural origins, the directions that history takes in the stories of Tan's women cannot be perceived in terms of progress. Instead, the movements from China to the United States and back to China are lateral, significant because of the material effects they have upon the women of Tan's story. Thus, the text implies a more complex understanding of the relationship among cultural origins, history, and the development of individual female and cultural identities.
Just as a chronological beginning to the novel itself is impossible to locate, so too are the causal beginnings of the individual characters' narratives. Causal beginnings, like chronological beginnings, are especially elusive in modern and postmodern narratives. These narrative moments are not connected to any fixed textual location or to any particular place in time. Borrowing from Prince's definition of a "narrative beginning"(Prince 10), they are instead defined as the moment or moments in a story that represent the catalyst for the main action. This beginning is clearly the most subjective in that each reader may have his/her own interpretation of what qualifies as the catalyst. And yet, despite its subjective nature, it can be key in identifying important cultural work being performed by a text. As The Joy Luck Club progresses, we read a narrative about each mother-daughter relationship first from the daughter's perspective and then from the mother's. Inhibiting the reader's ability to locate a causal beginning to the struggles within each mother/daughter narrative, the text structurally and causally links each daughter's present problems directly to her own childhood in the United States as well as to her mother's past in China. For example, in "American Translation" we hear from Lena's point of view about her unhappy marriage to Harold. And later in "Queen Mother of the Western Skies" we read about the same situation from her mother Ying Ying's viewpoint. Ying Ying attributes her daughter's instability in the present directly to her own past weakness: "Now 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?" (286). Lena, however, finds a different origin to her present marital strife, seeing it as something she deserves for mistakes made as a child: "I still feel that somehow, for the most part, we deserve what we get … I got Harold" (168). The mothers return to their Chinese roots to understand their daughters' present strife, while the daughters locate the origin of their pain in their American childhoods. Neither causal beginning is placed in a more structurally prominent position; nor is one legitimized by content over the other. The novel leaves the reader vacillating between two causes, two origins of the daughters' identities; it thereby disrupts a sense of sequentiality, portraying identity as "simultaneously" constructed, a state of being described by Ketu H. Katrak as a "simultaneous present of being both here and there … challeng[ing] the linearity of time and specificity of space by juxtaposing … here and now … with histories and past geographies" (202). The text, therefore, acknowledges an integral continuity between the past in China and the present in the United States.
Thematic Origins: Subjectivity and Deferral
The representation of thematic origins is, perhaps, best illustrated through the repetition of Suyuan Woo's "Kweilin" story, a self-created myth of origin, which she and other characters begin to tell over and over again. Like Tan's novel itself, the deferred telling of Suyuan's full story can be read as manifesting a compulsion to recover the defining moment of one's identity at the same time her tale refutes the possibility of such a recovery. June searches for knowledge of her own beginnings through her mother's story, in much the same way that Suyuan attempts to recover her whole self by repetitively beginning her originary story. June describes her mother's obsession with the telling of this story:
Joy Luck was an idea my mother remembered from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before the Japanese came. That's why I think of the Joy Luck as her Kweilin story. It was the story she would always tell me when she was bored, when there was nothing to do … This is when my mother would take out a box of old ski sweaters sent to us by unseen relatives from Vancouver. She would snip the bottom of a sweater and pull out a kinky thread of yarn, anchoring it to a piece of cardboard. And as she began to roll with one sweeping rhythm, she would start her story. Over the years she told me the same story, except for the ending, which grew darker, casting long shadows into her life, and eventually into mine. (7)
Significantly, like the yarn of the sweaters Suyuan unravels, she dismantles the complex weave of her story each time she begins to tell it, re-forming it, like the balls of yarn she tightly winds, into a new and re-usable shape constructed from the substance of the previous form. Suyuan's story and the way that she relates it thematically represent the text's conception of the past and its connection to individual identity; for the organized pattern of the sweater may also be read to symbolize both History and authentic subjectivity. Like Suyuan, Tan's novel attempts to snip the threads that hold these tightly knitted structures together, unraveling them as it constructs new ideas of history and identity which are at once subjective, personal, and polymorphous.
Just as the story evolves when Suyuan tells it to June, it is also significantly altered by the several characters who advance the narrative after Suyuan's death, each storyteller attempting to decipher the "truth" of this originary story. And yet, the novel asserts no version of this narrative as definitive, just as it posits no authoritative representation of history; each remains in dialogue with the other, none on its own signifying an essential truth. The concepts of storytelling and history, then, are directly connected to one another, as we see when closely examining the final telling of the Kweilin story. When June travels to China to meet her sisters, her father again begins to tell her mother's story, this time attempting to close it. In its final version, however, the historical event of the invasion of Kweilin by Japanese soldiers seems to permeate the "personal" story of Suyuan's lost babies. This conflation of the personal and historical dismantles the dichotomy of personal/private vs. historical/public and interrogates notions of truth and the power of representation:
"Japanese in Kweilin? says Aiyi [June's Aunt]. "That was never the case. Couldn't be. The Japanese never came to Kweilin."
"Yes, that is what the newspapers reported. I know this because I was working for the news bureau at the time. The Kuomintang often told us what we could say and could not say. But we knew the Japanese had come into Kwangsi Province. We had sources who told us how they had captured the Wuchang-Canton railway. How they were coming overland, making very fast progress, marching toward the provincial capital."
The contradictions between personal experiences and documented history exemplified by this passage clearly exhibit the text's play with notions of history and objectivity, for they make apparent the fact that the representation of historical events is as manipulable and subject to questions of power as storytelling. Thus, by complicating notions of historical objectivity and truth, Tan examines the way in which political power affects the representation of historical events as well as an understanding of individual subjectivity.
The completion of Suyuan's story is continually deferred in an attempt to recover an irretrievable past which represents her unknowable beginning. The deferral of this narrative, however, may also be seen to signify an anxiety over representation, which, as we have seen, is a theme continually worked through in Tan's novel. The inability of the other Joy Luck Club characters to tell Suyuan's story in its entirety, therefore, symbolizes the impossibility of depicting an authentic subject through language. This same anxiety is expressed when June's aunties tell her that she must visit her sisters and tell them of her mother: "What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don't know anything. She was my mother" (31). June's apprehension, expressive of the novel's concern with the representation of subjectivity, is never quelled and the question of how to represent an authentic subject is not definitively answered. Instead, the metaphoric search for an authentic and stable identity represented by the search for origins in the Kweilin story is, like the story itself, destined to remain infinitely fragmented and ultimately irretrievable, for it refers only to other discursive representations whose "truth" can never be discerned.
Although we as readers learn more about Suyuan each time the Kweilin story is begun, we never receive the complete story, only fragments that we must try to piece together to compose the whole narrative. The text, nonetheless, renders this act of construction impossible, for it mixes fact, myth, and incomplete memories seemingly indiscriminately among the narrative pieces. Accordingly, neither the reader nor June can distinguish between them: "I never thought my mother's Kweilin story was anything but a Chinese fairy tale" (12). Although we might suspect much about the origins of the Joy Luck Club to be fable, neither the text nor Suyuan distinguishes this element of the narrative as more or less truthful than the other fragments. Moreover, June's interpretation of the new versions of the story (told by her aunties and her father) are inextricably colored by her previous knowledge. Instead of referring to a "real" event for her, the story as told by her mother's friends only refers back to stories her mother had told her. She remembers the refrain from one of those stories ("You are not those babies") and can only think of her sisters the way they were represented in her mother's narratives, as babies:
The babies in Kweilin. I think. I was not those babies. The babies in a sling on her shoulder. Her other daughters. And now I feel as if I were in Kweilin amidst the bombing and I can see these babies lying on the side of the road, their red thumbs popped out of their mouths, screaming to be reclaimed. Somebody took them away. They're safe. And now my mother's left me forever, gone back to China to get these babies.
Even Suyuan's knowledge of her own story is intertextual, for it refers back to prior versions of the story as well as to other narratives, all of which are inseparably combined with the language of fairy tale and myth:
Oh, what good stories! Stories spilling out all over the place! We almost laughed to death.…We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that's how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck.
The language used here, like that of the first opening myth, ironically mimics the language of fairy tale causing the line between fact and fiction to be irreparably blurred for both June and the reader. We cannot always separate what is performance from what is factual, thus we are forced to interrogate our own notions of truth, as well as the nature of history and identity.
It only appears to be ironic that I wish to conclude my discussion of narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club with a look at the ending of the novel; for it seems clear that these beginnings have resonance throughout the entirety of the novel, its close being no exception. It has been argued that Tan's text ends on a note of reconciliation, forcing to quiescence all of the contradictions and interrogations raised throughout; however, if we choose to examine the ending(s) in light of the novel's many beginnings, such a reading is, perhaps, dislodged. That is, by focusing on the way the beginnings of this text foreground a search for origins, we see that the endings to the many narratives actually leave the conclusion of this quest quite open.
Because the endings of Suyuan's and June's stories are the most easily perceived as conciliatory, it is on their conclusions that I will focus most closely. Suyuan's search as well as the telling of her story, as I have intimated, is displaced onto June throughout the text. And although it might be argued that this quest achieves resolution through June's trip to China, the fact that Suyuan dies before returning herself to China means that she can never be said to have actually achieved her goal; symbolically, she never recovers her origins. Instead, the displacement of this achievement onto June leaves it indefinitely deferred, the goal eternally displaced. Similarly, June's search for her mother/origin is displaced onto her sisters. When she finally reaches China she sees her mother in the faces of her two sisters ("Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish"); however, the text acknowledges that the daughters "look like," or signify their mother, but they are not actually her (332). June, therefore, can only recover the sign of her mother/origin, never her actual mother. Additionally, although the daughters, as representatives of their mother, see her "long-cherished wish" come to fruition, Suyuan herself does not.
Finally, in much the same way the denouement of June and Suyuan's story is displaced and deferred, so are the resolutions of the other mother-daughter stories. For, none of these narratives actually end in resolution. Like the other stories, Waverly and Lindo's narrative ends with unresolved questions: "What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks" (305). Certainly, adhered to these questions is a hope for future answers, but no real sense of closure. Instead, the perception of closure comes exclusively through June and Suyuan's story, which, as we have seen, simultaneously offers and rescinds this sense of resolution for the reader. Thus, by giving a sense of closure without "real" resolution, Tan's novel subverts the notion that the contradictions set up by both the content and form of her novel can be reconciled. For as Trinh has argued: "Closures need not close off; they can be doors opening onto other closures and functioning as ongoing passages to an elsewhere (-within-here) … The closure here … is a way of letting the work go rather than of sealing it off" (15).
Narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club invoke questions about origins, cultural identity, individual subjectivity, gendered identity, and history; they, therefore, enable a critical interrogation and reconfiguration of these ideas. Destabilizing a nationalist conception of cultural, national, and historical subjectivity, which relies heavily upon the recovery of origins, Tan's text suggests an alternative narrative based upon a feminist, contingent, contradictory, and heterogeneous conception of history. The understanding that narrative beginnings are integrally connected to questions of narrativity and social identity undermines notions of authentic subjectivity accomplished through the recovery of an originary historical moment. This study, through an illustrative reading of The Joy Luck Club, stresses the necessity of focusing instead on a broader, more fluid sense of the historical and material conditions giving rise to gendered and racialized subjectivities. This way of considering narrative beginnings is vital to ensuring that we attend to difference on all levels and in all formal elements of narrative, a focus which helps to make visible the roles these cultural factors play in our critical reading and writing practices.
- I would like to acknowledge the help and support of the following mentors, friends, and colleagues: Kandice Chuh, Brian Richardson, Emily Orlando, and Scott A. Melby.
- Although Edward Said's Beginnings is an example of an extensive philosophical examination of the concept of beginnings, Said does not include in this study a consideration of the formal functions of beginnings within narratives; nor does he consider the implications of social identity in relation to formal beginnings.
- Nutall's use of parentheses in this statement is particularly telling in that it seems to reveal a certain reluctance to admit that his all-male study may not be universally representative.
- This study of narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club is part of a larger project on beginnings in women's literature. The framework for the larger project has been derived through my examination of Tan's text.
- See Lisa Lowe, Melani McAlister, and Malini Johar Schueller for discussions of the misreading of Tan's novel. Lowe, for example, points to the tendency of The Joy Luck Club to be appropriated as a text that "privatizes social conflicts and contradictions" by figuring "broader social shifts of Chinese immigrant formation" as a "generational conflict" and "'feminized' relations between mothers and daughters" (78). She has asserted that The Joy Luck Club actually critiques the way this trope of mother-daughter relationships has become a symbol for Asian American culture and has rendered cultural and class differences in conceptions of gender invisible (80). Malini Johar Schueller uses Lisa Lowe's theories of ethnic and racial subjectivity to discuss how Tan's text works to "affirm a politics of resistance and difference," and to emphasize the "discursive nature of gender and ethnic identity" (74). Also see Patricia Hamilton and Yuan Yuan, who both offer alternative, perhaps less universalizing, readings of the "generational conflict."
While, as my examples show, many scholars have recently sought to look beyond the generational conflict that so clearly underestimates this text's complexity, most have not recognized the important role narrative form plays in The Joy Luck Club. I will be stressing this role.
- For example, some feminist scholars, such as Bonnie Braindlin and Gloria Shen, read Tan's text as a universal exploration of mother-daughter relationships. Similarly, such scholars of American literature as Walter Shear tend to identify The Joy Luck Club as an example of the "successful-immigrant" narrative. And still further, many scholars of Asian American literature such as Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong read Tan's text as a narrative which encourages orientalist views of the Chinese American community.
- Although there is not space to discuss each example, all of Tan's characters are involved in a search for an origin of some type. Each daughter, for example, searches in some way for her own origins as she seeks to know her mother. Furthermore, as Schueller has noted, this search for mothers may be interpreted as a metaphoric search for the motherland.
- Each character's search for a definitive moment of identity formation is similarly undermined. For instance, although each daughter comes closer to a complete knowledge of her mother, she can never fully achieve her goal, for much of the mother's past is unknowable. Moreover, the mothers only represent a small portion of the daughters' discursively constructed identities, which are variously formed by the stories their mothers tell, their education in U.S. schools, and their exposure to the media's representations of their cultural heritage.
- Although many feminist scholars of narrative assert that sequential narrative form is inherently conservative and restrictive, this essay takes the position that narrative form in and of itself is without inherent ideological value; the ideological valences are instead attributable to the "social uses that can be made of [narrative form]," to use Margaret Homan's words (7). See Brian Richardson in his recent essay "Linearity and Its Discontents: Rethinking Narrative Form and Ideological Valence," where he discusses this issue extensively, arguing against those who would assert inherent political value in literary form.
- For scholarship on narratives of nationalism, see Between Woman and Nation, eds. Kaplan et al.
Alarcón, Norma et al. "Introduction: Between Woman and Nation." Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Eds. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.
Balibar, Etienne and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. New York: Verson, 1991.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Braendlin, Bonnie. "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s In Around and About Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." Synthesis: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1.2 (Fall 1995): 41-53.
Chin, Frank. "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Eds. Jeffrey Chan et al. New York: Penguin, 1991.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
Hamilton, Patricia L. "Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." MELUS 24.2 (Summer 1999): 125-45.
Homans, Margaret. "Feminist Fictions and Feminist Theories of Narrative." Narrative 2 (1994): 3-16.
Hutchinson, John. "Cultural Nationalism and Moral Regeneration." Nationalism. Eds. John Hutchinson and Anthony B. Smith. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 122-31.
Katrak, Ketu H. "South Asian American Literature." An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. Kingkok Cheung. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 192-218.
Kellman, Steven G. "Grand Openings and Plain: The Poetics of First Lines." Sub-Stance 17 (1977): 139-47.
Lanser, Susan S. "Queering Narratology." Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology and British Women Writers. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996. 250-61.
Layoun, Mary N. "A Guest at the Wedding." Between Woman and Nation. Eds. Caren Kaplan et al. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 92-107.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.
McAlister, Melani. "(Mis)Reading The Joy Luck Club." Asian America: Journal of Culture and the Arts 1 (1992): 102-18.
Miller, Nancy K. "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction." PMLA 96 (1981): 36-48.
Moallem, Minoo and Iain A. Boal. "Multicultural Nationalism and the Poetics of Inauguration." Between Woman and Nation. Eds. Caren Kaplan et al. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 243-63.
Nuttall, A. D. Openings: Narrative Beginnings from the Epic to the Novel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Phelan, James. "Beginnings and Endings: Theories and Typologies of How Novels Open and Close." Encyclopedia of the Novel. Ed. Paul Schellinger. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998. 96-99.
Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
Richardson, Brian. "Linearity and its Discontents: Rethinking Narrative Form and Ideological Valence." College English. 2000.
Said, Edward W. Beginnings. New York: Basic Books Inc., Publishers, 1975.
Schueller, Malini Johar. "Theorizing Ethnicity and Subjectivity: Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." Genders 15 (Winter 1992): 72-85.
Shear, Walter. "Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club." Critique 34.3 (Spring 1993): 193-99.
Shen, Gloria. "Born of a Stranger: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Storytelling in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity. Westport: Greenwood P, 1995. 233-44.
Takagi, Dana Y. "Maiden Voyage: Excursion into Sexuality and Identity Politics in Asian America." Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong. New York: Routledge, 1996. 21-37.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books, 1989.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. When The Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia. "'Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon." The Ethnic Canon: Histories Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 175-210.
Yuan, Yuan. "The Semiotics of China Narratives in the Con/Texts of Kingston and Tan." Critique 40.3 (Spring 1999): 292-303.
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Bow, Leslie. "The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan." In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001, 345 p.
A bio-critical essay, with bibliography, concerned with The Joy Luck Club.
Braendlin, Bonnie. "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s In Around and About Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." Synthesis: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1, no. 2 (fall 1995): 41-53.
Offers a feminist approach to assessing Tan's depiction of mother-daughter relationships.
Cooperman, Jeanette Batz. The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1999, 239 p.
Examines domestic rituals as they appear in novels by major contemporary women writers, including Tan.
Heung, Mariña. "Daughter-Text-Mother/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club." Feminist Studies 19, no. 3 (fall 1993): 597-616.
Asserts that "despite Tan's explicit embrace of a daughter's perspective, The Joy Luck Club is remarkable for foregrounding the voices of mothers as well as of daughters."
Houston, Marsha. "Women and the Language of Race and Ethnicity." Women and Language 17, no. 1 (spring 1995): 1-7.
Traces the importance of multiple languages in The Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.
Huntley, E. D. Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, 184 p.
Collection of essays covering numerous aspects of Tan's work.
Nagel, James. The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of Genre. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2001, 297 p.
Examines ethnicity in The Joy Luck Club.
Souris, Stephen. "'Only Two Kinds of Daughters': Inter-monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club." MELUS 19, no. 2 (summer 1994): 99-124.
Uses dynamic reader models to illustrate how readers are challenged to find the interconnections in The Joy Luck Club.
Wachtel, Eleanor. "Amy Tan." In Writers and Company, pp. 273-89. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.
Interview in which Tan discusses the impact of her mother on her work; the role of women in Chinese society; and how differences between Chinese and American behavior have influenced her writing.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Tan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 10; Asian American Literature; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 9, 48; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 136; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 54, 105; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 59, 120, 151; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists, and Popular; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 3, 5; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 13, 16; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 9; and Something about the Author, Vol. 75.