Amy Tan’s beloved, New York Times bestselling tale of mothers and daughters, now the focus of a new documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on Netflix
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who's "saying" the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. "To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable." Forty years later the stories and history continue.
With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
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About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco, California and New York, New York
Date of Birth:February 19, 1952
Place of Birth:Oakland, California
Education:B.A., San Jose State University, 1973; M.A., 1974
What People are Saying About This
Winner of the 2012 Fifty Books/Fifty Covers show, organized by Design Observer in association with AIGA and Designers & Books
Winner of the 2014 Type Directors Club Communication Design Award
Praise for Joy Luck Club:
"Honest, moving, and beautifully courageous. Amy Tan shows us China, Chinese-American women and their families, and the mystery of the mother-daughter bond in ways that we have not experienced before."
"Tracing the poignant destinies of two generations of tough, intelligent women, each gorgeously written page welcomes the reader and leads to an enlightenment that, like all true wisdom, sometimes brings pleasure and sometimes sadness."
Praise for Penguin Drop Caps:
"[Penguin Drop Caps] convey a sense of nostalgia for the tactility and aesthetic power of a physical book and for a centuries-old tradition of beautiful lettering."
“Vibrant, minimalist new typographic covers…. Bonus points for the heartening gender balance of the initial selections.”
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
"The Penguin Drop Caps series is a great example of the power of design. Why buy these particular classics when there are less expensive, even free editions of Great Expectations? Because they’re beautiful objects. Paul Buckley and Jessica Hische’s fresh approach to the literary classics reduces the design down to typography and color. Each cover is foil-stamped with a cleverly illustrated letterform that reveals an element of the story. Jane Austen’s A (Pride and Prejudice) is formed by opulent peacock feathers and Charlotte Bronte’s B (Jane Eyre) is surrounded by flames. The complete set forms a rainbow spectrum prettier than anything else on your bookshelf."
—Rex Bonomelli, The New York Times
"Classic reads in stunning covers—your book club will be dying."
Reading Group Guide
Through the stories of The Joy Luck Club, we peer into the secret-laden lives of eight Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. The daughters reject their mothers’ seemingly constant criticism of everything they choose, from husbands to hairdos. They view their mothers’ warnings as irrelevant, and their advice as intrusive. The daughters do not know what has inspired their warnings and advice: the hardships their mothers suffered in China before coming to America. Thus, as the mothers see it, their daughters are flailing in their modern American circumstances, unable to use what is “in their bones,” the family’s inheritance of pain that led to their determined strength for survival, which their mothers try to bequeath them. The mothers, meanwhile, watch with heartache as their daughters’ marriages fail, as they expect less and less and so accept less and less. They recall moments in their past when they were faced with similar circumstances but defied what they believed was bad fate in order to find their true worth.
The book begins in the voice of June (Jing-mei) Woo, a woman in her thirties, who lives in San Francisco. Her mother, Suyuan, has died unexpectedly, and now her mother’s longtime friends in the Joy Luck Club have invited June to take her mother’s place at the mahjong table, where stories spanning seven decades are recalled above the din of swirling tiles. To these aunties, June confesses what every mother fears: that mother and daughter never understood each other. To the daughters, their mothers’ hopes translated into impossible expectations. Their warnings were backward superstitions. Their love was not embracing but suffocating. In interwoven voices, mothers and daughters privately recall pivotal moments from their past, as girls and as young women, when they failed their mothers in public and private ways, and thus built walls to protect themselves in the future.
The individual stories are grouped into four sections, each tied together by emotional themes. The first section concerns sacrifice and loss, what is meant by giving of oneself and giving up. As recalled by June, Suyuan tells of giving up her life to save her twin babies during wartime, only to learn she has survived but her babies have been lost. An-mei recalls the pain of watching her mother sacrifice her own flesh to save the life of her own mother, who has already disowned her. Lindo recounts her submission to an arranged marriage but not to a fate handed to her by someone else. And Ying-Ying remembers a time when she could not stand still in another person’s shadow, as required of her, and by giving into her desire for the wrong things, she later gave up her spirit.
In the next two sections, the daughters recall moments of uncertainty, anger, or fear in childhood. They are also stories of resistance and rebellion and the rejection of what they see as false beliefs their mothers have tried to instill. Waverly, a chess prodigy, thinks she has grown more clever than the mother who gave her “invisible strength.” Lena fears being drawn into her mother’s madness and consoles herself by imagining others having a life worse than hers. Rose, whose mother cannot let go of the memory of her son who drowned, now believes that by hoping for less, you aren’t as vulnerable to loss. And June believes it was her mother’s impossibly high expectations that make her feel that even today, she is a failure. The reverberations of these childhood lessons reveal themselves when the four grown daughters face marital conflicts, career setbacks, and the despair of never having found what mattered to them. They must now choose for the future yet do not know what to do.
In the final section, the mothers’ and daughters’ stories intertwine and reveal how hope and love can transform sadness, anger, despair, and fears from the past. The Joy Luck Club is about the power of storytelling between generations: to know your family’s past is to know yourself, and with that knowledge, you are free to shape your own destiny. Through storytelling, the fragile bonds between mother and daughter are pulled and tightened, as each feels what the other means by hope.
The Joy Luck Club is a portrait of four fictional families set against the backdrop of China and America, yet the discoveries of family legacy and individual identity, of clashes and reconciliation, are universal to us all.
ABOUT AMY TAN
Amy Tan is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Joy Luck Club , The Kitchen God's Wife , and The Opposite of Fate , which was also a New York Times Notable Book. With millions of copies in print, Tan's books continue to draw new readers and are often adopted in schools and municipal reading programs across the United States. Tan was also a coproducer and coscreenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club , and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She is the literary editor for WEST , the weekly magazine produced by the Los Angeles Times. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives with her husband in New York and San Francisco.
A CONVERSATION WITH AMY TAN
Q. The Joy Luck Club was your first book. Were you surprised at how successful it became, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for more than half a year? How did your life change after the publication of this book?
I wrote this book with no expectations that it would be read by very many people. I had been told that the typical first book by an unknown writer might sell five thousand copies—if you were lucky. I heard that it might last on the bookstore shelves six weeks—if you were lucky. With these reasonable expectations, I wrote The Joy Luck Club without the self-consciousness I would later feel when the book landed on the bestseller list. No one had predicted the book’s trajectory, and I was stunned, as if I had won the lottery without having ever bought a ticket.
This may sound strange, but the book’s unexpected success scared me. Instead of being jubilant, I was upset that my former life had been usurped by success that was out of control. I didn’t know how to prepare for further change, good or bad. I kept telling myself week in and week out, that this would wind down the following week. Instead it escalated, and I was soon inundated with requests for interviews and appearances, which created even more chaos and anxiety. In part, I did not want to trust it or embrace it, thinking it was illusory and dangerous. When I tried to write a second book, I was unnerved by the expectations. I had constant back pain from the perceived weight of public pressure.
Seven months passed before I accepted my new life and the joy that I could write fiction the rest of my life. But I also wrote down the focus of my life and my writing, what mattered most, because I knew I would need the reminder when another cycle of chaos might ensue. It is easy to lose sight of what is valuable and meaningful in the blinding lights of commercial success. I always ask myself what is important now and what will remain so, despite other people’s opinions, the ups and downs of the marketplace, or good or bad reviews.
Q. In many reviews and articles written about The Joy Luck Club, it is referred to as a novel, but you have said that you consider it to be a collection of short stories. It’s true that each vignette featuring your eight main characters is self-contained and could easily stand on its own, but the overall effect of the stories when they are read in succession is a narrative arc reminiscent of a novel. How did you approach writing these stories? How did you decide how to arrange them?
My process was confusion. I wrote a short story to attend my first writers conference in 1985. It covered in thirteen pages the life of a character from age six to age thirty-six. Writer Molly Giles critiqued my work and said it had no consistent voice and a dozen story threads, but no true narrator or story. She suggested I start over and choose one story thread and one voice. But what is a voice and what is a story, I wondered. Which came first. Molly advised I write and see. So I wrote a story about a chess champion and her mother. Much to my surprise, I could see a voice and a story emerge. The voice was not dialogue but that inner voice of a person with secret thoughts. And the story had less to do with plot as it did with a transformation of perspective by the end. There were more surprises. Based on Molly’s recommendation, a little magazine, with a circulation of three hundred, asked to see my story. They took it and paid me $35. I was a success. (That editor, by the way, has since become editor-in-chief of a well-known publishing company.)
I went on to write a second story, this one in the voice of an older woman. In between, an agent saw the first published story and asked to represent me. I had nothing to sell, so she badgered me every week to write another story. I did, and then she asked me to write up a description of what a whole book of these kinds of stories might include so that she might find interested publishers. I thought she was unrealistically optimistic, so I spent only a few hours conjuring story ideas that came off the top of my head, each described in about three sentences. Because the other three stories were unrelated, I wove them into a premise: They would be stories concerning five families, and of older and younger voices, all of whom belonged to a community. The community, I decided, would be a social group, the Joy Luck Club. The five families were reduced to four when I ran out of story ideas that afternoon. I did not intentionally limit the stories to those of mothers and daughters. That naturally came to be, and I only recognized it in retrospect. When the book was published, the short story collection was called a novel by reviewers.
So there you have it, the writer’s process on how a story became a novel.
Q. All of the stories in this book involve relationships between mothers and daughters. How much did your relationship with your own mother influence each story? Are there two characters in particular who mirror your own experience as the American-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant?
My relationship with my mother has much to do with each story. Shortly after I started writing fiction, my mother suffered what I was told was a heart attack. In those moments when I thought she might have died, I promised that if she lived I would go to China with her, meet her other daughters from her first marriage, and beg her to tell me the stories I’ve avoided hearing all my life. That was the reason I went to China, why I started with a story about a daughter who has just lost her mother, and who later travels for the first time to China and meets her half-sisters who were left behind.
The stories are not a mirror of either me or my mother. They are more like refractions, different angles of some part of us, a bending of what really happened. My mother was alive when I wrote the story, but what would I have felt if she had died? I began a story that concerned exactly that: “My father has asked me to take my mother’s place at the mah jong table.” My mother had wanted me to be a prodigy and tried to cultivate me to become one at the piano. I wrote about a girl who is a chess prodigy, whose mother has cultivated a talent in her called “invisible strength.” I wanted to rebel against my mother’s ideas and choose what I wanted to do. Waverly rebels against her mother, thinking she has become smarter and no longer needs to take her advice. My mother left behind three daughters in China and eventually was reunited with them. I met them when I went to China with my mother in 1987. In the story version, my mother believed her twin baby daughters died during the war, and after the mother died, June learns the other daughters are alive and goes to meet them. What is common to both the real and fictional is a connection to the past and seeing what is shared despite circumstances.
The subterfuge of fiction is necessary for me as a writer to find truths. I know that sounds contradictory. To me, writing fiction is about cloaking myself in a subterfuge, making myself the hidden observer. But what often happens is my realizing some of observations have to do with what is hidden in my family and in me.
There is another strong influence of my mother in the way I write fiction. When she told stories of her past, she would act as if the memory was the same as the moment she was in. She would act out the scene as if it were unfolding in front of her, an invisible scene with ghosts, with her relaying to me what was occurring with an immediacy of details and emotions.
During one storytelling session, my mother’s eyes turned to one side of my living room, and she grew rigid with a challenging posture. “That bad man is walking in,” she said and practically spit the words out. “He is shouting that everyone should go down on their knees and knock their head on the floor to show respect.” She pantomimed people bowing quickly hands over their head. She went on: “He is pointing a gun and everyone is falling down but me. Go ahead and kill me, I tell him, and he is putting the gun in my face, right here, and everyone is screaming, and suddenly he is laughing and he is putting the gun down. He is telling everybody it is only a joke. He is happy he fooled them into being scared. Only a joke! I know it is not a joke.”
When I write, I try to see the scene as if it is unfolding before me. That’s how my mother influenced my stories.
Q. The Joy Luck Club was made into a feature film in 1993, and you wrote the screenplay for it. What was that experience like? What are your thoughts on the resulting film? Would you consider adapting any of your other works of fiction for movies?
In spite of being aware and wary of all the bad things that can happen to writers who dream of turning their novels into films, I had a surprisingly good experience, and it resulted in a movie I love. In the beginning, I turned down several offers to option the book, because I feared that someone would make a film that was appalling in its depictions of Chinese people, for example, that people would wear coolie hats and have curved dagger fingernails, even though they were not in the rice fields or selling opium to Charlie Chan. But then I met two people who seemed to understand the heart of this book in ways I had never considered. They were the director Wayne Wang and the screenwriter Ron Bass. Together we spent three days talking about the heart of the story, and Ron broke it all down into minute-by-minute “beats” or scenes. He also created a clear structure into which all the stories would fit: the farewell party for June, in which all the mothers and daughters are gathered, to wish her well on her trip to China to meet her late mother’s long-lost daughters.
With this outline, I took the first stab at writing the dialogue. I’d send a few pages to Ron by fax, and he would make drastic notes and changes, then fax them back to me. I would rewrite and move on. It was an intense kind of teamwork, no time wasted, a creative high, and ultimately the best class on screenwriting I could have ever taken, private lessons with the master, earn while you learn.
The three of us made a pact we would not sell the screenplay or rights to the book until we found a studio that would give us total creative control, meaning we controlled the screenplay, the choice of location and actors, the filming, the editing, all the way to the final cut. In the movie industry, that’s nearly impossible to get. But I believed all along that the process of writing this screenplay with two great professionals was the reason for doing it. If it was never made it to film, that was fine. It would have still been time and effort well spent and without regrets. When we did find a studio willing to give us total creative control, that was a bonus. Strangely enough, the studio insisted I also be a coproducer. To this day, I have no idea what a producer does, except go to meetings and say yes to some things and no to others.
I was offered other opportunities to make films. But all of those projects would have also required that I be involved as both writer and producer. That would then require me to give up writing fiction for the two- or three-year period it takes to create a movie. I did become a creative consultant in turning my children’s book Sagwa into an animated television series for PBS. But that was a time-limited involvement of just a few months. Once again, I linked up with good people—and by that, I mean people both talented and with ethics, integrity, and a genuine heart. The series turned out better than I ever could have imagined. I get twinges in my heart when little kids shyly tell me they watch Sagwa. It reminds me of myself as a kid watching cartoons and wondering who made them.
Q. The book is framed by Jing-mei Woo’s story. Her mother, Suyuan, created the Joy Luck Club, and following her recent death Jing-mei must take her place at the gathering. Though this club serves as the title of the book and the unifying theme for all of the characters, there are not many meetings of the club recalled throughout the stories—many of the stories take place long before the club was conceived. What made you decide to use the Joy Luck Club as the backbone of the book but not focus on it in the action? How did you come up with the concept of “Joy Luck”?
The Joy Luck Club is the framework, the basis for the community, and a way to relate what would otherwise be disconnected stories and disparate characters with indivdual pasts. I was more interested in the individuals than the whole, the structure. And once the structure had been established, there was no need to keep returning to it.
The stories are also connected by the kind of hope common to immigrants, that the new country will bring them joy and luck, those two things linked to become joy luck, and this was in contrast to bad luck, the kind that had plagued many of them.
The club does have some basis in my life. My father and mother belonged to the real Joy Luck Club, and in fact, my father named it. I grew up with the daughters of other families, and we would have slumber parties and listen to our parents playing mahjong and talking loudly through the night. At midnight, they ate dim sum, and sometimes we were allowed to have a late snack with them. Having grown up with the real Joy Luck Club, I thought the name was unremarkable. And when asked by my agent to come up with a title for a proposed collection for which only three stories had been written, I chose Wind and Waterafter the notions of feng shui, the arrangement of elements that determine harmony with nature. This was when few people knew what feng shui meant, and my agent thought Wind and Water was both esoteric and precious. She suggested I change it to the title of the first story, The Joy Luck Club. I didn’t particularly like the title, but I assumed no one would buy the proposal, so I let her call it what she wanted. Lucky for me.
Q. All four of the women in the Joy Luck Club attend the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco when they move there, though not all of them were raised Christian. The church serves as a meeting place for many immigrants, a place where they can take English classes and where their children are given Christmas presents. China is not a traditionally Christian nation, but when the characters go to the church, the issue of religion does not become problematic. What are your thoughts on the many Chinese immigrants to the United States who have become Christians? And what of those who have not? Do you feel that there is any tension between the spiritual beliefs that are important in Chinese culture as opposed to those dominant in Western Christian doctrine?
Christianity has a long history in China and found a lot of compatibility with the poor. And it also had a role in rebellions by the poor, in particular during the Taiping Rebellion and Boxer Uprising. It is an evangelistic religion that seeks to convert the ignorant and nonbelievers. This is unlike the goals of other religions, such as Judaism or Buddhism.
On the Tan side of my family, my great-grandfather, who did not come from a wealthy family, was able to receive an education at a missionary school, where he learned to read, write, and speak English. Being a Christian did not prevent people from keeping other Chinese traditions, such as praying to ancestors. My great-grandfather’s conversion may have been sincere, but in his later years, he also took on a young concubine, who bore him a son when he was eighty-five years old. The latter was related to me as proof of my great-grandfather’s vitality, but nothing was said about the young concubine, or the circumstances that led her to become the possession of an old man. Yet she was my great-grandmother, and the son she bore was my grandfather. He also was educated in a Christian school. My grandfather continued the tradition and passed along both his linguistic skills and his religious fervor to his fourteen children, the oldest of which was my father. They also helped maintain the Tan family temple, the building where the family prayed to our ancestors—or perhaps they now prayed for them. With help from Baptist missionaries, my father was able to come to the States, where he enrolled in the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School and became minister of the First Chinese Baptist Church of Fresno. Because of financial need, he eventually returned to his original profession as an electrical engineer but continued to devote his spare time to the ministry.
My mother was not raised as a Christian, but she grew up in Shanghai, where it was not unusual for people to have contact with Westerners and Christian beliefs. Both Shanghai and Beijing had been divided into foreign concessions, and my mother lived in the French Concession in a yang fang yuan, a foreign garden house, meaning Western in style. She was raised without any religion in particular, but had the motley beliefs common to many of the well-to-do of her generation, that is, rituals for showing respect to ancestors, a fear of unhappy ghosts (for some reason ghosts were never happy), and a belief in reincarnation, which could explain a lot of things, like curses, fate, and acceptance of your bad circumstances. At times my mother believed I was a reincarnation of someone she had wronged, and I had come back as karmic revenge to make her life miserable. Today, my father’s side of the family continues their evangelism in Taiwan and China. My mother’s side of the family adheres to no religion, Chinese or Western. But they enjoy any excuse for a feast and they adopt all kinds of rituals, which include sending me Christmas cards, which, when opened, play an obnoxious electronic version of “Silent Night.”
Q. The Joy Luck Club was first published in 1989. How has your perspective on the book changed over the intervening seventeen years? Which characters or stories have remained most vivid in your mind? Is there anything that you would change about the book if you could?
The book exists for me in its own time capsule. It contains the circumstances that led me to write it. In many ways, it is an intimate diary of my ordinary thoughts and strange obsessions, all of which were absorbed into the writing of the book. So there is nothing I would change. I feel that way about each book. They all exist for their particular reasons. I can’t change the reasons so I would not change the book.
What’s most vivid to me about the book are the images that directly relate to something highly emotional in our family: my grandmother cutting a bit of flesh from her arm to make her dying mother a soul, the rape and death of my grandmother. They are the images in the stories “Scar” and “Magpies.” Within that is the extreme pain that has passed through our family. I think that’s in part why I am a writer. Sometimes I think my grandmother, who had no voice of her own, paved the way with a lot of lucky coincidences so that I would become a writer and give voice to what had happened to her.
Q. All four of the daughters in this book have ended up unlucky in love in one way or another—Jing-mei is still single at forty, Waverly is about to get married for the second time, and both Rose and Lena are on the verge of divorce. Most of them have also married Caucasian American men, and there is a good deal of tension between their parents (especially the mothers) and their spouses. What made you decide to have all of the girls marry white men? What were your intentions when you created those unions? Were you influenced by any couples you have known or relationships you have personally experienced?
My intentions in writing stories are always personal. Before I was published I never felt the self-consciousness that results from an unknown public reading my stories. It did not occur to me that the details of the story might raise questions about what was being represented as a larger sociological phenomenon about mixed marriages. So what I wrote was only based on the familiar. My husband is not Chinese. Among my American-born Chinese friends and relatives, all of them married a non-Chinese. People might say this is proof that we American-born Chinese believed white people were more desirable. I think the choice of white men or white women as spouses was related more to opportunity, the opportunity to meet a lot of Caucasians and the few opportunities to meet other Chinese people. The only Chinese boys I knew when I was growing up were my brothers, my cousins, and the boys I babysat while their parents played mahjong with mine. By the time I was in junior high school, we lived in the suburbs where there were no Asians. Even in college, there were only two Asians, and one became a good friend. He and I used to joke that we were supposed to marry one another because we were Asian. I met my future husband in my freshman year, so that was the end of my dating career. My mother once confided in me that she had expected I would marry a waiguo ren, a “foreigner” which is how she referred to anyone not Chinese. She knew I would not be able to meet too many Chinese boys, and she never voiced disappointment that Lou was not Chinese. The mothers in the book are not critical of their daughters’ choice in men purely on the basis of race. As with my mother, the concerns had more to do with whether the man truly respected and cared for the daughter. My mother, for example, wanted Lou to prove his love for me by standing up to his parents when they suggested we break things off. She told him to “invest” in our marriage—to buy me twenty-four-carat gold, so that if I became unhappy, I could put the gold on a scale, sell it, then start a new life. She told him to buy me a piano so that I could put to work those fifteen years of piano lessons, and also to make Lou think twice about ever leaving me; that would also mean leaving behind a very expensive piano. Her methods of ensuring a long-lasting marriage must work, because Lou and I are still together after thirty-six years.
Like the mothers in the stories, my mother had a suspicious view of all men that was drawn from experience. Her mother had been raped, forced to become a concubine, and she later killed herself to escape. My mother was married off to a bad man, who lied, gambled, cheated, and flaunted his infidelities by bringing other women home. He also raped little girls. My mother warned me when I was child not to kiss men, because it would lead to the disgrace of “used-goods syndrome,” which included shame, disease, unwanted babies, family disgrace, insanity, suicide, and finally, unhappy ghosthood. With that prospect tied to a kiss, I’m lucky I married at all!
Q. What kind of book would result if Jing-mei, Rose, Lena, and Waverly were telling their stories to their daughters? What are your thoughts on the next generation of Chinese American women coming of age? How important is it for them to have their mothers’ and grandmothers’ life stories repeated to them?
I have not thought about the first question. But here’s a stab at it: The daughters of the Joy Luck Club would do everything possible to raise their daughters without criticism; without expectations that they’d become prodigies, doctors, or good wives; and without promoting the notion that romance would lead to shame and suicide. So they’d choose to tell stories about people who plant trees, about girls who are athletes and astronauts or social workers, jobs that are based on their own passions, and about people of different colors living in harmony and saving the earth. But in this new generation of stories, the daughters-now-mothers would realize they have not given their kids what is necessary, especially when their daughters fall into crisis, for example, when they nearly overdose on drugs, or when they drop out of school and fall into depression, or when they are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, or when they are attacked by a sexual predator, or when they, in an instance of road rage, hit a bicyclist and are charged with a crime. The mothers will then tell their daughters stories about their family—from great-grandmothers to grandmothers to themselves, and the stories will be about those times when we are lost, when we have lost who matters and what matters. The stories will be about the family and what it has already faced generations ago, how it has survived many times, no matter what the circumstances given or chosen for us. And the reasons they have survived have to do with a family inheritance of love and hope, and the realization that love and hope are really the same thing.
Q. The Joy Luck Club is widely used as part of high school reading curricula, falling under the category of “multicultural literature.” You have said on a number of a occasions that you’re uncomfortable with that label. Could you talk a little bit about that, and about your thoughts on an American literary canon that is becoming more “multicultural” in this new century?
That is a very complex question and it deserves a longer discussion among many people. Whatever remarks I make here, I hope people will continue with their own thoughts.
Some of my past remarks about my discomfort with labels in literature had to do with what was happening fifteen to twenty years ago. There was American Literature, which consisted mostly of books by dead white males, and there was Women’s Literature, Black Literature, and Multicultural Literature, which was also called “required reading.” The labels were there because those books had not been included in the regular canon of literature.
Here’s an example of how things have changed. In the past, The Joy Luck Club was included on required reading lists because the stories were different from the mainstream and thus would give young readers exposure to another culture. Those were in the days when communities were not that diverse. The irony today is that educators select my book so that young readers can identify with the story. The student population is multicultural and the same books once selected to understand others are now chosen to understand ourselves.
What is in the canon of American literature now includes many different voices, reflecting that America includes many different voices. But I still feel it’s important to examine how we treat any book as subject matter rather than story. There still exists a tendency to evaluate stories with characters from a different culture as being about culture. So when we hear the words “required reading,” we should be asking ourselves, “What are we requiring literature to do?”
Let me hasten to add that I am honored to be on required reading lists. My biggest fear these days is that some student will see the name of my book on the list and groan with disgust. But I hope that students will also sense after reading it that I was not just writing about Chinese people or just mothers or daughters. I was simply writing a story. I’d like the student to know that I felt something unexpected when I was writing the story and it means something only to me. Maybe the student will feel something unexpected when reading it. There is so much that a story can do that is not required. It just happens.
Q. Before you wrote The Joy Luck Club, you were working as a linguistics teacher. If you were not a writer today, what other career could you picture yourself in?
I can also imagine myself being a composer. When I played the piano as a child, I saw stories in music. Sonatas contained long stories. Preludes contained short stories. I dream on occasion that I am able to write sonatas effortlessly, with full orchestration and motifs that weave in and out of the sections of the orchestra. I actually do some composing when I am awake as well. When I sing in the shower, I create brilliant songs, most of them about my dogs, who are staring at me as I shampoo my hair. The songs are somehow not as brilliant when the water is turned off.
I would also like to be an artist. That was my secret childhood dream from the age of seven on. I liked to do pencil renderings. I drew pictures of my cat in different poses, and the pictures had both a precise and soft quality to them. They captured a moment of what my cat was like lying in the sun or watching a fly or lying in my lap. I definitely would not be a watercolorist. To be a good one, you have to commit brush to paper with a sense of confidence. You can’t be tentative. You can’t muddy it up with constant dabbing. You can’t erase. I once took a class in clay sculpture and, apart from an aversion to getting my hands dirty and sticky, I enjoyed the process enormously. My writing has the qualities of sculpture. I start with a lump and shape it, taking away chunks, slapping on bits, smoothing it out, looking at it from all kinds of angles, then mashing it back to a lump to start over again. Some people hate revision. I enjoy it.
Q. The Joy Luck Club is divided into four sections, each preceded by a brief tale that in some way reflects each stage of the eight women’s lives. These stories read like small myths—in fact there are many mythological elements in this book. What was your inspiration for the four tales? What about the book as a whole—what kind of allegorical meaning did you intend for it to have?
I am ashamed to admit that the mythlike tales were the result of structural retrofitting, an afterthought posed by my editor Faith Sale at Putnam. After I turned in my manuscript, I met with Faith a couple of months later. We went to an old-time New York restaurant with dark wood-paneled booths. We spread the stories across the table, and she told me we needed to reorder them in a way that felt right and made sense. We tried doing it chronologically, then by family relationship, and later by alternating voices of mothers and daughters. Eventually, we settled on an order that was simply intuitive—what felt right. What emerged was an emotional arc spanning the sixteen stories. Those stories naturally fell into four groups of four stories. I sensed that each group of four had its own emotional arc. Some were more about loss, some were more about hope, and so forth. Faith asked that I create short vignettes that would delineate the section and suggest the connectedness of the stories within. I went looking for sources of inspiration and found them in a Chinese almanac and a book of four-character sayings. Within those sources were elements that suggested fairy tales: a magic feather, the warnings of the twenty-four malignant gates, the harmony found in feng shui, and the wisdom of a baby passing along her naïve wisdom to the queen mother of the Western sky.
With each, I added some personal aspects to the story. My uncle in Beijing, for example, once gave me a gift and used the expression “a swan feather from a thousand li away” to mean it was a little bit of nothing but it had a lot of heart, so it was worth a lot. This reminded me of my mother’s belief that the more work something required, the more it was worth. Struggles were good. So I struggled to write those four vignettes and finished my book, hoping my editor would see its worth.