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Amy Tan is one of the most significant contemporary Asian American women writers. Her novels have received both critical praise and popular success, and she is among the first women writers to bring Asian-American culture and experiences to a broad mainstream audience. Tan’s works, which focus on Chinese people who have immigrated to the United States, illustrate the difficulties of maintaining a dual cultural identity. Many of the conflicts her characters experience, however, transcend cultural differences and speak to the universal struggles of a broad and varied audience.
Biographical and Historical Context
Daughter of Chinese Immigrants
The second of three children, Amy Ruth Tan, whose Chinese name is Anmei (Blessing from America), was born on February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California. Her father, John Yuehhan Tan, an electrical engineer and Baptist minister, had emigrated to the United States in 1947; her mother, Daisy Tu Ching Tan, a vocational nurse, arrived in 1949. The family moved frequently among various California cities, eventually settling in Santa Clara. Like many of the mothers and daughters in Tan’s novels, Tan and her mother had a strained relationship. Tan’s mother had high expectations for her, and Tan felt pressured to excel. Also, her mother’s attire and accent embarrassed Tan as a child and adolescent.
When Tan was fifteen, both her older brother, Peter, and her father died of brain cancer. Her mother, believing the house occupied with evil spirits, took Tan and her brother John to New York, Washington, and Florida and finally to Europe. After Tan graduated from high school in Montreux, Switzerland, the family returned to the United States and settled in the San Francisco area. Tan switched from a premed major to English at Linfield College, a Baptist school in Oregon. After meeting Lou DiMattei on a blind date, eighteen-year-old Amy transferred to San Jose State University, where DiMattei was a law student, and put herself through college with the help of a scholarship and income from a job in a pizza parlor. She earned a BA in English and linguistics in 1973 and a master’s degree in linguistics in 1974.
In the spring of that same year, Tan married DiMattei. She began work on a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, but left the university in 1976 to take a position as a language-development specialist for disabled children. Frustrated with the administrative aspects of the job, in 1981 she became a reporter for the journal Emergency Room Reports, rising to managing editor and associate publisher in a matter of a few years. In 1983 she became a freelance technical writer and began producing pamphlets and other documents for corporations.
Although highly successful in her field, Tan began to feel that she had become addicted to work—she spent an average of ninety hours a week on the job. In her late thirties she underwent counseling to remedy the problem. When that counseling failed, Tan began her own program, which consisted of learning to play jazz piano and reading and writing fiction. Her first short story, ”The Rules of the Game,” earned her admission to the Squaw Valley
Community of Writers, directed by novelist Oakley Hall. That experience became part of the groundwork for her novel The Joy Luck Club, which was published in 1989.
An Instant Success
The Joy Luck Club was an instant success among both critics and readers. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for nine months. It also won the 1989 Bay Area Book Reviewer Award for Best Fiction and the Best Book for Young Adults Award from the American Library Association. In 1993, the novel was adapted into a critically acclaimed motion picture with Tan coauthoring the screenplay.
Tan continued her therapeutic exploration of mother-daughter relationships in her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991). The plot is a fictionalized version of the life of Daisy Tan, Amy’s mother. Having been asked by many of her friends whether she was the inspiration for the mother character in The Joy Luck Club, Daisy complained to her daughter that she wanted her real story told. Amy videotaped her mother telling her own life story and transformed it into her second novel. The final message of the novel is one of forgiveness and hope.
The success of her first two novels ensured Tan a loyal readership, and despite the fact that few of her subsequent novels or children’s books have received the critical acclaim of the first two, they have still been extremely popular among readers. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages, and several of her novels have been designated Notable Books by the New York Times.
Today, Tan continues to write and to pursue interests outside her work. She sings with the Rock Bottom Remainders, an authors’ rock-and-roll band that also includes Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Matt Groening, creator of the animated television series The Simpsons (beginning 1989). The group gives concerts across the United States and donates the proceeds to various charities. Tan also recently produced a libretto version of her novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), which was performed by the San Francisco Opera in 2008. She and her husband have homes in San Francisco and New York City.
Works in Literary Context
Tan’s novels belong to the subgenre of Chinese-American literature. Some major themes include alienation, the conflict of multiple identities, cultural differences, and generational differences. This last is particularly marked in many Chinese-American works, due to the immense cultural differences between China and the United States during the period in which the writers’ parents immigrated.
The subgenre is distinguished from mainstream writing primarily by its focus on Chinese traditions and the struggles of Chinese-Americans to come to terms with a multicultural identity. Maxine Hong Kingston, considered the most influential Chinese-American writer of the twentieth century, created a style consisting of an amalgamation of oral histories, family stories, myths, and fictionalizations, and it is this style against which many writers in this subgenre, such as Tan, continue to be compared.
While Tan’s work resembles Kingston’s in its tendency to blend family stories and myths with pure fiction, it is distinct in its fixation on and portrayal of mother-daughter relationships. Tan uses the techniques common to much Chinese-American fiction in order to explore a reality that is both specific to her culture and universal to all women.
Works in Critical Context
Critical reception of Tan’s work has been generally positive, though it has become less so throughout her career. Many critics, while praising Tan’s renditions of Chinese-American culture and mother-daughter relationships, have noted that she seems to be telling the same story over and over again. The fact that most of her novels become best-sellers despite their repetitive elements has been dubbed ”the Amy Tan phenomenon” and described by critic Sauling Wong as “naive voyeurism” on the part of ”nonintellectual consumers] of Orientalism.” Nevertheless, most critics agree that Tan’s writing has real significance in both the sphere of feminist and of Chinese-American writing.
The Joy Luck Club
Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, received almost unanimously favorable reviews. It won many awards and was on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list for nine months—longer than any other book that year. In addition to being extremely popular among readers, the novel also impressed critics with its portrayal of mother-daughter relationships and generational differences among immigrants and their children.
In her 1993 essay on matrilineage and mother/ daughter texts, Marina Heung praised the novel for ”foregrounding the voices of mothers as well as daughters, addressing what some critics saw as a flaw in novels exploring the same theme at that time. Marianne Hirsch had envisioned a work ”written in the voice of mothers, as well as those of daughters … [that] in combining both voices [finds] a double voice that would yield a multiple female consciousness. That consciousness was present, perhaps for the first time, in Tan s first novel.
The Kitchen God’s Wife
Tan’s second novel also garnered appreciative reviews. Elgy Gillespie in San Francisco Review of Books wrote, ”If anything, The Kitchen God’s Wife is a more satisfying book than its predecessor. It deals with the same themes, but more profoundly and sensitively, and its linear structure allows puzzle to be unraveled and truths to unfurl along the way.” Helen Yglesias, in Women’s Review of Books, took a similar view, writing that anyone who enjoyed The Joy Luck Club would also enjoy its successor, ”since both tell the same story—and this time around Tan has executed the work better in conception, in design, in detail, and in sheer pleasure for the reader.”
The Hundred Secret Senses With her third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan began to lose some of her status with critics. Because the novel’s themes are strikingly similar to those of her first two, Tan has been accused of merely trying to capitalize on her former successes. Pinchia Feng stated that Tan’s ”portrayal of China [in this novel] is at its most questionable,” largely due to the dependence of the plot on the concept of reincarnation. Feng writes: ”Instead of the revisionist mythmaking in her first two novels, Tan takes a step toward ‘Chinese superstitions’ to embrace the concept of reincarnation. The result, if sensational, is also unbelievable and disappointing.”
Many other critics expressed similar thoughts on her third novel. Nevertheless, The Hundred Secret Senses was popular among readers, as her successive works have continually proven to be as well.
- Feng, Pin-Chia. ”Amy Tan.” Reference Guide to American Literature. 3rd ed.Ed. Jim Kamp. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
- Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.
- Sau-Ling, Cynthia Wong. Reading Asian American Literatures: From Necessity to Extravagance Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Gillespie, Elgy. ”Amy, Angst, and the Second Novel.” San Francisco Review of Books (Summer 1991): 33-34.
- Heung, Maria. ”Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 597-616.
- Lelyveld, Nita. ”Mother As Muse: Amy Tan Had to Unravel the Mystery of Li Bingzi, Who Had Become the Voice of Her Novels.” Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine (February 28, 2001).
- Mones, Nicole. ”China Syndrome.” Washington Post Book World (February 11, 2001): 4.
- Reese, Jennifer. ”Review of Saving Fish from Drowning.” Entertainment Weekly (October 21, 2005): 78.
- Solomon, Charles. ”A Review of The Kitchen God’s Wife.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (July 5,1992): 10.
- Wang, Dorothy. ”A Review of The Joy Luck Club.” Newsweek, Vol. 113, no. 16 (April 17, 1989): 69.
- Yglesias, Helen. ”The Second Time Around.” Women’s Review of Books (September 1991): 1. 3.
- Zipp, Yvonne. ”A Life Recalled from China: A Daughter Struggles for Assimilation, while Mother Clings to Their Culture.” Christian Science Monitor (February 15, 2001): 20.
- ”Amy Tan.” Amy Tan Home Page. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://www.amytan.net.
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