The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Lily Thwaites

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Holly Summerson

Ying-Ying, you have tiger eyes. They gather fire in the day. At night they shine golden”’ – Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club 1989) (246)

Many times in my life I have wished to be more like my mother; she is strong, independent, smart, but also a little bit wild. When I was eleven, I went over to one of our bookshelves and found a fairly worn copy of The Joy Luck Club, picked it up and brought it to her. She told me to read it and I did.

Seven years later and only now am I beginning to understand the significance of this book for women like my mother; strong and independent women who were once caught between cultures, but also for others, who cannot grasp the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship strained in a cultural cross-fire. It is a book my mother and her friends have all given their partners to read, and it is one that deserves attention, specifically in English Literature syllabi, where I find texts with Asian influences are often disregarded.

It follows many stories of conflict between mothers and daughters, all of similar ages and of Chinese descent, now living as immigrants in America. Their tales are interwoven through The Joy Luck Club, a weekly gathering where the women play mah-jong, a routine that to the younger Jing-Mei (June) Woo has always seemed a “shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war” (28). These stories are knitted around the older women and their daughters, focusing on the clash between the daughters’ longing to be westernised and the mothers’ own concerns that their daughters do not know or truly appreciate their own personal experiences.

Amy Tan touches on incredibly personal familial moments and highlights the difficulties of not only a split in culture, but also a generational shift and the fight between the past and the present – all themes that are relevant to people of all cultures and ages. Furthermore, despite Chinese immigrants forming a huge part of the Western world, this is one of few books in English focusing purely on the experiences of Chinese women in a Western context. In the current climate of prejudice and mistrust, it is especially crucial to read narratives that cross cultural boundaries and establish relationships between cultures and generations. I believe this book is the perfect way to explore how culture is navigated within the Western world and the complex relationships between mothers and daughters where generational shifts can be testing.

As a novel by an Asian woman, about female relationships and cultural exploration, this book is often disregarded by reviewers and the male audience as ‘chick lit’ and hence refused the attention and discussion it deserves. Through her work Tan alludes to larger ideas “Isn’t hate merely the result of wounded love?” (154) and these transcend the text. I believe it is questions such as this that will aid increasing tolerance and understanding, not just through its Asian-centred narrative but also the understanding of culture and treatment of migrants. Whilst critics have argued that the text itself fulfils the “new Orientalist/Assimilationist paradigm, which poses a double bind on minority groups” (Yin, 2005, abstract), it is difficult to truly evaluate these claims; the text contains cultural allusions and allegory that bound it to this issue but also lend the text more nuance that this designation suggests. It both fulfils expectations and exploits them; the mothers arguably fulfil the “tiger mother” stereotype, as seen within the chapter named “Two Kinds”, but as the daughters and mothers grow together, the text portrays an intimacy that is erased within the “tiger mother” trope. There are differences between the women, their differing childhoods have led to this, but the bond between mother and daughter lingers: “to the daughters, who have grown up as Americans, life is about fulfilment; to the mothers, devotees of mah-jong, it is much more about strategy” (Mullan, 2013).

To observe the novel as simply fulfilling and building on cultural stereotypes would be to misread it. While the book is a work of fiction, the characters and stories speak to the real experiences of a generation of Chinese women immigrants like my mother, which undoubtedly is why the text has received such enthusiastic reception and lasting success commercially. The Joy Luck Club deserves academic attention equal to its popular readership, whether within cultural studies or English Literature. The absence of texts representing experiences from cultures beyond the white and Western within university curricula, an absence that is especially pronounced regarding narratives depicting people of Asian descent, needs to be addressed; the inclusion of texts like The Joy Luck Club is vital for discussion, helping demystify various cultures and break down prejudice through diversification.

“And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go” (289).

Works cited:

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. 1989. Minerva, 1990.

Yin, Jing. Constructing the Other: A Critical Reading of The Joy Luck Club Abstract, Howard Journal of Communications, 16:3, 2005, DOI: 10.1080/10646170500207899

Mullan, John. “John Mullan on The Joy Luck Club – Guardian Book Review” The Guardian. 16th November 2013.

About the author:

Lily Thwaites is an undergraduate studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the
University of Warwick. She hopes to evoke political and cultural discussion and increase
social tolerance through her own personal work, of which she recently wrote a thirty-minute
play Debris on the Syrian Refugee Crisis under the National Theatre’s Young Playwright
scheme ‘New Views’.

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