Amy Tan is the author of four best-selling novels and two children's books. Although her novels largely deal with the experiences of Chinese people and Chinese-Americans, her exploration of the relationships between family members, particularly mothers and daughters, gives her writing a universal appeal. Tan's critically acclaimed first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award and was later made into a film. (Bloom, 22-58) In 1949, John Tan asked his future wife, Daisy, to join him in the United States. Daisy had divorced her first husband because he was abusive. She left three young daughters behind in China when she came to America. Amy only learned of the existence of her mother's other children many years later, after her father's death. (Bloom, 22-58)
Among the foreign students there, Amy felt a sense of belonging that had eluded her when she attended school in the United States. She also developed a rebellious streak, and was briefly involved with a group of drug dealers. She graduated from the international high school a year early in 1969 and returned to the U.S.
Her Life and Work Analysis
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Amy enrolled at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, but spent only two semesters there before transferring to San Jose City College. She later switched her major from pre-medicine to a double major in English and linguistics. She transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1972 and a master's degree in linguistics the following year.
Tan married Louis De Mattei, a tax attorney, in 1974. She began pursuing a doctorate in linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, but a personal tragedy changed the course of her career. After a close friend was murdered during a robbery, Tan withdrew from the doctoral program and began working as a language development specialist for the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens. After four years, she became an editor for a medical journal. In 1983, Tan formed a partnership with a friend and began working as a freelance business writer, composing speeches and other materials for corporations. Although the partnership was short-lived, Amy became very successful as a freelancer and within a few years, she had earned enough money to buy a home for her mother. (Ling, 1-9)
Eventually, Tan felt that her work was unfulfilling and sought a more creative outlet for her talents. She began reading more novels, particularly those written by women. One of her major influences was "Love Medicine," a book of stories about Native Americans by Louise Erdrich. Tan was encouraged to try writing short stories on her own. One of her stories, entitled "Endgame," led to an invitation to join the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a workshop for fiction writers, in 1985. This story was later published by a local literary magazine, and was reprinted in "Seventeen" magazine. On the basis of the story, Sandra Dijkstra offered to become Tan's literary agent. (Snodgrass, 98-298)
Dijkstra requested that Tan write more short stories and an outline for a possible book. After Tan's mother was hospitalized due to an apparent heart attack, Tan decided that they would visit China together when her mother was well enough to travel and that she would write a book. During their trip to China in 1987, Tan met two of her half-sisters for the first time and gained a new perspective of her mother's early life. Upon her return to the United States, Amy discovered that her book outline had been sold to G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Tan's first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," was published in 1989. There was a great deal of interest in the book even before its publication, thanks to Tan's willingness to help promote it. Although it is regarded as a novel, "The Joy Luck Club" is really a collection of stories about the relationships between four Chinese immigrant women and their Chinese American daughters in San Francisco. The book spent over 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award. (Snodgrass, 98-298)
Tan's second novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife," is largely based on events that transpired while her mother and grandmother lived in China. It is the story of a woman who escapes her abusive husband but loses custody of her children in the process. Like the novel's protagonist, Winnie Louie, Daisy Tan served time in prison before fleeing to the United States, leaving her children behind. The book was well received by critics and readers. (Bloom, 22-58)
In early 1992, Tan was invited to perform at the American Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim with a rock group comprised of authors. The group, called The Rock Bottom Remainders, subsequently toured the U.S. to raise money for charity. Other members included Stephen King and his wife Tabitha, Barbara Kingsolver, and Dave Barry. Tan switched genres in 1992, with the publication of "The Moon Lady," a children's book. The story is about a seven-year-old girl who attends the autumn moon festival in China, hoping to meet the magical title character who will grant all of her wishes. (Bloom, 22-58)
Around this time, Tan returned to China in order to work on the movie version of "The Joy Luck Club." The film, directed by Wayne Wang, was released in 1993. Tan wrote the screen adaptation and served as one of the film's producers.
Tan had planned to follow up "The Kitchen God's Wife" with a novel about a missionary from Ohio and a young boy during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900. However, she abandoned the project because she thought she had discussed it too much in public and no longer felt enthusiastic about the idea. "The Chinese Siamese Cat," a children's book based on the adventures of Tan's pet cat Sagwa, was published in 1994. An animated television series based on the book premiered on PBS in 2001. (Bloom, 22-58)
Tan's third novel for adults, "The Hundred Secret Senses," appeared in 1995. It was greeted with mixed reviews, because some reviewers had trouble accepting the subjects of reincarnation and the supernatural. However, like its predecessors, the book became a bestseller.
Tan returned to China in 1996 to speak at a fundraising dinner intended to raise money for Chinese orphans. However, Chinese police raided the hotel in Beijing where the event was scheduled to take place, on the pretext that the organizers had not obtained the proper permits for the event. Although the dinner took place as planned, Tan was not allowed to speak. The raid may have been prompted by criticism from foreign human rights' groups of the treatment of Chinese orphans. (Huntley, 14-42)
In Tan's fourth novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," a ghostwriter named Ruth Young discovers that her mother is beginning to show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Realizing that she was starting to lose her memory, Ruth's mother had begun to record her recollections of her childhood in China. After Ruth has the writings translated into English, she gains a newfound respect for her mother and grandmother. (Huntley, 14-42)
After completing a book tour in support of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" in June 2001, Tan suffered from exhaustion and various strange symptoms. She began to lose her ability to concentrate, and her writing suffered as a result of her impaired attention span and memory. She consulted a psychiatrist, who thought that Tan was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tan's symptoms became progressively worse, and she began experiencing hallucinations.
Many months later, after undergoing numerous medical tests, Tan was diagnosed with neurological Lyme disease, a bacterial disease carried by ticks. She was treated with antibiotics and her health improved. Tan's memoir, "The Opposite of Fate," was published in 2003. She published the novel "Saving Fish from Drowning" in 2005. (Huntley, 14-42)
In books exploring emotionally intense events, Tan’s humor is a pleasant surprise. June, an aspiring child prodigy, takes piano lessons from a deaf teacher. Another family names its four sons Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. Some of the dialogue is priceless: June’s mother calls her “a college drop-off,” and another mother collects “so-so security.” Tan also masters the one-line retort. Learning that Grand Auntie Du is dead at ninety-seven, Pearl asks, “What was it? . . . A stroke?” “’A bus,’ my mother said.” (Huntley, 14-42)
A major theme of Tan’s work is the conflict between cultures and generations. The Bonesetter’s Daughter even traces that same conflict across three generations. Of the Chinese women, an extreme example is Winnie Louie’s Old Aunt, whose feudal upbringing taught that a woman’s eyes should be used for sewing, not reading; ears should listen to orders, not ideas; and lips should only be used to express gratitude or approval. When Winnie’s cousin Peanut married a homosexual, her mother-in-law bought her a baby to save face. Their schoolmate, forced to marry a simpleminded man and chided by her unsympathetic mother, hanged herself in despair. Winnie realizes that she has been wrong to hold such women responsible for their troubles, but, she says, “That was how I was raised — never to criticize men or the society they ruled. . . . I could blame only other women who were more afraid than I.” Another woman dreams, “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.” (Snodgrass, 98-298)
These little bits of history are things of which the resentful American daughters have no awareness. They do not understand the intensity of their mothers’ need to protect them from life, and they have little sense of their mothers as people. Instead, their mothers seem to be embarrassments — stingy, fussy old women. Pearl, in her old bedroom, finds her worn slippers and is impatient that her mother refuses to throw anything away. Later, Winnie, cleaning the same room, takes comfort in these traces of her daughter’s childhood.
Tan explores not only the rift between mothers and daughters but also its healing. She believes in the power of love. The daughters have a desperate need to communicate with their mothers and one another which they do not even recognize, and as the barriers to communication begin to crumble, their first tentative steps toward reconciliation promise more.
Tan also examines a deeper question that she has stated as, “What in our life is given to us as fate, and what is given to us as sheer luck of the moment, and what are choices that we make?” The mothers raised in China were taught to believe in fate and luck. In The Joy Luck Club, An-mei Hsu’s mother is the widow of a respected scholar. She is befriended by the Second Wife of a rich man who is attracted to her. Second Wife arranges the rape of An-mei’s mother by this man so that he will take her as a third concubine, as she is now disgraced, and will stop spending so much money in teahouses, leaving more for the wife. When a son is born to An-mei’s mother, Second Wife claims the baby as her own. The mother eats poisoned sweet dumplings, telling her daughter, “You see how this life is. You cannot eat enough of this bitterness.” (Snodgrass, 98-298)
An-mei points out again and again how her unhappy mother had no choice. Yet An-mei has learned from her mother’s suicide that choices can be made, and she tries to teach her American daughter, whose marriage is ending, to stand up for herself: “If she doesn’t speak, she is making a choice. . . . I know this, because I was . . . taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.” (Snodgrass, 98-298)
The mothers’ wisdom and finely drawn characters are revealed in all of these books by a peeling away of layers down to the unblemished heart. Though their lives have been harsher, the mothers are incredibly stronger than their uncertain, unhappy daughters. If the mothers were not permitted choices, suggests Tan, perhaps the daughters are weakened by having too many.
Tan employs a world of metaphor and symbolism, especially in The Joy Luck Club. A thematic title and vignette introduce each section of that book. For example, “The Twenty-six Malignant Gates” section alludes to a Chinese book that warns of dangers to children, and here each daughter tells of a problem she faced as a child. In an ironically titled story, “Rice Husband,” the shaky marriage of Ying-ying St. Clair’s daughter is represented by a wobbly end table, designed by her husband and ready to collapse. The marriage is further symbolized by the remodeled barn that is the couple’s new house, furnished in the husband’s preferred minimalist style, pared down and stingy like him. Ying-ying thinks “everything . . . is for looking, not even for good-looking. . . . This is a house that will break into pieces.” The Hundred Secret Senses adds the mystical elements of reincarnation and the World of Yin, while the vengeful ghost of Great-Granny Liu haunts the outhouse in The Bonesetter’s Daughter. (Snodgrass, 98-298)
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