Amy Tan: Reaching a Universal Audience
"Great stories resist generalizations or categories" (Opposite 352). With this statement, author Amy Tan expresses the desire to rid her work of the label, "Asian-American fiction." Tan's writing proves to be universal, though all of her stories have modern Chinese characters combined with traditions and historical settings of China. She creates this universality by connecting her own personal experiences to the stories, using relationships, and exploring common literary themes. Her personal experiences mainly include her mother's and grandmother's lives and their influences upon her, her experiences as a Chinese-American, and feelings concerning life and death which have always been a part of her life. She also utilizes ordinary relationships by exploring the changes and obstacles that are often encountered through them, allowing a reflection of relationships in general that is able to reach readers and often teach lessons concerning the readers' lives. Tan also uses common literary themes that allow contemporary readers to relate to her stories, such as sexism, identity, and fate. With all of these things intertwined within her almost mythical storytelling, Tan reaches her goal of breaking through labels.
Amy Tan creates such universal works, in part, because of the connections of her own personal experiences to the stories. She believes a muse is not a person, but the "personal process of synthesizing your life with the work before you" (Opposite 250). She feels her muse is a combination of her own life, her mother's life and her grandmother's life, but also something hidden and unknown. Through her writing, she tries to answer questions that are worthwhile, and that take a lifetime to answer (Opposite 297). She uses aspects of her family's lives, her own life as a person of Chinese ancestry, and her link to the "World of Yin" as influences in her stories.
After her mother died, Tan realized that she knew very little about her mother's life, not even enough to write her obituary (Opposite 74). Tan's mother, Daisy, was very tiny, had Alzheimer's disease, and was extremely difficult. Tan's father and brother had both died of brain tumors within a year of each other (Academy of Achievement 1), which caused her mother to have severe depression, repeatedly threatening to kill herself when her daughter would disobey her (Opposite 79). Daisy, at age nine, had watched her own mother kill herself, which had brought death close to her heart throughout her entire life (Opposite 102). Her mother's strictness actually made Amy Tan hope that someday Daisy would actually "do it". Tan's grandmother, portrayed in The Kitchen God's Wife, had been raped and forced to become a concubine (Salon 1). Amy Tan's grandmother is also reflected in the character of Precious Auntie in The Bonesetter's Daughter. Just as the character's tragic life reverberates down through Luling and even her daughter Ruth, Tan's grandmother's life is portrayed through Daisy and is often reflected in Amy Tan's work.
Because of Daisy's harsh nature, mother-daughter arguments were inevitable. Daisy once even held a knife to her daughter's throat as a teenager because of a boyfriend (Opposite 213). Yet, she called her daughter about six months before she died, apologizing for something her daughter could hardly remember. Though her mother's strictness was overwhelming to Tan, she had many memories of Daisy that became part of her stories. Her fondest memory of her mother was when she taught her about the idea of "invisible strength" (Opposite 205). As mentioned in The Joy Luck Club, "invisible strength" is the hope, determination, and passion that so characterized her mother's life during World War II (Opposite 210). For example, her mother had left an abusive husband, and many of her early children died (Academy of Achievement 1). Amy Tan saw strength through her mother's life and her grandmother's life, which she used through her stories along with their hardship and pain.
Amy Tan uses her personal experiences as a Chinese-American to convey loneliness, isolation, and other concepts that she feels create common human connections with all people. Both of Amy Tan's parents were Chinese immigrants. She was born in Oakland, CA, in 1952 (Barclay 2). Being Chinese and constantly on the move made Tan always feel like an outsider. She was embarrassed repeatedly in her childhood by her family's traditions and customs, yet finally realized as an adult that all people feel isolation (Opposite 121). She wanted to communicate these feelings through her stories. She also reflects on her memories as a teenager: rebellion, joining a "rock 'n roll" band, not being asked to school dances, etc. She defied her mother by abandoning the pre-med course pushed onto her from childhood in favor of linguistics study (Academy of Achievement 1). She had done many things against her mother's wishes, but ultimately realized her mother was actually right in saying, "More important is family" (Opposite 150). She finally ended her rebellion, settling down as a writer. Amy Tan learned the importance of family, as well, while visiting her relations in China for the first time and discovering how connected they were through their relationship, despite her lack of knowledge of the Chinese language (Opposite 157). These experiences are similar to those in almost all of her works. In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Tan parallels herself to Ruth in that she also argued so fiercely with her mother, Luling, throughout her young rebellious years, but learned to value her and especially her rich, detailed life. Ruth is truly able to appreciate Luling at the end of her life, just as Amy Tan did.
Although she admits her culture was a large factor in her writing, Tan has stated that she would like her stories to be treated as meaningful language and literature, not just as Chinese-American culture. She feels that "someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they're writing a very specific story" (Salon 3). With this in mind, she feels she accomplishes writings that are very close to her own heart. She sees herself writing more about the nature of human connections, not cultural dichotomies (Salon 4). According to Tan, writers do this by tapping into the familiar emotions of love, hope, and relationships (Salon 4). Therefore, she once labeled her stories "All-American" (Opposite 310).
Along with her heritage, Tan credits her universal writing to her focus on life and death. She feels she has been haunted by death her entire life (Salon 2). She credits' her life's many bizarre occurrences to the "Yin people." The "Yin people" are an element of Chinese mythology, those who have passed away, yet haunt the modern world like ghosts. She actually credits some of her works to these occurrences of the "World of Yin," as they made her contemplate the "beyond" and this became a main topic in her works, especially The Hundred Secret Senses. Amy Tan says she writes about what she feels, especially questions of life (Salon 1). She believes that everything is so influenced by death, and the Yin people have always been there to "kick her in the (pants) to write" about it (Salon 2). This focus on life and death allows her to bring both tragic and comic elements to her works, increasing the universal appeal.
Along with her own personal experiences, Amy Tan uses a common thread in all of her novels — a focus on relationships, especially those of mother-daughter. She mainly uses Jing-Mei Woo, Ying-Ying St. Clair, Waverly Jong, Lena St. Clair, and Rose Hsu Jordan from The Joy Luck Club; Olivia Laguni and Kwan Laguni from The Hundred Secret Senses; and Ruth and Luling Young from The Bonesetter's Daughter. The characters and their relationships are so common that readers can instantly connect to them personally. They can see the changes in the characters as well as themselves, and they even teach lessons.
In The Joy Luck Club, Tan explores many intertwining characters with whom people can connect through various short stories. Jing-Mei Woo, the main character, has many memories about her dead mother, Suyuan. For example, she distinctly remembers her mother pushing her into piano lessons, feeling she had some "hidden talent" (Joy 133). Jing-Mei felt that her mother had pushed her too hard, believing that in reality she had no talent at all. But, as she reflects on these memories she realizes that Suyuan actually had seen talent in Jing-Mei, and if she had tried harder she could have seen it for herself. This is a good example of self-discovery, a journey all must take through life. Often it is found through others in close relationships, as with Jing-Mei. She also remembers when Suyuan, at a crab dinner with the rest of her family, saved the worst crab for herself and gave the better crabs to everyone else at the table. Jing-Mei is amazed at her selflessness; the crab was so inedible Suyuan just threw it in the trash and enjoyed everyone else's happiness (Joy 208). Later in her life, when Suyuan was a senior, her neighbor accused her of poisoning their cat. Jing-Mei was sure she had done it, yet refused to ask her about it. She is later embarrassed by her own low opinion of her mother when she finds out that Suyuan actually did not poison the cat (Joy 209). These three instances explore the idea of rising above expectations, the idea that everyone has someone in their life who surprises them in one way or another, even if not realized immediately.
Another two characters with a detailed relationship are Ying-Ying St. Clair and her daughter, Lena. Ying-Ying had a trying life, as told to the others in The Joy Luck Club. She lost her family as a child after falling overboard a ship and never found them again (74). She was also left by her first husband, who was so terrible to her that she aborted her baby to save it from sharing in her fate (251). Because of this, Ying-Ying is left depressed and sullen. Her daughter Lena often worries about her (102). Yet, the mother and daughter argue constantly because of their concern for each other. Ying-Ying is upset over Lena's marriage, because Ying-Ying does not feel that Lena's husband is good enough for her (252). This relationship between Ying-Ying and Lena is a source of tragedy in the story, because they both are, in Ying-Ying's words, exhausted "ghosts" with no more love or hope left (252). Their relationship is important because it causes the reader to reflect on repairing certain relationships and seeing that overcoming obstacles is important in order to move on. Ying-Ying fails to mend her own life and move on, and her daughter inherits that, as seen through Lena and her failed marriage.
The third main mother-daughter relationship in The Joy Luck Club is between Rose Hsu Jordan and her mother An-mei. Rose is afraid to tell her mother about her divorce (120). This is because her mother is a strong Christian and she fears this will insult her beliefs. Rose, on the other hand, lost her faith when her brother drowned at a young age (121). Their differences in faith drove them apart, yet An-mei constantly tells Rose she and her husband, Ted will get back together, saying it is their fate to do so. Rose rejects her opinions, but ultimately she and Ted do get back together and she realizes An-Mei was only looking out for her (131). This instance helps Rose appreciate her mother's strength and she looks at An-Mei with awe and admiration. This is just as Jing-Mei felt, when Waverly tried to brag to her concerning money. As Jing-Mei leaves to go cry in the kitchen, her mother Suyuan immediately leaves the table and goes to soothe and show her pride in Jing-Mei (207). With memories like these, Jing-Mei breaks into tears when she greets her long-lost sisters and sees Suyuan's resemblance reflected in all three of them when they are hugging each other (288).
With these three main stories, Tan shows the reader many different variations of a universal mother-daughter relationship. Each teaches a lesson. Jing-Mei learns to appreciate her mother for what she is and what she has done. Lena learns through both her mother's past and advice to have hope, as Rose learns through the same means to have strength. These relationships are so common in daily life, often unnoticed or overlooked. Tan causes her readers to value those around them, especially family, and to not take any relationship for granted.
In The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan uses the emotional, long-worn relationship between Olivia Laguni and her stepsister, Kwan, who was brought from China to live with Olivia and her family. Kwan and Olivia are marked immediately by strong contrasts in character (11). Olivia is easily annoyed by Kwan's unconditional love, and even wonders why Kwan loves her so much even though Olivia treats her so horribly (13). Yet at times in her childhood, Olivia's love for her sister does shine through. For example, when Kwan's Chinese accent causes her English to become jumbled, and Olivia's friends ridicule her, Olivia tells Kwan she is not stupid and acknowledges the great love Kwan has shown her (49). Although Olivia at first seemed ignorant of Kwan's gift of love, Kwan actually begins to replace Olivia's mother. Olivia even calls herself a "waste" to her mother because of her un-caring attitude towards Olivia (63). Olivia's only fond memory of her mother was when she tried to "cheer" her up after Olivia's failed marriage (62). In fact, when her mother finds out her own boyfriend is already married, Olivia rejoices in her sorrow! (73). Olivia finally has a serious falling out with her mother as she becomes closer to Kwan, and her mother makes no effort to reconnect. This contrast depicts both a good relationship and bad relationship, and that relationships cannot be one-sided, but take continual care to grow.
Kwan was also a big influence in Olivia's long relationship with Simon, which actually brought Olivia and Kwan closer. When she dated him in college, Simon continually compared her to his dead girlfriend, Elsa (78). Olivia never felt she was "as good as" Elsa, and disputes continually erupted between her and Simon. Yet later in both of their lives, Kwan sets up a trip to China with all three of them together. She calls this trip "fate" despite Olivia's rejections of the word (187). Olivia sees where Kwan grew up, and gains new appreciation for her. For example, Olivia sees a beautiful owl being sold but quickly realizes that it is supposed to be cooked and eaten, not kept as a pet. Kwan actually buys it, and Olivia is outraged. Then Olivia is delightfully surprised when Kwan sets the bird free (216). Olivia knows she should have thought better of her sister. Also, in a climatic ending, Kwan finds Simon when he gets lost in a canyon after an argument with Olivia (347). She sends him back to Olivia, but never returns herself. Olivia is left with only the memory of Kwan and, when she and Simon have a daughter, change their last name to Kwan's last name (398). This tear-and-repair relationship relates not only to sisterhood, but also to the changes that all relationships undergo. Olivia learned to appreciate Kwan greatly just before she died. The idea expands on the theme that people must always be thankful for what they have, especially their relationships. These are all very universal changes that all people experience, which makes the main story so relatable despite its details concerning Chinese history.
In the haunting tale, The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan uses family secrets to convey truth and loss through the characters of Ruth and Luling Young. Ruth, Luling's daughter, worries because of her seemingly hazy memory (37). She also believes that her mother has an inherent habit of "feeling right all of the time" (49). Yet, all this brought Luling was unhappiness. Luling and Ruth never trusted each other when Ruth was younger (157). Ruth could only remember one time in which she saw Luling actually caring for her, after she had fallen down as a small toddler (78). She was actually in awe of the fact that Luling began to cry for her. Ruth really did not appreciate her mother when she was young, and her love for her did not grow. When Luling is put in a retirement home, however, Ruth feels pressure to learn about her mother (166). What she finds changes their relationship drastically.
In searching for remains of her mother's life in China, Ruth finds a note Luling had written long ago titled, "Things I Should Not Forget," and begins to learn about her past (168). She finds out that Luling's mother was actually her nursemaid, Precious Auntie (182). Precious Auntie had lived a damaging life; her face was so marred by scars that only Luling could see through to her inner beauty (3). Later in Luling's life, she finds a suitor, but Precious Auntie pleads with her not to go, as Luling's husband-to-be had killed Auntie's husband and ruined her life (208). Even so, Luling refuses to listen to her and follows her rebellious ways. Precious Auntie kills herself that day, cursing the rest of the family, and Luling is filled with shame as she searches for her body (242). She never finds the body, and her mother haunts her throughout her entire life for betraying her (244). Luling never feels as though she is forgiven, and Ruth finds that this is a main reason for her attitude towards everything in life.
When Ruth learns of these things, she forgives her mother for her strict behavior and begins to remember the many times Luling showed her love. For example, when she won one thousand dollars in a lottery, she gave every cent to Ruth (64). The Bonesetter's Daughter focuses on the fact that Luling betrayed her own mother and was never able to be forgiven. It explores loss, in Luling's loss of Precious Auntie and Ruth's loss of love for her mom. Even though Luling never finds Precious Auntie, Ruth learns from her mother's betrayal and finds a stronger relationship with her through it. She brings her mother peace despite the mistake weighing on her heart.
Along with common relationships that parallel her own life, Amy Tan also uses common literary themes that are universal in all of her works. Her main themes are sexism, identity, and fate. The sexism in her stories relates to readers as all females and males are aware of the "gender gap" between them. Her identity themes are important because she uses specific immigrant stories that are magnified versions of a subject all people experience. Fate is key in her works as well, as she shows the differences and similarities between self-determination and fate vs. free will.
In almost all of her works, Tan uses historical backgrounds and traditional Chinese culture to explore a universal theme, sexism and female struggles. In The Joy Luck Club, An-Mei's mother is raped and is, in turn, forced to marry her rapist to keep her honor when she becomes pregnant (238). However, her husband can choose to marry concubines as he wishes. Ying-Ying also is confined as a woman in that she is forced to marry her vulgar but wealthy suitor (245). As a child, her nursemaid even told her never to voice her own opinions (63). Also, Lindo Jong tells her daughter Waverly how lucky she is to have a straight nose, because her own crooked one has led her into a life of grief — she feels her looks are more important to men than what is on the inside (257). These are very old-fashioned ideas, but they relate to the evolution of female struggles today and how challenges for women have changed over time but not disappeared.
In The Bonesetter's Daughter, many different stories are told through Precious Auntie's life and the sexism she encounters. When she is forced into an orphanage, she finds that it is actually a Christian Missionary House for young girls. Trying to eradicate traditional beliefs, they teach the girls a rhyme: "We can study, We can learn, We can marry whom we choose; We can work, We can earn, and bad fate is all we lose" ( 263). As Precious Auntie learns to try and free herself from her previous place in society by learning a new "role", her sister Gaoling visits and brings her back to the reality of women's true positions in the social ladder. Gaoling is married to an abusive opium-addict, and because of her marriage her parents have forgotten her (291). This Missionary House is a perfect example of the opposite of a traditional female role. Just when the reader begins to believe the rhyme as truth, Gaoling is an example of the actual tragic situations women experienced in China.
In The Hundred Secret Senses, female struggles are explored by a minor but key character, Dulili. Kwan retells many parts of Dulili's life to Olivia. She had been deserted, left with no family. Then called "Du Yun," she found an orphan in the street and tried to support both her and her newfound baby with a slow business. But her baby drowned in a flood, and Dulili was so overcome with grief in her poor and lonely state that she grew hysterical (288). She actually took her daughter's name, calling herself Dulili, and moved on, never mentioning her again. This story is a very small narrative in the whole of The Hundred Secret Senses, yet it gives the reader an illuminative visual of how serious women's situations were. Dulili was so engulfed in grief she actually took her own late daughter's name and mentally forgot her death had even occurred.
Because most of Amy Tan's works focus on Chinese immigrants, ethnic identity is an important theme. In The Joy Luck Club, Ying-Ying is constantly misunderstood by Americans because of her strong Chinese accent. Yet she also struggles with her loss of tradition and fast adaptation into American culture. Waverly also always feels very distant in America, and so when she learns of a trip back to China, she thinks that she will blend in so well that she will never fit back into America. Lindo, her mother, knows better, because she feels they both have already lost their heritage and can never get it back (258). She was even spotted as a tourist while in China and cried over how America had changed her. Jing-Mei, ignorant of her Chinese history most of her life, finds herself "lost in translation" when visiting her sisters in China (271).
Balance between traditional and modern life is a common idea among all immigrants. On a much larger scale, all people try to "fit in" with certain social groups, yet wish to retain their individuality. With this, almost every single character in The Joy Luck Club can be seen as struggling with this equilibrium, finding peace in themselves at the end. Ying-Ying uses her daughter, Lena, to help her to learn to communicate in America. Lindo accepts change, and realizes that she can never "lose" her past because it actually stays with her. Jing-Mei, worried about her accent, finds that words are not even needed when she feels so close to her lost sisters. In The Hundred Secret Senses, Kwan experiences identity problems her entire life. Once she arrives in America, Olivia begins to rebuke her Chinese ways. Olivia's parents even think that she is crazy, and she is given shock treatments (18). Olivia tries to distance herself from Kwan in order to find friends and acceptance, yet instead misses Kwan deeply after she is gone. She felt that Kwan was actually a part of her, and so in her death she is missing something. She also felt an identity crisis when her boyfriend, Simon, continuously compared her to his dead girlfriend. Olivia feels that she never measured up to her. Yet, she comes to find that this is not true when she stops comparing herself. Her own self-doubt had led her to obsession, and Kwan freed her from that through her unyielding love.
In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Ruth and Luling communicate a strong message of immigrants and their isolation. Ruth constantly called herself her mother's "mouthpiece" because of her mother's horrible English (65). While Luling seemed to be so opposed to adaptation into American life, Ruth had forgotten all of her heritage. Luling felt isolated from the American world, while Ruth was completely absorbed in it. After Ruth found pieces of her mother's lost history, she deciphered and learned from them. Ruth felt the knowledge of her family's past was very much a part of her, as Tan had. This parallelism is also interesting in that Ruth learns to help Luling adapt into American life, but also learns to listen to her mother's past and advice. This helped both women's identities, in that Ruth found her past and Luling modernized for the future.
Along with identity, a most important literary theme in Amy Tan's works is that of fate. It is even overpowering in some stories, such as in The Hundred Secret Senses, in which fate is explored through the character of Kwan. Kwan is very superstitious, even claiming that she can speak to "Yin people." Mysterious things happened concerning these people through Olivia's entire childhood with Kwan. Olivia still fought against the idea, even when she had reoccurring dreams that she was Yin person herself (49). After Olivia's letter came as an answer to her and Simon's proposal for an article about China, she tries to refuse on the basis that she and Simon had already broken up. Yet Kwan insisted that they all go together. She told Olivia that it is fate for them to be together (187). After Kwan dies Olivia becomes convinced that it was indeed meant to happen. Kwan's memory gives Olivia a sense of purpose, that all things happen for a reason and life's "randomness," as she had felt before, is really non-existent.
In The Joy Luck Club also, there are many instances of superstition, luck, and fate. For instance, Lindo's mother had a crooked nose and thought that her fate was, therefore, destined to be an ill one (256). Yet Lindo bumped her own nose on a bus, making it crooked as well. When her daughter, Waverly, was born with the same kink, she worried her life would be as doomed as her own. Yet Waverly became very successful in life. Ying-Ying also expressed her view that everything in her life was "fated," and she had no control over it. However, An-mei, the only Christian character in the book, felt that fate meant "doing what you must" (130). She said that it could be shaped by expectation or inattention, and therefore encouraged her daughter Rose to fix her marriage because the divorce happened only because of inattention (131). An-mei encouraged action and courage, while Ying-Ying had supported negligence and false hope. Lindo's superstitions were false.
Another mother and daughter that question fate and luck are Suyuan and Jing-Mei. Suyuan feels her daughter is fated to be a child prodigy, if she would only try. Jing-Mei disagrees, saying that she is who she is and it can't be changed (Joy 138). Jing-Mei actually wonders, later in her life, if she could have been a "prodigy." This is an answer to a vital question in the book, that of fate versus free will. While some characters such as Ying-Ying and Lindo believe that fate controls them, An-mei and Suyuan believe that they themselves control their own fate. Tan expresses her opinion that the latter is accurate and brings joy, while letting fate control one's life brings destruction and depression. One cannot let life pass by them, trusting a false hope that something will change their life for them.
In The Bonesetter's Daughter, fate and self-determination also play a prominent role. Luling believes that, because she betrayed her mother, she is fated to ill fortune and to be cursed for the rest of her life (252). Precious Auntie was even believed to have set their family's home and business on fire, causing them to lose everything and putting Luling into an orphanage (257). This shows the power of fate in the story. Ruth fails to agree, however. She tries to help her mother, and finally helps her feel forgiveness for betraying Precious Auntie. Tan adds detail to this "fate versus self-determination" argument, allowing that curses may be believed to exist, yet Luling cannot live her life wondering or sulking about the past. The future is still undecided.
All three of Tan's stories present an argument between fate and self-determination. Overall, the outcomes of the stories prove that while fate may exist, people must make their own choices and cannot let the idea of fate control their lives. The past does influence the present, as shown through the various Chinese mothers and their histories. Their daughters learn from them, especially their mistakes. Yet people cannot live in the past, either. They must move on, take risks, and fight for their future. Certain things happen for a reason, but they cannot happen unless one makes choices for oneself.
Amy Tan uses her own personal experiences, relationships, and literary themes to create universal works that still have very original ideas and details. Her mother's and grandmother's lives influenced her own life so much that they are even speculated to be characters in more than one of her stories. Her life allows her to share her own experiences, especially concerning her youth. Her questions concerning life and death are entwined in her works with Chinese lore such as the "World of Yin" and more serious themes. She also uses relationships throughout her stories that are relatable and true-to-life. She explores hope, courage, loss, and especially love and its ability to overcome obstacles. Finally, she threads common literary themes into her works, especially sexism, identity, and fate. Her characters are mostly Chinese-American, which she uses as an anchor to explore changes in culture and how those changes affect one's identity. Fate is an important theme, and Tan clearly expresses her idea that fate does exist, yet one cannot let it take over one's life.
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This paper was written by Shelley Thompson in 2006 for A.P. English
at Lutheran High School of Orange County, California.
©2006-7 Shelley Thompson.
Permission granted to print for personal use and classroom purposes.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission of the author.
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