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Monday, January 19, 2009


Amy Tan knows relationships—at least between mothers and daughters. She may not have the answers to smoothing these relationships, but she is aware of both sides of the story. I know. I first read and loved her novel The Joy Luck Club in 1989. Then I read it from the daughter’s perspective. In 2009, I read and loved it from the mother’s perspective. The whole concept of the cycles of life and the universalities of hopes and dreams always appeal to me.

The Joy Luck Club also explores themes inherent in crossing cultures. China-born Lindo Jong, for instance, wants her children to enjoy “American circumstances and Chinese character." But she admits, "How could I know these two things do not mix?”

While mine is not the Chinese culture, this novel is about me too. How does one take advantage of American society with its openness and opportunity and still retain a cultural connection to family and the past? In this respect, The Joy Luck Club is about change and acceptance. It’s incredibly interesting to follow the lives of these women—four mothers and their daughters—as they explore this problem. Can they work it out?

In reality, we know so little of the generations that come before us. We may hear stories and see photos or ancestral trees, but we do not share the experiences that shape us as we grow. Growth, as limbs of a tree, is away from the trunk—away from the source. Daughters struggle to get away from the source, their mothers. It can be frightening.

June (Jing-Mei) says when she realizes the truth, “I don’t know anything. She was my mother.”

But Auntie An-Mei cries back, voicing her own fears, “How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!”

June is right in at least one respect: how little each of us understands where our mother came from and how she came to be as she is and wish for us the things she does.

Also true, however, is the reverse. Mothers are not privy to all the factors daughters face in their own struggles with life. Sometimes they need to learn from their daughters’ experiences. In The Joy Luck Club, Tan shows how a woman’s position in China is far different from a woman’s position in the United States. That is also true for American women of different generations; what is possible today was not possible to prior generations. The differences make understanding each other difficult.

Amy Tan also tackles the problems of communication. Communication is language, very important in this book where the lack of language creates bricks and mortar to form walls between people. Communication is more than language; it is also lack of honesty—sometimes by choice and sometimes by a culture where one is taught to squelch personal desires. How does one communicate? What is the right language? Do we always understand the message someone is trying to communicate? When we let others translate and interpret words for us, can we accurately get across our ideas? If we can’t what damage is done?

Tan’s structure is intriguing. The novel progresses through a series of vignettes, of short stories concerning the four mother/daughter pairs. Each pair is represented in each section, but taken together, each pair creates a complete story thread. Each section is introduced with a parable that represents the theme of the story. Marvelous! Not nearly as confusing as this sounds; in fact, it’s beautiful and gives the reader time to mull over the possibilities.

Amy Tan’s language is exquisite. China comes alive for those of us who haven’t been there. San Francisco’s Chinatown is vividly depicted, and those of us who know it will recognize the details, not only of the places and streets, but of the people and attitude. Amy Tan is a wordsmith.

I just presented a discussion of The Joy Luck Club as part of a January celebration of Asian culture. The discussion was interesting and the audience, identifying themselves from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds including Chinese, Korean, Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Finnish, all empathized with the people in this book. In fact, one woman, raised an orphan, yearned for some of the relationships Tan explored. This universality appeals to me.

I haven’t mentioned how the conflicts resolve. I won’t. I won’t even say if they resolve. But I will recommend this book, and I hope you’ll read and comment on it.

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