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The Joy Luck Club

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The Joy Luck Club

By Amy Tan (1989)

"They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds 'joy luck' is not a word, it does not exist." —from The Joy Luck Club

Overview

Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is itself a joyful study in luck. An intricately patterned novel whose author thought she was writing a short-story collection, it is also a mother-daughter saga by a writer whose own mother wanted her to be anything but a writer.

Published in 1989 by an unknown first-time writer, The Joy Luck Club became a reviewers' darling and then an international best seller. The novel tells the story of new waves of immigrants who are changing and enriching America.

Introduction to the Book

Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club was written as a collection of short stories, but the tales of memory, fate, and self-discovery interlock to create a colorful mural that reads like a novel. All four sections open with a Chinese fable, then shift to the stories of four pairs of mothers and daughters. The tone switches from mundane to magical to darkly humorous. The tales, particularly those set in China, are by turns beautiful and harrowing.

The first story begins two months after Jing-mei "June" Woo loses her mother, Suyuan, to a brain aneurysm. Her mother's best friends—June's "aunties"—invite June to take Suyuan's place at their mah jong table so she can sit at the East, "where everything begins."

Suyuan Woo had invented the original Joy Luck Club in China, before the Japanese invaded the city of Kweilin. They had used the group to help shield themselves from the harshness of war. As they feasted on whatever they could find, they transformed their stories of hardship into ones of good fortune.

After Suyuan reaches the United States, she resurrects the Joy Luck Club with three other Chinese émigrés, and the four reinvent themselves in San Francisco's Chinatown. These four mothers hope the mix of "American circumstances with Chinese character" will give their daughters better lives.

In each section of the novel, June recounts her late mother's fantastic tales on evenings after "every bowl had been washed and the Formica table had been wiped down twice." Every time Suyuan tells her daughter about Kweilin, she invents a new ending. But one night she reveals the real ending—how she lost her twin daughters while fleeing the Japanese invasion: "Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies."

After her mother's death, June realizes that she had not fully understood her mother's past or her intentions. She journeys to China to discover what her mother had lost there. She is feverish to find out who she is, where she came from, and what future she can create—so she can finally join the Joy Luck Club.

"Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, 'This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.' And she waited, year after year, until she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English."
—Amy Tan, from The Joy Luck Club

Major Characters in the Book

Mothers

Suyuan Woo
Suyuan's story is told through her daughter. She was forced to leave her twin babies on the road in China while fleeing the Japanese invasion.

An-mei Hsu
At age nine, An-mei joins her widowed mother, who is exiled as a rich man's fourth wife. Her mother commits suicide. In the U.S., An-mei questions her faith when her youngest son drowns.

Lindo Jong
As a child, Lindo outwits her mother-in-law to escape her arranged marriage. Later, she brags about her American-born daughter but also longs for Waverly to notice their similarities.

Ying-ying St. Clair
When her philandering husband dies, Ying-ying leaves her wealthy family and starts over as a shopgirl. She marries an American merchant and emigrates but suffers from episodes of depression as an adult.

Daughters

Jing-mei "June" Woo
June is a sensitive child whose mother wants her to become a piano prodigy. After learning the truth about her mother's past, she travels to China to find her lost sisters.

Rose Hsu Jordan
Timid Rose is overwhelmed by American choices, but she finds conviction in the midst of a bewildering divorce.

Waverly Jong
A chess champion as a child, Waverly grows up to become a successful tax attorney. She worries about her mother's opinion of her white fiancé.

Lena St. Clair
Generous Lena shares her mother's powers of intuition but remains powerless to act on them. The prickly division of household expenses reveals the impoverishment of her marriage.

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Portrait of Amy Tan

Amy Tan, 2003. Photo by Robert Foothorap

Amy Tan (b. 1952)

Amy Tan was born February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California. Her parents shared some of the dark history fictionalized in The Joy Luck Club. Her mother, Daisy, was born to a wealthy family and left Shanghai and a disastrous marriage right before the Communist takeover in 1949. She was forced to leave behind her three daughters. Tan's father, John, a Baptist minister and electrical engineer, also fled the civil war in China. Tan and her two brothers were raised in Santa Clara, California.

Tan was a good student. At age eight, her treatment of the theme "What the Library Means to Me" won her a transistor radio and mention in the local newspaper. When Tan was 14, her brother Peter and her father died within seven months of each other, both from brain tumors. A neurosurgeon gave no explanation other than bad luck. This twin tragedy spurred Daisy Tan to hoist anchor and move the family to Switzerland. After they returned to California, Tan was ready for college, where she eschewed her mother's wish for her to study medicine and studied literature instead. She met her husband, Lou DeMattei, on a blind date in Oregon while enrolled in one of the seven undergraduate institutions she attended. Tan followed him to San Jose, California, where she later earned an MA in linguistics in 1973.

While Tan was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, her best friend was murdered. Shocked by the event, Tan left school and started working with children as a language development consultant. Her love of reading reawakened in 1985, when she read many woman novelists for the first time, including Louise Erdrich and Maxine Hong Kingston. Tan settled into a lucrative business-writing career, but restlessness led her to a writing workshop. Her second story, "Waiting Between the Trees," was noticed by a literary agent.

Tan started The Joy Luck Club two years after her first trip to China with her mother in 1987, and she completed it in less than five months. The book stayed on the bestseller list for nine months and has been translated into 36 languages. Tan cowrote the screenplay for the 1993 movie, and she and her husband appear in the movie as guests at the opening dinner party. Besides writing, she toured with the now defunct benefit band the Rock Bottom Remainders, which included fellow writers Stephen King, James McBride, and Matt Groening. Her fifth novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, was published in 2005.

An Interview with Amy Tan

On August 7, 2006, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Amy Tan at her home in Berkeley, California. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

Dana Gioia: You were born in Oakland in a family where both parents had come from China. Were you raised bilingually?

Amy Tan: Until the age of five, my parents spoke to me in Chinese or a combination of Chinese and English, but they didn't force me to speak Mandarin. In retrospect, this was sad, because they believed that my chance of doing well in America hinged on my fluency in English. Later, as an adult, I wanted to learn Chinese. Now I make an effort when I am with my sisters, who don't speak English that well. It's such a wonderful part of me that is coming back, to try and speak that language.

DG: Would you explain the special symbolism of your title, The Joy Luck Club?

AT: I don't think joy and luck are specific to Chinese culture. Everybody wants joy and luck, and we all have our different notions about from where that luck comes. Many Chinese stores and restaurants have the word "luck" in there. The idea is that, just by using the word "luck" in names of things, you can attract more of it. Our beliefs in luck are related to hope. Some people who are without almost any hope in a situation still cling to luck.

DG: This is a great book about the American immigrant experience. Did you think about that theme consciously when writing the book?

AT: If I thought about this at all, it was the immigrant experience according to my mother and father. This influenced the way I took their immigrant story-the things that I rejected, the things that I thought were American. The basic notion of this country is that with self-determination, you can create who you are. That, in turn, allows an amazing freedom to a writer, because freedom is also creativity.

DG: Why is reading important?

AT: In childhood, reading provided a refuge for me, especially during difficult times. It provided me with the idea that I could find an ending that was different from what was happening at the time. Imagination is the closest thing that we have to compassion and empathy. When you read about the life of another person, you are part of their life for that moment. This is so vital, especially today, when we have so much misunderstanding across cultures and even within our own communities.

DG: What did you read as a child?

AT: I read every fairy tale I could lay my hands on at the public library. It was a wonderful world to escape to.

DG: Do you feel that your early love of fairy tales expressed itself in The Joy Luck Club, or did you look on its content as realistic?

AT: As a minister, my father told us many stories from the Bible that were like fairy tales. Those stories can reflect very strong beliefs that Christians have, but they also have all the qualities that are wonderful about fairy tales. Life is larger than we think it is. Certain events can happen that we don't understand, and we can take it as faith in a particular area, or as superstition, or as a fairy tale, or something else. It's wonderful to come to a situation and think that it can be all kinds of possibilities. I look at what's happened to me as a published writer and, sometimes, I think it's a fairy tale.

  1. Which story is your favorite and why? Do you prefer the stories set in China or California?
  2. How are the notions of balance (yin and yang) and energy flow (feng shui) an important theme in the novel? Does the Chinese notion of balance and flow translate to the characters' lives in America?
  3. The Joy Luck Club was written as a collection of short stories. Is the order important? Could this have been told as a single story? What would that change?
  4. In your experience, does the book reinforce or shatter stereotypes of Chinese culture?
  5. By telling a story from the perspective of Chinese immigrants and first-generation Americans, what does the book reveal about American culture?
  6. Tan has said that she wishes to break from "the ghetto of ethnic literature." Does The Joy Luck Club cross from the ethnic to the universal?
  7. Although June is not sure why her mother gives her the jade necklace, she assumes it's because of her humiliation by Waverly. Is she right?
  8. How do the struggles of the daughters mirror the tragedies of their mothers? What does this suggest about the relationships between parents and children?
  9. Ying-ying sees herself as both a tiger and a ghost. Why does she use these characterizations? How would Lena? How would they be different?
  10. The "broken English" of the mothers is often more colorful than the "perfect English" of their daughters. How does the way the mothers choose to express themselves reflect their identities? What is lost in translation?
  11. How do the mothers decide to use their mah jong winnings? Does this show assimilation? Why, or why not?
  12. The ritual of mah jong is central to the story. What rituals do American women perform that reflect culture and identity?

Audio

The Joy Luck Club Audio Guide

Amy Tan

The National Endowment for the Arts' audio guide for Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is narrated by Dana Gioia and features Molly Giles, James McBride, Carolyn See, Charles J. Shields, Amy Tan, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Lijun Wang, and Ming-Na.

Video

NEA Big Read: Meet Amy Tan

Amy Tan's best-selling The Joy Luck Club (1989) was a landmark work exploring the dark side of mother-daughter relationships and the role of memory in the Chinese American immigrant experience. Tan has written several other books, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction essays .She has been a finalist National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.