Revisiting Amy Tan

Author and 2021 National Humanities Medalist
Portrait of a woman wearing a large pendant on her chest.

Photo by Julian Johson

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re revisiting my conversation with author and recent National Humanities Medal Recipient, Amy Tan.

Amy Tan:  Well, there are two parts of the beginning of The Joy Luck Club, the writing of it.  One was that I decided that I wanted to write short stories just do something that mattered to me in a way of an art form.  At first I wrote something that was so different from my life about a girl from a different family, father, you know, was a professor at MIT and the mother was a well-to-do, rather bored housewife and the more I tried to get away from what was genuine in my life the worse off the stories were.  And finally, when I decided no one was going to ever read my stories, I started writing them from a point of view that was closer to my actual life and, lo and behold, those stories became meaningful to me.  You know, that was the great discovery is that if you write something from your heart, even though it's fictional, it provides that meaning that we all want.  The other genesis is that as I discovered that I took a huge interest in writing these stories derived, inspired actually, from my life, from my mother's life and to write them from the point of view of my mother.  And when I did that, I found myself trying to write in her voice and I could hear her voice so clearly and the kind of things that she was trying to tell me all these years; I still fictionalized them, but what I tried to capture was her voice and her intention and her hopes.  And then the stories became so important to me that I just wrote what I felt.

Jo Reed: You just heard Amy Tan talking about the genesis of her book, The Joy Luck Club.  When she received her National Humanities Medal in late March the White House citation read she had “expanded the literary canon. By bravely exploring experiences of immigrant families, heritage, memories, and poignant struggles, Amy Tan’s writing makes sense of the present through the past and adds ground-breaking narrative to the diverse sweep of American life and literature.” This has been true since Amy Tan’s first novel The Joy Luck Club burned itself into our literary consciousness in 1989.  A selection in the early years of the NEA Big Read initiative, The Joy Luck Club is a series of interconnected stories about Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American Daughters. Amy Tan has written other very successful books, including The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Bonesetter's Daughter. But none captured the public imagination like the The Joy Luck Club, with its struggles of the parents and children attempting to communicate across generations and cultures. In 2010, I spoke with Amy Tan at length about the The Joy Luck Club, her mother, and her writing.  In light of Amy’s recent National Humanities medal, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Mother’s Day fast approaching, it seems like a fitting time to re-air our conversation. Here it is.

Jo Reed: The Joy Luck Club is at once so distinctly Chinese, so uniquely American, and, at the same time, universal.  I hear my friend's mother who is a Russian Jew in the voice of your mother.

Amy Tan: My stories weren’t just so much Chinese to me.  They were so much just me <laughs> and my family.  I thought no one else would have a family this strange or having these kind of conflicts and that I also expected if there were any readers, if there were any readers who were Chinese, Chinese American, they'd say "Well, that's not how Chinese families are at all," let alone, you know, other people saying that this mirrored anything about their lives. I imagined them doing some kind of spin on it being "these are stories that are exotic glimpses into an unusual family."  So, you can imagine how surprising it was, to me, to find that it wasn’t just Chinese American families or people who came to me and said "This is so much like our relationship," it was all these other people. And then, of course, you know, I felt that I had not written anything original, <laughs> but I still maintain that our stories are very specific.  Our stories have our own details and circumstances and the unusual thing is that when you find a personal truth, you often also find that people share a similar personal truth.  They may have come about it in a different way and their circumstances are different, but we all have intentions for people and people we love and we all have hopes and we all have secrets and we are all misunderstood.

Jo Reed: Well, I think the paradox is it's in the very specificity that one finds the universal. 

Amy Tan: That is so surprising to me.  You know, I mean, people would say "Yes, you know, at our neighbor's or our family house, you know, somebody's table was greasy all the time," you know, or "Our relatives also kept the plastic on top of the lamp shade" and, you know, it was these funny little details that people would tell me and I'd think Oh, you know, we're so much alike in these very humorous ways and also ways that are terrible and damaging.  There were so many people who told me there were secrets in their families and by not telling what those secrets were they had done some kind of harm.  There was harm in people not knowing enough information that these were the basis of those fears and the kind of warnings that were told that the children would reject, wholesale reject, because it seemed to come out of nowhere; and in that sense, you know, the damage was done because they, in not understanding one another, they rejected one another.

Jo Reed: Your relationship with your mother certainly informs The Joy Luck Club.  There was a lot of love and also a lot of anger and you once said that you wrote the stories to help explain to your mother all of the disagreements that you had with her.

Amy Tan: In later years, or in later chapters, I realized that it would have that effect and in writing in her voice I would be able to show her that I had been listening at one level and, most of all, that I understood now what she had done in terms of the kind of love that she had.  It wasn’t the kind of love that I wanted, which were expressions of "I love you," you know, "Have a great day at school."  "Of course you got a B," you know "The teacher didn’t understand," and, you know "Here's a big hug."  I didn’t get that kind of love, you know, those things that are symbolic.  I got another kind that was worrying all the time.  You know "Don’t let this happen to you because you're going to die and it'll be horrible.  You'll lose your eye," or, you know, horrible things and I'd want to say, you know "Why are you telling me these things?  They're so negative."  You know, I would imagine in my mind that I should have had a mother that just hugged me and said she loved me all the time and told me positive things, told me how beautiful I was and, you know, that I was smart and if I got anything less than what I deserved that it was unjust.

Jo Reed: You know, what was interesting to me as I was reading The Joy Luck Club this time I was also wondering if, in those stories, if that also didn’t spur your imagination in some way?

Amy Tan: Actually getting "Bs" or not fulfilling people's expectations did spur imagination.  It made me imagine what it was that I could do or in what world would it be in which I could satisfy those, and it went beyond that.  It then went into trying to imagine why a parent, why somebody would have such high expectations and would then say "This is not enough.  I believe you can do more."  I could just see it as they're always comparing me to somebody else and I'll never be a genius, I'll never be Einstein or Van Cliburn or anything like that; it's not to say that's good parenting skills, you know, to make your child feel inadequate, but then I could understand where it came from.  The morbid aspects of my mother's warnings, yes, they did, in fact, inspire my imagination.  But it inspired in the same way, I would say, very Grimm Fairy Tales did.  I mean, Grimm, you know, the Brothers Grimm, they were very inspiring to me as was the Bible. My mother had this technique that I found was something also common in other Chinese parents from a more traditional background and that is that if you give an imagery with a warning, the child is likely to remember it more than if you just said "Be careful crossing the street."  And my mother would say "You know, if you're not careful car come by smash you flat, you know, just like this sand dab," you know, I'd be in the grocery "Just like this sand dab, you know, totally flat and you have both your eyes on one side of your head," and, you know, you can’t stop thinking of that.  You know I remembered that the rest of my life.  And there were other things that I realized derived from her life in which she had married a man she barely knew on the basis of what her family thought she should do and it ruined her life.  So she would always be telling me about "bad men" and I had no idea what she was talking about, you know, but I would imagine bad men:  Bad men in the basement; bad men around the corner; And it's amazing, in a way, that I've been with the same good man for the last 38 years.

Jo Reed: Like one of the mothers in your book The Joy Luck Club your mother left two daughters behind in China.  How did you first find out about that?

Amy Tan: She actually left three daughters behind.  You know, my mother's memory and my memory of that were different.  She remembered telling me, at one point, telling my brothers and me, and she recalls telling me when she first received a letter from China telling her that her daughters were there and they had found her and they wanted to communicate with her and that she gathered the three of us, my older brother, my younger brother, and me around and very solemnly told us this story.  It must have been that we didn’t want to hear it or we didn’t believe it because she said the next thing we said was "Can we go out and play now?"  The way I remembered it is that she and I were having a terrible fight, and it was during the time that my brother and father were dying, and she couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to become a better daughter, why I was wanting to go out and have a good time, why I had crushes on boys.  She wanted me to sit around and cry with her all day long.  And when I didn’t do that, out of frustration one day, she started yelling and in my mind, and it probably didn’t happen this way, in my memory, she was saying things like "Why didn’t I have a better daughter?"  "I have these other daughters," and she was talking about them and how good they were and suddenly I felt very threatened, you know, rejected and I imagined these other girls, that they would have been good, they would have been grateful and they would have obeyed her and they would have cried just because said for them to cry.  And not only that, they could speak Chinese and, you know, and that she had regretted leaving them and regretted having me.  Of course, that probably wasn’t the case that she felt that way of me, <laughs gently> you know, maybe she did from time to time, but it could be that she mentioned something about that at the time, but my recollection, it was the first time that I heard her say this. 

Jo Reed: Well, this is fitting with what one reviewer said about The Joy Luck Club and she wrote "These mothers are finding out that trying to talk to their daughters is like trying to plug a foreign appliance into an American outlet." 

Amy Tan: <laughs> I like that. 

Jo Reed: I do too.

Amy Tan: I like that imagery.  Yes, that's right, you know, you have the two-pronged and then you have the three-pronged and you have the socket and it just does not fit, you know, and later we all get adaptors and somehow it does fit and, you know, some current runs through and you all have the same current. <laughs> 

Jo Reed: Amy, you once said that when you were a teenager, you swore you'd have nothing to do with Chinese when you left home, that you were going to become completely American.  And then, in 1987, as an adult, you traveled to China with your mother and you said "When my feet touched China, I became Chinese."

Amy Tan: I think at different stages of my life there were parts of me that said "I don’t want to be this."  And when I was 17 and I could finally move away and be away from my mother and went to college, that was probably when I said "Now I can be whoever I want to be and that includes not being Chinese."  It was an ongoing rejection.  When I was, what was it, 35, and I first went to China, obviously I didn’t suddenly become all Chinese, I couldn’t speak Chinese, but it was that sense of connection that I was Chinese, that I had a past, that I understood now where this had come from; all of the things that my mother had inculcated in me and I had rejected and how some of it had still seeped in and that was okay.  It was a completion that I hadn’t felt before. It was a completion that I hadn’t felt before that that I was now "Yes, I'm Chinese."  I'm still American.  There is something about our identities that is a multiple of things and I think we all have a misunderstanding about ourselves that we are one or the other, that we're percentages of something or we have to decide that our identity will always be this one thing throughout our lives when, instead, I think it's fluid. I became aware I was Chinese because all these things that had happened to me, as I was growing up, the warnings, the food I was eating, not questioning anything and my sisters did that and people telling you you're either way much more than you should or way too little; those kind of things or your hair looks terrible, you know, those things, were definitely Chinese, that they had a sense of family and not rudeness and not a kind of criticism but a constant assessment that you were part of all the same family and they could just tell you these things without insulting you in a certain way. 

Jo Reed: I thought in The Joy Luck Club part of what these mothers were trying to do is to toughen these daughters up who really were in danger of living these soft American lives and they felt it incumbent upon them to toughen them up before life did.

Amy Tan: And it's because they thought that they were not tough enough, that they had been—it wasn't that they were protected; it was that they were ignorant.  They were ignorant of how things could change them irrevocably and they would be damaged and have no recourse for overcoming that damage.  So, in the instance of my mother, having been married off to this man, and she knew nothing about him.  She didn’t know he was a gambler, a cheat, that he was unfaithful, that he had lied about his credentials and his identity, that he was a coward, that he raped little girls; all those things that were so horrific.  And she wanted to make sure that I was protected and her way of doing that was to try and instill fear in me.  And the way I responded was by rejecting all of it.  I say "all of it" ostensibly rejected all of it to her face and made her angry that I was not listening to her, but it was, it was definitely inside of me.  You know, I assessed people on the basis of things that she said.  She made me aware of falseness in people.  She would say to me "If everybody jumped off of a cliff just because they said it was good, would you jump off the cliff?  You are that kind of person right now, you would jump off the cliff.  You would not think of what the danger is."  And in the sense, I was.  I was easily swayed by people who would say things.  And today, I am still easily swayed without thinking about it.  And what she reminded me to do was always to question and never to just take anything as absolute truth.  Ask your own questions and you may find that you come to the same conclusion and that is your truth, but don’t take it for granted.

Jo Reed: However, I think she wasn’t quite as convinced that questioning her was a great idea.

Amy Tan: <laughs> Yes, there was one exception and of course, you know, I was a blank slate and she was supposed to put everything in my mind that was valuable.  In fact, she said one time "How could you have this thought?  I haven’t put it in your head."  You know, where did this come from?  You let your mind be too open and this terrible thing just seeped in there and I have to take it out.

Jo Reed: In your books, in all of them, in The Joy Luck Club, maybe most particularly, but I think this is true for all of your work, you're attention to language is just exquisite beginning with the first page on The Joy Luck Club when she can speak in perfect American English, I can hear that.

Amy Tan: I heard language, I saw that what I wanted to write were not just fancy words, because I had tried to do that to show, you know, the reason why you do that is to, in my mind, was to show that you're smart and you can use convoluted sentences as well as anybody else, but sentences have an impact, an impact of intent or emotion or both, and the way things sound also convey that intent and that meaning.  So when you say "perfect American English" it has a sense to it. In The Joy Luck Club I also looked at ways, I had to play with it and learning about voice, what that voice sounded like.  People confuse voice with language and with the way that use diction and language and it goes so much beyond that.  You know, the language has to do with imagery, for example, the sentences may be short when something is an abrupt realization.  The paragraph might end on a particular word at the particular unstressed or stressed consonant and it's because it's the end or the partial end of the thought; all of that became apparent to me the more and more I wrote.  And I also discovered that in voice what determines voice is your particular observations.  Not your observations as a writer, although it is because you create that, the observations of the narrator.  The narrator or the character, it's what they notice in life and how they say it.  They could say it in an understated way.  They could say it where it seems almost naïve as to the truth of what they're saying.  They could say it in overly dramatic way or an ironic way and they don’t even know it's ironic, but it is always in this observation.  The observation is also the way the person thinks about the world.  I have this notion that what I'm creating in a story is, in effect, my theory of the universe, my own big bang; how does the universe work?  Is it created by, you know, an entity?  Is it created by something random?  How things work.  You know, when you say, how did this happen?  Why did this happen?  How do I make things happen?  These are big questions and many people have different answers to that.  My role is to take a character and go through all their circumstances, their feelings and beliefs, and come up with their own sense of how things happen.  Now, in my mother's case, she believed in all of it, <laughs> you know, which is great for me as a writer because, you know, I'm not limited to randomness or I'm not limited to self-will or to, you know, luck or God's will, I can have all of it, that it may seem contradictory, but our beliefs are based on what's important.  Our beliefs are based on what's important to us and what we feel.  And in that sense, it's not an argument of who’s right and who's wrong.  It's more an evidence of who we are as individuals and how specific our own stories are. 

Jo Reed: What did your mother think about The Joy Luck Club?

Amy Tan: She was so proud.  Even before it was published, she read the early draft and she said to me, at the very end "So easy to read."  Now that may seem like small praise because, you know, that she was commenting on simplicity, but, in fact, what it had meant was she had read it and she found it easy to read and there was nothing in there that made her clutch her heart and feel that I had done something terrible or that she hadn’t understood.  And later, she did say something to me that made me understand completely that she understood.  My mother used to get upset about many, many things, you know, slights from friends or she would read into all kinds of things people said and she would go on and on and on and dissect it from every angle and I'd have to listen for hours to this and it was torture.  And she started to do this with some things she inferred to be an insult and then all of the sudden she stopped.  She says "I don’t have to tell you because you understand.  You just like me."  And that came from her reading the book. From her reading these mothers and these daughters and understanding implicitly what was going on; that is what that book meant to her.  So, I can't say "Oh she was proud," that's not enough or if she understood or we had a reconciliation; it is to explain in all the different ways that she did understand.  She was also a little miffed that people thought that it was straight dictation; that somehow I'd taken everything from her life and just transcribed it, changed the names.  She said that she felt that people weren’t giving me credit for imagination.  She knew what was true, true in the sense of the heart, not true in the sense of all the details that happened.

Jo Reed: The Joy Luck Club was an early selection of The NEA Big Read program. And I wonder what your thoughts are about The Big Read

Amy Tan:  I do have to say that the book was probably chosen because it was so much about families, that these days there are so many families whose parents, whose ancestors, are from different countries and this was a way to open that dialogue.  So much about The Big Read is making reading relevant and that it is not simply a private entertainment.  It is something that enables us to enlarge our imaginations together and to understand that, in reading, we have something in common now and we can look at that and have common discussions, not that we agree on everything, it's good to disagree.  It's good to have conversations because in those disagreements and conversations we tease out what might be misunderstandings and what our differences are and how good the differences are and maybe how, you know, it's going to create ongoing conflict, but at least we can see where it comes from; that's what I think The Big Read is about, that we share things, we have conversations, we feel bound together as families, community, as schools, as people who love to read.

Jo Reed: And let me just ask you, finally, what have you learned about joy and luck?

Amy Tan: I've found that joy is the same as peace and hope and love.  And it’s a very strange thing that I never would have been able to define it that way, but when you experience something so wholly, and a gestalt, in a story and suddenly it hits you at all levels; that's what I discovered about joy, and luck is a gratitude.  Luck is something that often happens and then we see it and we realize what it is and it's a gratitude then when we recognize it.  And by recognizing it, it's an amazing thing that more of it comes into your life and you say "Boy, I'm so lucky to have this friend," or "I'm so lucky that I live in this beautiful place and I notice the birds, you know, I'm so lucky to have these birds," and you notice it.  It's an amazing thing about observation and in that way I think that reading books of all kinds helps you to observe those things and helps to realize how we do have joy in our lives and they come in different forms and not just the fuzzy ones, but they can be the ones that your mother gives you that you want to reject for the early part of your life.

Jo Reed: Amy Tan, thank you so much.   

Amy Tan: Thank you.

Jo Reed: We were revisiting my 2010 interview with author and National Humanities Medalist Amy Tan; she was talking about her first novel The Joy Luck Club which was an early selection of the NEA Big Read initiative.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In light of Amy Tan’s recent National Humanities Medal and it being Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (and with Mother’s Day fast approaching), it seems like a fitting time to re-air my 2010 conversation with the author. In this podcast, Amy Tan explores her life and work, particularly her novel and early NEA Big Read selection The Joy Luck Club. Tan discusses her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, growing up in a Chinese American household and the cultural disconnect she faced, and how these experiences have influenced her writing. Tan discusses her writing process, the themes of family and identity that are present in her writing, shares her thoughts on the importance of writing and the creative process, and reflects on the impact of her novel The Joy Luck Club and its influences on other writers and readers. She also talks the significance of the NEA Big Read initiative and its ability to enlarge our imaginations and stimulate conversation.

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