In 1989 a young business writer named Amy Tan published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, to international acclaim. Although the author worried that the largely autobiographical work might be received as “weird stories about a weird family”, the richly textured book quickly became a bestseller. In the succeeding years it has never lacked for readers. She has since written five other highly praised novels, including her most recent work, Saving Fish from Drowning (2005).
A novel composed of interlocking short stories, The Joy Luck Club portrays the assimilation of Chinese families into America and the tragedies they left behind in the troubled landscape of World War II and Communist China. Centered on four mother-daughter relationships, the novel explores, in Tan’s words, “faith, fate, luck, curses, destiny, self-determination, and accidents.”
As one of the initial selections in The Big Read—a National Endowment for the Arts program—The Joy Luck Club is being read and discussed across the country. The NEA’s Big Read is an initiative designed to revitalize the role of reading in American popular culture. Reading at Risk, a 2004 NEA report, identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American adults. The Big Read aims to address this issue directly by providing citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. The NEA provides each participating community with a grant to support activities and materials tailored to each city and book.
A classic of Asian-American literature, The Joy Luck Club reminds us of our nation’s rich ethnic diversity. As an arresting contemporary novel, it also reminds us that we often define ourselves as individuals and communities through story.
On August 7, 2006, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Tan at her home in Marin County, California, about her childhood, writing career, and the role of stories in Chinese and American culture.
DG: 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 well. It’s such a wonderful part of me that is coming back, to try and speak that language.
DG: What books do you remember reading early in your childhood?
Amy Tan: I read every fairy tale I could lay my hands on at the public library. It was a wonderful world to escape to. I say “escape” deliberately, because I look back and I feel that my childhood was filled with a lot of tensions in the house, and I was able to go to another place. These stories were also filled with their own kinds of dangers and tensions, but they weren’t mine. And they were usually solved in the end. This was something satisfying. You could go through these things and then suddenly, you would have some kind of ending. Even if it was magical, you had a resolution. I think that every lonely kid loves to escape through stories. And what kids never thought that they were lonely at some point in their life?
DG: The Joy Luck Club contains an enormous amount of modern Chinese history. Does that come entirely from your family history, or is it fictionalized?
Amy Tan: A lot of people think I’ve always known about the history of China. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know World War II took place in China. That is how ignorant I was of China. My parents didn’t talk about it, because these were the McCarthy days when being part of China raised questions about whether you were a communist. The story about the young woman going to China for the first time to meet her sisters: that was a story that I wrote right after going to China to meet my sisters for the first time. I would say the emotional parts of this story, and even some of the details, do derive from my family’s past.
DG: The Joy Luck Club of your novel’s title is both a gambling and an investment club. Were clubs like this part of your childhood or your adolescence?
Amy Tan: I grew up with the real Joy Luck Club. My parents used to meet with a group of friends. They were all Chinese. They were all immigrants. They all were hoping that they would find a version of the American dream. The fact that they were there was already the American dream. One of the American dreams is that you could, through luck and hard work, find great success, and that equaled joy. Joy and luck were something everybody understood.
DG: Would you explain the special symbolism of your title, The Joy Luck Club?
Amy Tan: 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 where that luck comes from. Look at the lottery. You have millions of people who believe in luck. Luck is in every part of China. Many Chinese stores and restaurants have the word “luck” in their names. The idea is that, just by using the word “luck” in names of things, you can attract more of it. I think that’s true in my life, as well. You attract luck because you go after it. I also think our beliefs in luck are related to hope. Some people who are without almost any hope in a situation still cling to luck.
DG: Your mother—to put it mildly—did not approve of your ambition to be a writer. Would you talk about this?
Amy Tan: My mother and father were immigrants and they were practical people. They wanted us to do well in the new country. They didn’t want us to be starving artists. Going into the arts was considered a luxury—that was something you did if you were born to wealth. When my mother found out that I had switched from pre-med to English literature, she imagined that I would lead this life of poverty, that this was a dream that couldn’t possibly lead to anything. I didn’t know what it would lead to. It just occurred to me I could finally make a choice when I was in college. I didn’t have to follow what my parents had set out for me from the age of six—to become a doctor.
DG: What did your mother think of The Joy Luck Club?
Amy Tan: Well, by the time I wrote The Joy Luck Club, she had changed her opinion, in part, because I was a business writer. I was making a very good living as a business writer, enough to buy a house for her to live in. When you can do that for your parents they think you’re doing fairly well. That was the goal, to become a doctor and be able to make enough money to take care of my mother in her old age. Because I was able to do that as a business writer, she thought it was great. When I decided to write fiction and I said I needed to interview her for stories from her past, she thought that was even better. Then when I got published, and it became a success, she said, “I always knew she was going to be a writer, because she had a wild imagination.” So we have revisionist history going on. I think that’s great for my mother to have remembered that that was her hope.
DG: Let me ask something, which I hope isn’t painful. You lost both your father and your brother when you were a teenager. How did that shape your life?
Amy Tan: It was the time that I had to abandon everything that I believed about the way things worked. My father was a minister, and he believed in God. He had absolute faith in God, meaning whatever happened in your life, good or bad, was a result of God’s will. And I believed that as well, for most of my life. I went to church. I tried to be a good girl. I wondered why God didn’t speak to me, because I was doing everything right. When they became ill and died six months apart, I was so angry. I had no one to talk to, because all these people were saying, “Well, it’s God’s will,” or “Maybe it happened because your father did something wrong and God is punishing him.” I didn’t understand that when I was a kid. I had to start over and find my own beliefs.
Now it’s not to say that I would deny the existence of God for the rest of my life, or the fact that certain miracles can happen that we can’t explain, but my notions of what that higher power is comes from asking my own questions. And that was a really important part of me—whether I became a writer or not. It’s always important to examine where you’re getting your truth. It may be from very good people and very good sources, but to believe absolutely in your gut, I had to find my own questions. And I had to start with confusion. I think today, as a writer, confusion is the best place to start a story.
DG: The Joy Luck Club is a book of enormous historical importance in American literature, because it brought the complex history of immigration between China and the United States into the mainstream of American literature. Writing this book, did you have any sense that you were opening up a whole new territory?
Amy Tan: No, I had no idea this was going to be anything but weird stories about a weird family that was unique to us. To think that they would apply to other people who would find similarities to their own families or conflicts was beyond my imagination, and I have a very good imagination.
I wanted to write this book for very personal reasons. One of them, of course, was to learn the craft of writing. I always loved to write stories, and I loved to read more than anything, before I was writing. The other reason was to understand myself, to figure out who I was. A lot of writers use writing as a way of finding their own personal meaning. They want to represent what they feel about the world. I wrote out of total chaos and personal history, which did not seem like something that would ever be used by other people as a way of understanding their lives.
DG: This is one of the great books about the American immigrant experience. Was that something that you were conscious of while writing it?
Amy Tan: If I thought at all that it was going to be a story about the immigrant experience, 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. You have that freedom. It’s not a complete freedom, because we have certain limitations that have to do with the economy or prejudice. That, in turn, then allows an amazing freedom to a writer, because freedom is also creativity. You are creating your identity. As a writer, you can create anything you want.
DG: Did you have any literary models in writing your short stories or putting them together as a book? Or did you just do it on intuition?
Amy Tan: I look back, and there were unconscious models—fairy tales, the Bible, especially the cadence of the Bible. There was a book called Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I loved that house. Wilder wrote this fictional story based on her life as a lonely little girl, moving from place to place. She lived 100 years ago, but that was my life. Jane Eyre was another girl who was alienated and had to make her own way in life. Nobody understood her. She had terrible things happen to her, and she survived.
The other major influence was my parents. My father wrote sermons and he read them aloud to me, as his test audience. They were not the kind of hell and brimstone sermons. They were stories about himself and his doubts, what he wanted and how he tried to do it.
Then, of course, there was my mother, who told stories as though they were happening right in front of her. She would remember what happened to her in life and act them out in front of me. That’s oral storytelling at its best. The stories were based on her life, so the emotions there were real. They were what happened at the time and experienced as freshly as they happened at the moment. That is, I think, what a writer tries to achieve—truth, genuine emotion, and the discovery of that emotion, naturally and with the same intensity of anger or surprise or despair. My mother taught me emotional truth, and that’s something you cannot find in a book. You have to be with somebody who’s experienced it, and whose very life depends on it.
DG: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
Amy Tan: I have many reasons why I think reading is really important. It provided for me a refuge, especially during difficult times. It provided me with the notion that I could find an ending that was different from what was happening to me at the time. And when I look at reading now, I think it’s also that with imagination; that is the closest thing that we have to compassion and empathy. When you read about the lives of other people, people of different circumstances or similar circumstances, you are part of their lives for that moment. You inhabit their lives and you feel what they’re feeling and that is compassion. If we see that reading does allow us that, we see how absolutely essential reading is. That compassion is not anything we are going to learn through psychology or sociology or cultural courses. And it’s so vital, especially today when we have so much misunderstanding across cultures and even within our own communities.
My books may be about mothers and daughters, but they are also about the things that I believe in and why they change over time: notions about faith, about fate, about luck, about curses, destiny, self-determination, and accidents. This came from my mother—the notion of needing to question the world and how to change it.
DG: Reading the book, I was struck also by its fairy tale elements. Much of it inhabits the borderline between fact and fantasy—full of dreams, superstitions, and legends. Writing the book, did you look on its contents as realistic?
Amy Tan: What my mother taught me was the realism of every possibility. I think that’s what governs what people call magical realism. Our beliefs determine a lot of what happens because we make it happen, or we see that it happens that way.
As a minister, my father told us many stories from the Bible that were like fairy tales. A young boy takes a slingshot and kills a giant. Somebody who was dead for a number of days and suddenly comes to life. Somebody creates thousands of loaves of bread for all these starving people. Those stories can reflect very strong beliefs that Christians have, but they also have qualities that are wonderful about fairy tales.
Life is larger than we think it is. Certain events can happen that we don’t understand. We can take it as faith or as superstition, or as a fairy tale. The possibilities are wide open as to how we look at them.
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.?