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Amy Tan and "The Joy Luck Club"

Amy Tan is one of the authors that has impressed me most in 2017. After reading her "The Joy Luck Club", I will definitely check her other novels. Below you have the text of the presentation of our December meeting, which is a compilation of different artilcles (links to those you can find at the very bottom).

"I live with thoughts of being killed every day. I'm not so much afraid of death as of violence; and my mother's warnings are fulfilled - people die, terrible things can happen."


Amy Tan, whose Chinese name, An-mei, means "blessing from America," was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the middle child and only daughter of John and Daisy Tan, who came to America from China in the late 1940s. Besides Amy, the Tans also had two sons — Peter, born in 1950, and John, born in 1954.

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.

Her father was a Chinese-born Baptist minister; her mother was the daughter of an upper-class family in Shanghai, China. Throughout much of her childhood, Tan struggled with her parent's desire to hold onto Chinese traditions and her own longings to become more Americanized. Her parents wanted Tan to become a neurosurgeon, while she wanted to become a fiction writer.

1959, Easter

Tan discovered that her own grandmother had been raped as a young widow by a merchant who had forced her into concubinage; she killed herself by swallowing raw opium. Her daughter, Daisy - Amy's mother - was forced into a feudal marriage, but later ran away from her abusive husband, blaming him for the deaths of two of her five children. Leaving her husband without a divorce was a criminal act - let alone leaving him for another man, as she did.
John Tan, her second husband, was an electrical engineer from Beijing - he fled the country for the US; Daisy was captured, raped and thrown into jail - her trial, says Tan, was covered in the Shanghai tabloids - before she, too, was able to escape to California and join him. Daisy left China expecting to send for her three daughters, but they were trapped once the "bamboo curtain" came down. It was 30 years before she saw them again, and for many years she never spoke of them to her new family.
Safe in the US, both John and Daisy toiled at night school. "From when I was seven," recalls Tan, "my mother was a nurse, doing everything from changing bedpans to giving vaccinations, which is amazing to me; how she managed to cook incredible meals every night. Everything was fresh - which I hated. 'Why can't we have canned spinach?'" Tan wags her head brattishly. "'Fresh vegetables are what poor people eat.'"

At the age of 12

Tan, who when she was young fantasised about plastic surgery to make her look less oriental, blamed her unhappiness as a child on being Chinese - "It was the most convenient scapegoat" - but now feels that the constant uprooting, between 10 cities around the San Francisco Bay area, was as much a cause of alienation. "I'd lose a set of friends, and spend months before I'd find others. All children have their forms of unhappiness, and being different is an anxiety, especially as a teenager." The 50s and 60s were also an era of assimilation: "Being different was less tolerated; you'd be teased with racial jokes. People found it disgusting if you ate fish with the head still attached to it. Teenagers can be very cruel."
Brought up bilingual (in her dreams, she speaks fluent Mandarin), Tan was soon refusing to speak Chinese in public. She became an interpreter for her mother, of whose imperfect English she was ashamed. "It's something I resented as a child," she recalls, "though you can look at it with humour. I'd be on the telephone to banks as a young girl, pretending I was my mother. A lot of what I translated had to do with how terrible I was - writing letters to my mother's friends saying she was thinking of sending me to school in Taiwan to turn me into a better girl. I learnt to say what I thought people wanted to hear."

“Starting at age 5, I took classical piano. I had been told by my parents that I could be a concert pianist. At age 20, I quit when I could find admit to myself and my mother that I had never had the talent or desire.”

The family moved nearly every year, living in Oakland, Fresno, Berkeley, and San Francisco before settling in Santa Clara, California. They changed houses 12 times. Although John and Daisy rarely socialized with their neighbors, Amy and her brothers ignored their parents' objections and tried hard to fit into American society. "They wanted us to have American circumstances and Chinese character," Tan said in an interview with Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times (March 12, 1989).
Young Amy was deeply unhappy with her Asian appearance and heritage. She was the only Chinese girl in class from the third grade until she graduated from high school. She remembers trying to belong and feeling frustrated and isolated. "I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way," she remarked in a Los Angeles Times interview. In fact, she was so determined to look like an American girl that she even slept with a clothespin on her nose, hoping to slim its Asian shape. By the time Amy was a teenager, she had rejected everything Chinese. She even felt ashamed of eating "horrible" five-course Chinese meals and decided that she would grow up to look more American if she ate more "American" foods. "There is this myth," she said, "that America is a melting pot, but what happens in assimilation is that we end up deliberately choosing the American things — hot dogs and apple pie — and ignoring the Chinese offerings" (Newsweek, April 17, 1989).
Amy's parents had high expectations for her success. They decided that she would be a full-time neurosurgeon and part-time concert pianist. But they had not reckoned with her rebellious streak. Ever since she won an essay contest when she was eight years old, Amy dreamed of writing novels and short stories. Her dream seemed unlikely to become reality, however, after a series of tragedies shook her life. When she was 14, Tan experienced the loss of both her father and her sixteen-year-old brother Peter to brain tumors and learned that two sisters from her mother's first marriage in China were still alive.
An episode of child molestation in The Bonesetter's Daughter echoes something that happened to Amy Tan herself. "My brother was dead, my father was in the hospital and had lost his mind; he almost didn't recognise me. I'd been a Daddy's girl - my father was brilliant, personable; he was the one I wanted to be like. To see him there, laughing because he was demented . . ." she trails off.
She was being counselled by a community elder because her mother thought she was out of control. "The man said, 'Your father's in a lot of physical pain; he'd be in even more pain knowing what you're doing.' I'd been this hard-shelled, defiant teenager, not showing that anything mattered to me. But I broke down sobbing. I was hysterical with grief." Then the man changed tack: "He started to tickle me, threw me on to the bed and moved to other parts of my body. It felt so wrong, but I thought, how can it be? This man is a respected member of the community."
The man, whom Tan declines to name to this day ("I'm so afraid he'll come back into my life"), reappeared years later at one of her book signings. "I was like a deer caught in headlights," she says. "I could not speak." 

Deciding that the remaining family needed to escape from the site of their tragedy, Daisy settled with Amy and her brother in Montreux, Switzerland. at her private school, Tan says, she was nearly raped by a school janitor. "The teachers told me, next time, you should be more careful." They sacked the man. "I lived in terror he would come after me and kill me."
The move intensified Amy's rebellion. "I did a bunch of crazy things," she told Elaine Woo. "I just kind of went to pieces." Perhaps the most dangerous was her relationship with an older German man who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime. Daisy had the man arrested for drug possession and got her daughter hauled before the authorities. Amy quickly severed all ties with the German.
A year later, Daisy, Amy, and John returned to San Francisco. In 1969, Amy enrolled in Linfield College, a small Baptist university in McMinnville, Oregon. Daisy selected the college because she believed it to be a safe haven for her daughter. A year later, however, Amy followed Louis DeMattei, her Italian-American boyfriend, to San Jose City College in California. Just as distressing to Daisy, Amy changed her major from pre-med to English and linguistics. Daisy was so upset that she and her daughter did not speak to each other for six months.
Amy then transferred to San Jose State University and earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. After completing her degrees, Amy married DeMattei, a tax attorney. Still not certain what path to pursue, she entered a doctoral program in linguistics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Berkeley, but left in 1976 to become a language-development consultant for the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens. It was not until the early 1980s that she became a business writer.

Amy's husband-to-be, a friend of her cousin, made a good impression: "My cousin turned up with 10 friends, expecting dinner. My mother was angry - in the kitchen throwing pots and pans around and growling. Lou quietly ate a lot, and she remembers he appreciated her cooking."
Lou's Italian-American parents initially disapproved - "because I was Chinese, they thought I'd be a liability to him as a lawyer". But Tan's mother had "given up the notion that I'd marry a Chinese boy; in high school there were none. All the Chinese boys I knew were relatives or close family friends." 

A college roommate was murdered while Tan was studying for a PhD at Berkeley. "I had to identify the body and go in the room and see all the blood," she remembers with horror. "It happened on my birthday, and every year for about 10 years, on my birthday I lost my voice."

She worked as a language development specialist for county-wide programs serving developmentally disabled children, birth to five, and later became  director for a demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to mainstream multicultural children with developmental disabilities into early childhood programs.  In 1983, she became a freelance business writer, working with telecommunications companies, including IBM and AT&T. 

As with all fairy tales, The Joy Luck Club had an unlikely beginning. Tan's business writing venture was so successful that she was able to buy her mother a house. Yet, despite her happiness at being able to provide for her mother, she was not fulfilled in her work. "I measured my success by how many clients I had and how many billable hours I had," she told interviewer Jonathan Mandell. Secretly, Tan had always wanted to write fiction, but she had thrown herself so completely into her freelance career that she spent more than ninety hours a week at it. Early in 1985, Tan began to worry that she was devoting too much time to her business and started looking for a change. She decided to force herself to do another kind of writing. The turning point came a year later, when Tan's mother was hospitalized after a heart attack. "I decided that if my mother was okay, I'd get to know her. I'd take her to China, and I'd write a book." Her only previous forays into fiction were "vacation letters written to friends in which I tried to create little stories based on things that happened while I was away," she noted.

Tan learned her mother's true maiden name - Li Bingzi - on the day her mother died. "I was stunned; I'd spent all these years writing about her life, but I didn't know what name she was born with."

Her first story was published in 1986  in a small literary magazine, FM Five, which was then reprinted in Seventeen  and Grazia.   Literary AgentSandy Dijkstra read her early work and offered to serve as her agent, even though Amy asserted she had no plans to pursue a fiction writing career.  In 1987, Amy went to China for the first time, accompanied by her mother.  When she returned home, she learned that she had received  three offers for a book of short stories, of which only three had been written.  The resulting book, The Joy Luck Club, was hailed as a novel and became a surprise bestseller, spending over forty weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.  

The same year, Tan wrote a short story, "Endgame," about a brilliant young chess champion who has a difficult relationship with her overprotective Chinese mother. Tan expanded the story into a collection, and it was sold to the prestigious publisher G.P. Putnam. Because of her huge advance — $50,000 — Tan dissolved her freelance business and completed the volume, which she named The Joy Luck Club. "I wrote it very quickly because I was afraid this chance would just slip out of my hands," she told Elaine Woo. She completed the manuscript in May 1988, and the book was published the following year. The book was greeted with almost universal acclaim. "Magical," said fellow novelist Louise Erdrich; "intensely poetic and moving," echoed Publishers Weekly. "She has written a jewel of a book," Orville Schell concluded in the New York Times (March 19, 1989).
Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989 when she was 37, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 77 weeks

In April 1989, The Joy Luck Club made the New York Times' bestseller list, where it remained for seven months. Tan was named a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award. She received the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for fiction and the Commonwealth Club Gold Award. Paperback rights for the novel sold for more than $1.23 million, and it has been translated into seventeen languages, including Chinese.

The phenomenal success of The Joy Luck Club and the unfamiliar rituals of being a celebrity made it difficult for Tan to concentrate on writing her second novel. At one time, writing it became such a challenge that she broke out in hives. She began seven different novels until she hit upon a solution: "When my mother read The Joy Luck Club," Tan said, "she was always complaining to me how she had to tell her friends that, no, she was not the mother or any of the mothers in the book. . . . So she came to me one day and she said, 'Next book, tell my true story.'"

The Kitchen God's Wife, published in 1991, tells the story of Daisy's life through the fictional Winnie, a refugee from China. The book was a huge success even before publication: in a tightly fought contest, the Literary Guild bought the book club rights for a reported $425,000. Five foreign publishers bought rights to the novel — all before publication. In 1992, Tan published a children's book, The Moon Lady. The plot is taken from the "Moon Lady" episode in The Joy Luck Club. "The haunting tale that unfolds is worthy of retelling," Publishers Weekly wrote.

Amy  served as Co-producer and Co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of "The Joy Luck Club," for which they received WGA and BAFTA nominations.   She was the Creative Consultant for "Sagwa," the Emmy nominated PBS television series for children, which has aired worldwide, including in the UK, Latin America, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore.  Her story in The New Yorker, “Immortal Heart,” was performed on stages throughout the U.S. and in France. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks, and they are assigned as required reading in many high schools and universities.  She was the guest editor for Best American Short Stories 1999.  She appeared as herself in the animated series The Simpsons. She performed as narrator with the San Francisco Symphony playing an original score for Sagwa, by composer Nathan Wang.  Amy Tan has been nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the International Orange Prize, and has won many awards including the Commonwealth Gold Award.

Amy has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford, Jagellonium, Beijing, and Georgetown both in Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar. She has delivered a TED talk and spoken at the White House, appeared on the popular NPR program Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, as well as on Sesame Street on Public Television.  The National Endowment for the Arts chose The Joy Luck Club for its 2007 Big Read program.
Amy  also wrote the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which had its world premiere with the San Francisco Opera in September 2008.
The Bonesetter's Daughter, was conceived in response to the diagnoses, within a few months of each other, of her mother Daisy with Alzheimer's and her friend and editor, Faith Sale, with cancer. They both died within a few onths in 1999.
The book Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Ken Smith, was published by Chronicle Books in August 2008, and a documentary about the opera, Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter, premiered on PBS in 2011. 

Amy Tan has served as lead rhythm “dominatrix,” backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members included Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literacy programs. To honor her support of zoological field research, her name was given to a newly discovered species of terrestrial leeches,  Chtonobdela tanae, the first soft-bodied microscopic organism to be identified using a new method of computed tomography. In keeping with her love of science in the wild and childhood love of doodling, she recently took up nature journal sketching. 

with Stephen King

Amy lives with her husband, Louis DeMattei and their two dogs, Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lilliput in California and New York.  

with her husband at Obama's reception ball

When not writing, she enjoys playing pool. She is a frequent visitor to Family Billiards in San Francisco.

Despite her success, Tan suffers bouts of depression. "It could be genetic or being around a mother who was suicidal," she says. "When I was a little girl, she talked about killing herself, and there were times when she'd make an attempt in front of us. Mostly, it wasn't a quiet depression - she'd be hysterical and shouting; she'd open the car door on the freeway and try to jump out; turn all the furniture upside down in the house in rage, and brandish a knife. It's easy to pass that on to a child. And my grandmother was obviously depressed; it runs in three generations."

She now controls it with anti-depressants. "I don't think of myself as weak, but I have this in my psychological make-up, chinks in the emotional armour." She once tried therapy ("The therapist fell asleep"), but prefers informal chats with therapist friends. "Part of my problem is self-esteem and a difficulty trusting strangers. People think I'm so open, but there's a lot I keep within myself. It's good to keep secrets if you're a writer and gradually unveil them."

Tan, who has also written two children's books, decided with her husband not to have children. She speculates about an early miscarriage: "In my mind it was a girl; she'd be 21 now, and would be giving us such grief, though we're convinced our children would have been beautiful." 


It was not until the 1976 publication of Maxine Hong Kingston's mystical memoir of her San Francisco childhood, The Woman Warrior, that Asian-American writers broke into mainstream American literature. Even so, ten more years had to pass until another Asian-American writer achieved fame and fortune. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan's first novel, sold an astonishing 275,000 hard-cover copies upon its 1989 publication. The success of Tan's book increased publishers' willingness to gamble on first books by Asian-American writers.
The Joy Luck Club describes the lives of four Asian women who fled China in the 1940s and their four very Americanized daughters. The novel focuses on Jing-mei "June" Woo, a thirty-six-year-old daughter, who, after her mother's death, takes her place at the meetings of a social group called the Joy Luck Club. As its members play mah jong and feast on Chinese delicacies, the older women spin stories about the past and lament the barriers that exist between their daughters and themselves. Through their stories, Jing-mei comes to appreciate the richness of her heritage.
Suyuan Woo, the founder of the Joy Luck Club, barely escaped war-torn China with her life and was forced to leave her twin infant daughters behind. Her American-born daughter, Jing-mei "June" Woo, works as a copywriter for a small advertising firm. She lacks her mother's drive and self-confidence but finds her identity after her mother's death when she meets her twin half-sisters in China.
An-mei Hsu grew up in the home of the wealthy merchant Wu Tsing. She was without status because her mother was only the third wife. After her mother's suicide, An-mei came to America, married, and had seven children. Like Jing-mei Woo, An-mei's daughter Rose is unsure of herself. She is nearly prostrate with grief when her husband, Ted, demands a divorce. After a breakdown, she finds her identity and learns to assert herself.
Lindo Jong was betrothed at infancy to another baby, Tyan-yu. They married as preteens and lived in Tyan-yu's home. There, Lindo was treated like a servant. She cleverly tricked the family, however, and gained her freedom. She came to America, got a job in a fortune cookie factory, met and married Tin Jong. Her daughter, Waverly, was a chess prodigy who became a successful tax accountant.
Ying-ying St. Clair grew up a wild, rebellious girl in a wealthy family. After she married, her husband deserted her, and Ying-ying had an abortion and lived in poverty for a decade. Then she married Clifford St. Clair and emigrated to America. Her daughter, Lena, is on the verge of a divorce from her architect husband, Harold Livotny. She established him in business and resents their unequal division of finances.

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 selfdiscovery 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. 

"Before I wrote The Joy Luck Club," Tan said in an interview, "my mother told me, 'I might die soon. And if I die, what will you remember?"' Tan's answer appears on the book's dedication page, emphasizing the novel's adherence to truth. How much of the story is real? "All the daughters are fractured bits of me," Tan said in a Cosmopolitan interview. Further, Tan has said that the members of the club represent "different aspects of my mother."

The novel traces the fate of four mothers — Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair — and their four daughters — Jing-mei "June" Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. All four mothers fled China in the 1940s and retain much of their heritage. All four daughters are very Americanized. As Tan remarked, the club's four older women represent "different aspects of my mother, but the book could be about any culture or generation and what is lost between them."
The four older women have experienced almost inconceivable horrors early in their lives. Suyuan Woo was forced to abandon her infant daughters in order to survive in a war-torn land; An-mei Hsu sees her mother commit suicide in order to enable her daughter to have a future. Lindo Jong is married at twelve to a child to whom she was betrothed in infancy; Ying-ying St. Clair was abandoned by her husband, had an abortion, and lived in great poverty for a decade. She then married a man whom she did not love, a man she could barely communicate with despite their years together.
By comparison, the four daughters have led relatively blessed lives, cosseted by their doting — if assertive — mothers. Ironically, each of the daughters has great difficulty achieving happiness. Waverly Jong divorces her first husband, and both Lena St. Clair and Rose Hsu Jordan are on the verge of splitting with their husbands. Lena is wretchedly unhappy and considering divorce; Rose's husband, Ted, has already served the divorce papers. Jing-mei has never married nor has she a lover. Furthermore, none of the daughters is entirely comfortable when dealing with the events of her life. Although she has achieved great economic success as a tax accountant, Waverly is afraid to tell her mother that she plans to remarry. Lena has a serious eating disorder, and she bitterly resents the way that she and her husband, Harold, split their finances, and how her career has suffered in order to advance his. Rose suffers a breakdown when her husband moves out. She lacks self-esteem, and her mother cannot understand why she sobs to a psychiatrist rather than asserting herself. Jing-mei is easily intimidated, especially by her childhood friend Waverly. She is not satisfied with her job as an advertising copywriter, and, like Rose, she lacks self-esteem.
Through the love of their mothers, each of these young women learns about her heritage and so is able to deal more effectively with her life.