Amy Tan Reflects on 30 Years Since
The Joy Luck Club
Writing Fiction That's Truer Than Memoir
I am a realist, not prone to outlandish dreams, and thus, rarely disappointed. Before The Joy Luck Club was published in March 1989, I told my husband that my novel would be on bookstore shelves for about six weeks and then disappear into the shredder. I had heard this was the case with most first novels, and there was no reason to expect mine would fare any better. In fact, it might do worse.
After all, these were quirky stories, written by an unknown Chinese American author. And in those days, books that were non-mainstream were termed “ethnic,” enjoyed by special readers, largely those who were in ethnic studies programs. The characters are mothers who immigrated from China and their modern thirty-something American-born daughters. Their relationships are fraught with years of misunderstandings and accumulated pain. A mother’s hopes and expectations become a daughter’s sense of failure. A mother’s advice is received by a daughter as rejection of who she really is. The mother, in return, feels her daughter knows nothing about her and has learned nothing from her mother, the one who loved her best.
Who would pay to read that? Over the last 30 years, I continue to be grateful and amazed by the answer: many.
Most readers, I suspect, believe the stories are thinly disguised memoir. One woman at a reading told me that she divorced her husband for the same reason I divorced mine. I have been continuously married to the same guy since 1974. Interviewers have asked what important lessons I have taught my daughter. I have had only dogs, and I am a failure at house-training them. Because I had written a story about a chess prodigy, a chess magazine invited me to write an article on the end game. I played chess once, when I was twelve. People assume I grew up in Chinatown. Although I was surrounded by family friends who belonged to a social group known as The Joy Luck Club, I lived in mixed neighborhoods in Oakland, and later in white suburbia.
I could go on with a disputation of facts like these, but there is a deeper truth in fiction that is absolutely true to my life. “Rules of the Game,” for example, is not about a chess player per se; it is about a rebellious child, who one day decides to assert her own power by rebuking her mother. In response, her mother falls silent and treats her daughter as if she does not exist. Her seeming lack of motherly pride and love renders the girl powerless, unsure of herself and her future. When I wrote that story, I did not start off with this understanding in place. But when I neared writing the end, I was intuitively guided to a childhood memory of me lying in bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling, scared and utterly alone. I recognized that child, only now that child was no longer alone. I was with her and gave her my complete empathy.
With every novel, I have been emotionally shaken and exhilarated by unexpected epiphanies. With the first book, the revelations were among the most intense and wondrous experiences of my life, akin to seeing a long lost loved one walk through the door. But to find that resonating truth, I have to do the rudimentary work of shaping characters and their nuances. I have to determine the narrative movement and its arc, and then be tumbled by the convolutions and the mistakes. I have to revise each page 50 times—at least. I have to work hard to make the story believable—that it is not simply a memory, but what is happening to me right now.“She can tell people what my mother suffered. She can tell the world. That’s how she can change it.”
Fiction is a portal to a deeper understanding of myself, and when I went through it the first time, I knew I would write fiction the rest of my life. Fiction allows me the freedom to conjure up scenes, add details from my life or my mother’s, alter them—whatever is best for telling a story. It’s the ultimate tag sale. I used the frayed sofa in one house and snippets of gossip around mahjongg tables during meetings of the real Joy Luck Club. I resurrected the horrifying sound of a neighbor girl screaming as her mother beat her in the bathroom. I carried into many stories the hopes and expectations of my parents: to practice hard to become a concert pianist; to be American enough to take advantage of opportunities but Chinese in character; to marry a generous, kind man without spots on his face. My rejection of their expectations went into the mix, and, as the story evolved, a broken bit of my self-esteem surfaced.
Like the character June Woo, I did indeed have a disastrous piano recital and experienced an overwhelming sense of shame and fear that my potential was shrinking. While my mother did not abandon two babies by the side of a road during wartime, she did leave three daughters with her ex-husband when she took the last boat out of Shanghai in 1949 to come to the U.S. and marry her lover, my father. Like the character June, I was ignorant of my half sisters’ existence until my mother blurted it out during an argument, and I was instantly unmoored, no longer the only daughter but one of four, who could also be cast aside if my mother found reason. While I did not have a little brother who fell into the ocean, the story “Half and Half” was based on my mother’s determination to fight fate when my older brother and father were stricken with brain tumors six months apart.
The stories that bear the most resemblance to my family history concern my grandmother, who was widowed by the age of 30 and became a rich man’s fourth wife in 1925—a lowly concubine. As I wrote the story “Magpies,” I felt her with me, helping me understand why the character An-mei must choose her own fate. Throughout the novel, there are many vivid details I lifted from my mother’s incessant tales: The near-fatal burn to her neck, and the clever way her grandmother gave her the will to live. My grandmother cutting a piece of flesh from her arm to make a sacrificial soup. The Western-style mansion with columns and a circular driveway, where my mother lived as a child, along with many concubines and stepsisters in many rooms. A tubercular relative coughing and spitting blood just before he ferried a bowl of soup to my mother with his fingers on the rim. The warm comfort my mother felt sleeping in bed with her mother, the two of them nestled under a duvet that was stuffed with the nest strands of silk, which was like nothing you could buy today.
Readers have asked if family members, especially my mother, were outraged by stories that derived from family history. On the contrary, family members as well as close friends proudly claimed they were in the novel, even though in many cases, they were not. Only one relative objected: my mother’s half brother, whose father had taken my grandmother as his concubine.
“It’s useless to write about these things,” my uncle said to my mother. “She can’t change the past.” My mother said in fiery response: “She can tell people what my mother suffered—a stain she could not rub off her back. She can tell the world. That’s how she can change it.”My mother had long believed I had a talent for talking to ghosts, one I had strongly denied.
My mother was enormously proud of my first novel. In one fell swoop, all the wounds I had inflicted on her had seemingly vanished. She, who recalled every slight I had committed from the age of six, now remembered my misdeeds with fondness. After I was published, she, like Waverly Jong’s mother, Lindo, would tell strangers, “This my daughter.” When she later developed Alzheimer’s, I gave her a box of books to pass out to people on Christmas Day. She would go up to each person and hand over a book, then ask, “You know my daughter Amy Tan?” If they did not, she grabbed back the book.
She was always my strongest defender. She complained that people did not give me enough credit for my “wild imagination,” what she thought was “lazy daydreaming,” when I was a child. She knew better than anyone what I had made up, what had happened in real life, as well as the events and people who had inspired the story. She knew firsthand what emotions underlay the stories. She was gratified that I had actually listened to her stories and understood what she had been trying to tell me so that I would have the best possible character.
But she was taken aback by some of my imagined scenes and details. They differed from what she told me, but it was my version that was the true one. This led her to believe I had had assistance from a ghostwriter, namely her mother. A case in point: She once told me that my widowed grandmother became the first wife to a rich man. In my story, I made the woman a fourth wife, a lowly concubine. I detailed the reason she joined the household and how she taught her daughter to not succumb to the bad fate someone else gives you. “I didn’t tell you these things,” my mother said, “So how did you know what really happened. Is she here?” she asked. “You can tell me. Don’t be shy.”
My mother had long believed I had a talent for talking to ghosts, one I had strongly denied. At age four, when I did not want to go to bed, I lied that there was a ghost in the bathroom. Most mothers would have soothed a child’s fears, but my mother took me to the bathroom and asked in an excited and hopeful voice, “Where is she?” From then on, she saw me as a conduit to her mother. And now, having read the draft of a story called “Scar,” she had her proof. This was not superstition or delusion. It was the permanent grief of an inconsolable girl who was left an orphan at age nine.
From childhood through adulthood, my mother told me stories about her mother with countless variations—some contradictory—but all with the underpinnings of shame, anger, grief, rebellion, and revenge. I wrote stories that made sense of those emotions. Like a Geiger counter, fiction veers relentlessly toward truth. Storytelling was my mother’s purgative for her misery. Her accounts and my childhood were actually far darker than the lives of the fictional mothers and daughters. During my childhood, I was the unhappy recipient of these tragic tales. I heard them hundreds of times, and they always began with these dreaded words: “Did I tell you about the time . . . ?”
It did not matter that she had. She would launch into one story after another: Her loneliness as an orphan in a mansion. Her wedding and an inventory of her dowry. Her innocence and how it was taken from her. Coy versions of her first marriage, and later, unexpurgated ones. She would yank me on a tour of her past, meandering through rooms, describing who was there, what lies were said, who was genuine, or who was both greedy and sneaky. She could see through them all, and she taught me the signs. Sometimes her stories were based on recent slights or injustices. She rambled for hours and would stop only to ask, “Do you believe?” I always assured her I did, and she, being rightly skeptical, would layer more particulars and drama onto her looping tale, acting out the most terrifying ones.The stories I was writing came from unshakable obsessions, deep emotions, and a desperate need to be understood.
I hated the stories. I did not know at the time that I was being gifted with the intuitions of a storyteller. When I finally started writing fiction at age 33, I understood that the stories I was writing came from unshakable obsessions, deep emotions, and a desperate need to be understood. The past was ever present. And the way to a story and the truth within it was to feel the emotions.
In 1986, my husband and I were on holiday with friends in Kauai, disconnected from the real world, including my answering machine. My days consisted of waves and sunsets, sunscreen and pineapple juice. I read in a hammock on the lanai of our rented house facing the ocean. One of the books was Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. The more irascible, strong-willed characters reminded me of my mother. The multi-layered stories had a similar insistent tone, and her book would later influence the structure of The Joy Luck Club.
On our seventh day in paradise, one of our friends raced over to me as I stood in a parking lot. She had checked her answering machine and heard an urgent message from my brother. Our mother had suffered a heart attack and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. The call had come in four days before. I was numb and panicked. As I walked to the telephone booth, I had a feeling my mother was already dead, and I felt sickening waves of remorse. All these years, I had seen my mother as a carping, needy, perpetually dissatisfied woman, overflowing with fury, dire warnings, and sobbing suicidal threats. In recent years, I had not visited her that often, and when I did, I kept our conversations safe and falsely cheerful so that she could not affect me. Now, fearing she was dead, I recalled one of our more recent exchanges.
“If I die, what you remember?” she asked.
“I would remember many things,” I said.
I was flummoxed. “Like, you know, things, like, you were my mother.”
She said in a tearful, quavering voice, “I think you know little percent of me.” That day, in a parking lot, I made a promise to whatever deity was out there and in charge of miracles: If my mother lived, I would listen—really listen—as she told her stories. I would thank her for her advice—and I would even take her to China to really get to know her. After my call was transferred numerous times, I heard my mother chirp: “Amy-ah! Where are you?” The miracle had happened. “Mom, you’re alive!” I babbled about getting the message late . . . and then she broke in: “Oh, you worried?” She was gleeful. It turned out that it was not a heart attack. She had leaned over the counter at the supermarket to yell at the fishmonger and bruised her ribs. I hung up, happy to resume my vacation. But then the deity in charge of miracles reminded me I had made a promise.
When I made my first trip to China, my mother was with me, 24/7. She dispensed advice, criticized the amount of money I paid for souvenirs, and pointed out how oddly American I looked compared to real Chinese people. It was awful, but it was also wonderful. At last she had my sympathy as I listened to her tales of hope and misery—those that had begun in China, where we now were, past and present.
My mother read an early draft of The Joy Luck Club and gave me high praise: “So easy to read.” And indeed she had read it. I knew this, because the next time she started to tell me about a relative who had treated her poorly, she stopped herself after a few minutes. “I don’t have to tell you,” she said. “You understand. You’re just like me.”
Preface from The Joy Luck Club. Used with permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Tan.