Amy Tan (b. 1952)
Contributing Editor: Amy Ling
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Amy Tan's work is greatly indebted to and inspired by that of Maxine Hong Kingston, particularly to Kingston's first book, The Woman Warrior. Thus, it would be useful to read these two authors back-to-back as well as to compare Tan with other bicultural women writers who found their voices in the wake of the civil rights and women's liberation movements.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Thematically, The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior share three foci: the mother/daughter relationship, story-telling, and finding one's own voice or identity. The mother/daughter tension, universally caused by generational conflicts, is here intensified by cultural differences. In Tan's novels, the mothers have immigrated from China to the United States for the express purpose of providing their daughters with greater opportunities. To their surprise and dismay, the daughters have grown up American and thus "foreign" and incomprehensible. Through storytelling, each of the four mothers and daughters attempts to make herself comprehensible to her other half. "The Red Candle" is one such attempt and a fine short story in its own right. Though set in China, where women had few rights and almost no autonomy, it nonetheless provides a feminist exemplum, showing how a clever girl uses the very customs meant to constrain her to achieve her liberation.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The Chinese tile game of mahjong is not only the means of creating joy, diversion from the terrors and horrors of war, but it also structures the narrative. Each side of the four-sided table is named a wind after one of the four cardinal points--East Wind, North Wind, and so on--and each player successively opens the game, so the mother and daughter pairs successively tell their stories, and the "directional winds" play a significant part in several stories. In "The Red Candle" the heroine uses the wind, her own breath, to change her situation.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What similarities/differences do you find between the two foremost Chinese-American writers, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan?
2. How can you account for the tremendous interest in Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club that kept it on the New York Times best-seller list for nine months?
3. Some Asian-American readers accuse Tan of catering to the majority culture's taste for the exotic. Do you agree or disagree?
There are no separate works on Amy Tan, but several newspaper articles and interviews were published in prominent national papers in 1990. Biographical facts and a discussion of her work in relation to Maxine Hong Kingston's may be found in my book, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon Press, 1991.