The Joy Luck Club | Critical Essay by Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong

This literature criticism consists of approximately 39 pages of analysis & critique of The Joy Luck Club.
This section contains 11,652 words
(approx. 39 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong

Critical Essay by Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong

SOURCE: "'Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon," in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 174-210.

In the following essay, Wong analyzes the anthropological aspects of Tan's novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife and their place in literary tradition.

The sensational success of Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is the stuff of publishing legend. Before the shrewd eye of agent Sandra Dijkstra spotted a potential winner, Tan was entirely unknown to the literary world. But lavish advance praise—the dust jacket of the hardcover edition bears enthusiastic blurbs by Alice Walker, Alice Hoffman, and Louise Erdrich—and postpublication rave reviews instantly propelled The Joy Luck Club onto the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for nine months. The hardcover edition was reprinted twenty-seven times and sold 275,000 copies; frenzied bidding by corporate publishers pushed the price for paperback rights from a floor of $100,000 to an astonishing $1.2 million. The Joy Luck Club was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a recipient of the 1990 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction.

Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, has not duplicated Joy Luck's blockbuster success. However, it too is a highly acclaimed best-seller, with most reviewers declaring it as good as, if not better than, its predecessor. The $4 million advance that Putnam reputedly paid on it has apparently been money well spent. The Amy Tan phenomenon continues its momentum with a new children's book, The Moon Lady, spun off from an episode in The Joy Luck Club; a third novel in the works; and a film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club made by noted Chinese American director Wayne Wang.

Like Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club is a crossover hit by a female ethnic writer; it also straddles the worlds of "mass" literature and "respectable" literature, stocking the shelves of airport newsstands as well as university bookstores, generating coffee table conversations as well as conference papers. Tan's stellar status in the publishing world, further assured by The Kitchen God's Wife, causes one to wonder: wherein does the enormous appeal of her fiction lie?

To say that book buyers and readers are simply responding to Tan's good writing—briskly paced, easy to follow, by turns poignant and hilarious—is to give a naive and decontextualized, if partially true, answer. It goes without saying that the history of literary reputations abounds with instances of "good" writing belatedly recognized, or else of "bad" writing amply rewarded in the marketplace. (Without getting into a general disquisition on the social construction of taste, I use the "good"/"bad" distinction here to refer to either a disjuncture between academic/critical opinion and popular success, or else a revision of judgment over time.) To narrow the consideration to contemporaneous Asian American Women's writing alone, the year The Joy Luck Club appeared also saw the polished novelistic debut of another young writer, Cynthia Kadohata (The Floating World), as well as new books by two established figures: Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine. All three works show remarkable artistry and garnered strong reviews, but none became a commercial triumph. That elusive element, "timing" or "luck," usually summoned to explain cases of overnight celebrity, must be restored to historicity: What is it about the subject matter of The Joy Luck Club and its treatment that somehow "clicked" with the times? What prompts Tan's following to come back loyally to The Kitchen God's Wife? Where is her fiction positioned in the multiple discourses that make up American writing? What discursive traditions does it participate in, and to what ideological effect, to create Tan's trademark fictional world and a niche market?

Tan has often been presented in the media as a meteoric individual talent, bursting full-blown from obscurity onto the literary scene. She has even been implicitly credited with single-handedly ushering in an Asian American literary renaissance, even though Tan herself takes pains to point out that many of the writers of the 1991 "wave" named by the mainstream media (David Wong Louie, David Mura, Gish Jen, Gus Lee, Laurence Yep, Frank Chin) had been writing and publishing before—some, like Chin and Yep, long, long before—she became known, and that they represent very different, unique voices. The media account of Tan's singularity, based on tacit meritocratic assumptions and a late twentieth-century variation on the myth of the original romantic artist, obscures the role of politics in the making (and breaking) of Asian American and other ethnic minority writers. Demythologizing this kind of portrayal, this essay situates the appeal of Amy Tan's fiction in its sociohistorical context and analyzes the discursive demands and contradictions experienced by Chinese American (and to some degree other Asian American) writers at this juncture in American history.

Feminist/Matrilineal Discourse and China Mama's Revenge One of the most obvious reasons for the success of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife is the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in these books. This subject matter places them squarely in a tradition of matrilineal discourse that has, as a part of the feminist movement, been gathering momentum in the United States over the last ten to fifteen years. In 1976, Adrienne Rich wrote that the "cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story." In 1984, Tillie Olsen was still able to lament, "Most of what has been, is, between mothers, daughters, and in motherhood, daughterhood, has never been recorded." But a scant five years later, as Mickey Pearlman notes, the profusion of creative writing as well as social-science scholarship on the "linked lives" of mothers and daughters had become overwhelming.

That the success of Amy Tan's fiction is a product of, and testimony to, the strength of the feminist movement is easy to see. Both her books capture the contradictions that have been identified as characteristic of the "literature of matrilineage" in Nan Bauer Maglin's simple but convenient schema:

  1. the recognition by the daughter that her voice is not entirely her own;
  2. the importance of trying to really see one's mother in spite of or beyond the blindness and skewed vision that growing up together causes;
  3. the amazement and humility about the strength of our mothers;
  4. the need to recite one's matrilineage, to find a ritual to both get back there and preserve it;
  5. and still, the anger and despair about the pain and the silence borne and handed on from mother to daughter.

Any number of pithy quotations from The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife can be culled to illustrate these interconnected themes. What is harder to determine than Tan's place in American matrilineal discourse is the reason why her fiction has so conspicuously eclipsed works by Euro-American writers on similar subject matter, as Kingston's Woman Warrior did over a decade ago. The white feminist reading public appears to have an unusually keen appetite for mother-daughter stories by and about people of color. In particular, as one British reviewer wryly observes from across the Atlantic, "Whether by a quirk of literary fate or because it is their psychological destiny, Chinese American women seem to have won the world rights to the mother/daughter relationship." Why? Why this privileging of Chinese American mothers and daughters in literature while no equivalent is forthcoming in the realm of, say, employment opportunities or provision of child care?

I suggest it is neither literary fate nor psychological destiny that has conferred favored status on the Chinese American mother-daughter relationship, but rather a convergence of ethnic group-specific literary tradition and ideological needs by the white-dominated readership—including the feminist readership—for the Other's presence as both mirror and differentiator.

Contrary to popular belief, Kingston did not invent Chinese American matrilineal discourse, and Tan, creating something of an accessible "Woman Warrior without tears" in Joy Luck, is not so much revisiting Kingston territory as sharing a concern long of interest to many other Chinese American women writers. Antecedents for Kingston's strong Chinese women can be found in the female-centered household in Su-ling Wong and Earl Cressy's little-known collaborative autobiography, Daughter of Confucius. Even propatriarchal Chinese American autobiographies from the pre-1965 period, such as Helena Kuo's I've Come a Long Way and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, like Daughter of Confucius, show occasional inruptions of matrilineal consciousness, as in Kuo's anecdote of mother-daughter complicity in novel reading, or Jade Snow Wong's descriptions of hours spent with her grandmother and mother learning about Chinese customs—at once mother-daughter bonding and induction into the woman's submissive role in the culture. That is to say, even earlier male-identified Chinese American women writers are, at some level, aware of the precariousness of their place in a patriarchal society—an awareness also reflected in the virtually obligatory opening explanations of how they come to receive a decent education, thanks to generous fathers willing to mitigate prevailing gender norms. Chinese American interest in matrilineage continues in the post-1965 period; examples range from Chuang Hua's recurrent image of the majestic matriarch in Crossings (again in spite of an overt obsession with the father's approval): to Alice P. Lin's combined ethnic/matrilineal root-seeking journey in Grandmother Has No Name; to the fiction of younger writers like Sarah Lau, Wen-Wen C. Wang, and Fae Myenne Ng, who, like Kingston, explore their bond with immigrant mothers simultaneously tough and vulnerable.

Chinese American preoccupation with the mother-daughter bond can be further situated in a broader Asian American discourse of matrilineage, both pre- and post-Woman Warrior. Hisaye Yamamoto's classics, "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake," predate The Woman Warrior by over two decades; apparent inspiration for "The Handkerchief" and "Songs My Mother Taught Me" by Wakako Yamauchi, Yamamoto's literary disciple; these stories depict the ambivalent and largely unspoken emotional exchanges between unhappily married mothers and daughters on the verge of womanhood, in ways again reminiscent of Maglin's schema. Despite the protagonists' expressed yearning for the father's love, the presence of abrasive, abusive, but irrepressibly vigorous grandmothers is indelible in Burmese American Wendy Law-Yone's Coffin Tree as well as Japanese American Cynthia Kadohata's Floating World; the grandmother/matriarch figure, coupled again with an absent mother, resurfaces in Singaporean American writer Fiona Cheong's Scent of the Gods. The resilient spirit of female ancestors embodied in the Vietnamese legend of the woman warrior, along with the support of living women relatives, is lovingly recalled in Le Ly Hayslip's account of her life during and after the Vietnam War, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Merle Woo's "Letter to Ma" articulates a radical, lesbian perspective on Asian American mother-daughter relationships. Ronyoung Kim's Clay Walls chronicles the strong ties between a Korean immigrant woman and her daughter. Short fiction such as South Asian Appachana's and Dhillon's, and Japanese American Sasaki's, continue the exploration of matrilineage. If we broaden the Asian-American canon to include Asian Canadian works, then Joy Kogawa's Obasan offers a distinctly matrilineal text, in which themes like the search for the absent mother, surrogate motherhood (or maternalistic aunthood), silence breaking, and rituals of reclamation are woven into an account of the uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. More recently, South-Indian Canadian writer Mara Rachna's Of Customs and Excise places the story of the "immigrant daughter's revolt" in a multigenerational, postcolonial global context to deepen one's understanding of matrilineage.

This quick survey of the literature of matrilineage in the Chinese-American and Asian-American traditions is meant to contextualize Tan's work more precisely: to dispel the notion that her fiction is simply riding on the coattails of white feminism, tapping directly into "universal" concerns from the vantage point of individual insight. Even if there had been no white buyers of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, there would still have been a readership for these books among Asian American women, many of whom are hungry for validation of their own experiences as daughters of immigrant mothers.

Identifying a matrilineal Asian American tradition is important in terms of not only racial politics within feminism, but also gender politics within cultural nationalism. The kind of rehabilitation of Asian American literary patrilineage undertaken by the Aiiieeeee group, essential as it is, is attained at the expense of the female perspective. In the influential Introduction to Aiiieeeee! the numerical superiority of Asian American women writers is categorically denounced as a sign of the literature's emasculation by white society, while not one living Chinese American woman writer is included in The Big Aiiieeeee! the sequel to the first anthology. Frank Chin's Year of the Dragon, a play about a disintegrating Chinatown family in the 1960s, is emblematic of this suppression of the woman's voice. In addition to a scatterbrained American-born mother humming inherent snatches of song, the play features China Mama, the patriarch's first wife left in China because of immigration restrictions and suddenly transported to San Francisco to assuage the dying man's cultural and familial guilt. This gum sahn paw (Cantonese for "Gold Mountain wife") is portrayed as totally devoid of subjectivity: a recalcitrant, alien presence unceremoniously deposited in the Eng family's living room, mute except for sporadic attempts to communicate with the children in gibberish-like Cantonese. In Chin's play, the old immigrant woman from China is just a convenient symbol, not a human being with decades' worth of experiences and grievances to recount. In this context, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife are China Mama's revenge: the Joy Luck aunties get not only their own voices back but equal time with their American offspring. And when Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife holds forth about her past, she is allowed to do so endlessly, for more than 330 pages, until her daughter Pearl nearly falls off the chair from surprise at revealed secrets, and we the readers from sheer fatigue.

It is vital to recognize the Asian American discursive context for Amy Tan's fiction, but the Asian American readership for matrilineal discourse is simply not large enough to support the kind of sales that Tan's fiction has enjoyed. Today's book-buying readers of literature are predominantly white and female. The question thus remains: what do these readers—some with conscious feminist leanings, some without—find so engrossing in Tan's stories of the mother-daughter bond?

"sugar Sisterhood": the Persistent Allure of Orientalism

This brings me to the odd-sounding title of this essay, "Sugar Sisterhood," derived from the phrase "sugar sister" used by Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife. Winnie is explaining to Pearl, her English-speaking daughter, her closeness to cousin Peanut. Peanut has found a face-saving way to reveal that she has given up Wen Fu, a charming, wealthy, but as it turns out abusive, young man, for Winnie to marry; the emotionally orphaned Winnie is grateful for Peanut's generosity:

And that's how we came to be as close as sisters once again for the rest of the time I had left with my family. In fact, from that day forward, until I was married, we called each other tang jie, "sugar sister," the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin.

Tang jie, again presented with the "sugar sister" translation for Pearl's benefit, is repeated in a later scene, when Winnie and Peanut are temporarily reunited. The phrase "sugar sister" is an egregious mistranslation based on Amy Tan's confusing two Chinese homophones, while the accompanying explanation of how the two young women come to address each other by that term betrays a profound ignorance of the Chinese kinship system. What is most remarkable about this passage is its very existence: that Amy Tan has seen fit to include and elaborate on such a "gratuitous" detail—gratuitous in the sense of not functioning to advance the plot or deepen the characterization, of which more later—on something of which she has little knowledge. Furthermore, this putative clarification issues from the mouth of Winnie, a native Chinese-speaker born and raised in China for whom it should be impossible to make such mistakes.

I use the term "sugar sisterhood," then, to designate the kind of readership Amy Tan has acquired, especially among white women, through acts of cultural interpreting and cultural empathy that appear to possess the authority of authenticity but are often products of the American-born writer's own heavily mediated understanding of things Chinese. By examining the "sugar sister" solecism and related uses of Chinese or Chinese-seeming details, by analyzing the stylistic features and narratological design in both of Tan's works, and by uncovering the culturalist reading practices that such novelistic elements encourage, I argue that the "Amy Tan phenomenon" must ultimately be situated in quasi-ethnographic, Orientalist discourse. Occasional anti-Orientalist statements made by the characters, and the opportunities for anticulturalist interpretation provided by Tan's keen observations of Chinese American life, do not negate my assessment. In fact, they are functional in that they enable Orientalism to emerge in a form palatable to middle-class American readers of the 1980s. Specifically, for the feminist audience, the Chinese American mother/daughter dyad in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife allegorizes a Third World/First World encounter that allows mainstream American feminism to construct itself in a flattering, because depoliticized, manner—an outcome unlikely to be delivered by mother-daughter stories penned by writers from Euro-American traditions.

Since the "sugar sister" phrase provides the entering wedge for my thesis, I will dwell a moment longer on its significance. Besides the confusion of two different characters for tang, there are several other implausibilities in this passage. The term tang jie does exist and can be used in the relationship between Winnie and Peanut. (Peanut is the daughter of the younger brother of Winnie's father.) But tang jie is a descriptive label and a term of address defined stringently by one's position in a patrilineal system of blood ties; it is not, as Tan suggests, a friendly term of endearment, to be assumed at will when two girl cousins feel close to each other. Moreover, in the thoroughly hierarchical, age-conscious Chinese kinship system, jie, or "older sister," is always complemented by mei, or "younger sister": two women cannot simultaneously be the jie—not even in "courtesy" situations where blood ties are not involved, such as xuejie/xuemei (fellow students) or qijie/qimei ("sworn sisters") relationships.

In citing the "sugar sister" passage, I am not practicing an idle and mean-spirited "Gotcha!" school of criticism. Something larger is at issue: what is sought is a more precise determination of Tan's stance toward her audience(s) and the types of discourses her works participate in, leading to a clearer understanding of her popularity. To readers who protest that Tan is just writing fiction, I concede that a phrase like "sugar sister" does little to detract from her overall achievements as a writer—from the page-turning narrative drive of her novels, or the general contours of Winnie's vivid character. Given this, the question arises, then, of what function is served by this kind of detail—a romanized Chinese phrase with an appositive explanation, tossed off as an aside by a Chinese-speaking character to her English-dominant daughter—or other similar details of language and custom, minimally warranted by the immediate narrative context but providing occasions for elucidating an exotic Chinese culture.

A list can easily be compiled of such highly dubious or downright erroneous details: Lindo Jong's first husband in Taiyuan is described as yanking off her red veil at the wedding ceremony—a suspiciously Western practice, since traditionally the bride's red veil is removed only in the privacy of the wedding chamber, before the consummation of the marriage; in Ying-ying St. Clair's childhood reminiscences, the customs that are allegedly part of Moon Festival celebrations—burning the Five Evils and eating zong zi—actually belong to the Duanwu or "Dragon-Boat" Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month; the operatic version of the Moon Lady-Hou Yi story witnessed by Ying-ying includes a detail from another legend about another festival—the annual meeting of two star-crossed lovers on the seventh night of the seventh month; the mother-in-law's rebuke to the young bride Lindo, "Shemma bende ren!" rendered in English as "What kind of fool are you!" sounds like a concoction by some first-year Chinese student and necessitates a quiet emendation by the Chinese translator of The Joy Luck Club; the warning Rose Hsu Jordan remembers from her mother, shortly before her younger brother's drowning, likewise sounds gratingly unidiomatic in Chinese—"Dangsying tamende shenti," translated by Tan as "Watch out for their bodies"; except for the first one, the characters used for the Chinese version of McDonald's name, mai dong lou, are not what Lindo Jong says they are, "wheat," "east," and "building"; in The Kitchen God's Wife, the Chinese pilots allegedly give General Chennault a good Chinese name, shan, "lightning," and nao, "noisy," but his name actually has a well-known standard Chinese translation, Chen Naide. The list goes on.

The function of such insertions of "Chinese" cultural presence is worth investigating not only because a history of controversy exists in Asian American cultural politics concerning issues of authenticity, but also because Tan's books have been showered with praise precisely for their details.

Detail and Myth

The Joy Luck Club is repeatedly applauded by reviewers for the specificity of its descriptions—entire "richly textured worlds" evoked by details "each … more haunting and unforgettable than the one before." The book is called "dazzling because of the worlds it gives us"; the word "tapestry" is used to describe this effect of intricacy and richness. This view of Tan's distinctive gift is carried over to reviews of The Kitchen God's Wife: "The power of literature over sociology lies in particularization, and it is in details that The Kitchen God's Wife excels"; "it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm"; "what fascinates in The Kitchen God's Wife is not only the insistent storytelling, but the details of Chinese life and tradition"; The Kitchen God's Wife's "convincing detail" is said to give her fiction "the ring of truth," and Dew urges her readers to give themselves over to Tan's "Tolstoyan tide of event and detail."

This emphasis on details as a main source of Tan's appeal is intriguing because it coexists with a seemingly opposite type of commendation: that details do not matter that much in The Joy Luck Club, and to a lesser extent The Kitchen God's Wife, since they are lyrical, mythical, dreamlike: "full of magic," "rich in magic and mystery." Of Tan's second book, Perrick writes, "There is something dizzyingly elemental about Tan's storytelling; it melds the rich simplicities of fairytales with a delicate lyrical style." Fairy tales, we may note, are "generic" stories stripped of historical particulars, and lyricism is generally associated with moments of inwardness set apart from the realm of quotidian social facts.

The Joy Luck Club draws comparisons with myth even more readily. One reviewer calls it "almost mythic in structure, like the hypnotic tales of the legendary Scheherazade." In the eyes of some readers, the lack of differentiation between the rapidly alternating narrative voices in Joy Luck, far from betraying a limited artistic repertoire, is in fact an asset: the mark of universal appeal to women or a more capacious sensibility. Orville Schell, who wrote a widely quoted glowing review of The Joy Luck Club, acknowledges that the book's segmented structure, with its abrupt transitions in time and space, may be confusing, but argues that "these recherches to old China are so beautifully written that one should just allow oneself to be borne along as if in a dream." Juxtaposed with the daughters' "upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone and Americanized world," the mothers' vanished world in China seems "more fantastic and dreamlike than real," a product of "memory" and "revery"—and herein, Schell seems to suggest, lies its peculiar charm.

Is there any necessary incompatibility between these two views of Tan's fiction, one lauding her mastery of details, the other deeming them relatively inconsequential in its overall effect? Not at all, if one takes into account another recurrent theme in reviews of the two novels: their value as anthropological documents, giving the non-Chinese reader access to an enigmatic culture. A review of The Kitchen God's Wife finds it a convenient lesson in Chinese history and sociology:

As a backdrop … we learn more about the nature of arranged marriages in Chinese societies and also about the kind of inter-wifely accommodation arranged by second or third wives and their offspring. It is like being invited into a dusty room full of castoffs, and being given a chance to reapprehend them in their former richness. We get to understand how, why, and from where Chinese-American society evolved…. Tan is handing us a key with no price tag and letting us open the brass-bolted door.

In view of the inaccurate cultural details we have seen, this coupling of Tan's fiction with anthropological discourse, which carries with it implicit claims of credibility and factual verifiability, may be ironic. But the issue is not so much how Tan has failed as a cultural guide; it is, rather, the text-and reception-oriented question of how and why the American reading public has responded so eagerly to her writings as faithful chronicles of things Chinese. Tan's fiction has apparently been able to hold in colloidal suspension two essential ingredients of quasi-ethnographic Orientalist discourse on China and the Chinese, which both have a long genealogy in this country. These ingredients are "temporal distancing" and "authenticity marking." Tan's ability to somehow keep both details and "nondetails," as it were, in busy circulation allows readers with culturalist propensities—that is to say, a large proportion of the American reading public—to recognize the genre and respond accordingly, with enthusiastic purchases as well as a pleasurable mixture of respect and voyeurism, admiration and condescension, humility and self-congratulation.

Temporal Distancing and Other "othering Maneuvers

Johannes Fabian, in his Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, suggests that "temporal distancing" is a means of constructing the Other widely employed in ethnographic discourse. He proposes the term "Typological Time" to refer to a use of time "almost totally divested of its vectorial, physical connotations": "instead of being a measure of movement, it may appear as a quality of states" presumably "unequally distributed among human populations of this world." The concept of Typological Time produces familiar distinctions attributed to human societies such as preliterate versus literate, traditional versus modern, peasant versus industrial, the term with which the anthropologist identifies himself/herself invariably being the privileged one. The contrast between some such binary states—traditional versus modern, superstitious versus secular, elemental versus materialistic, communal enmeshment versus anomie—is, we may note, precisely what The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife are engaged in exploring.

Whereas the ethnographer relies on the temporalized protocols of the "field method" to achieve Othering—field notes in the past tense, subsequent generalizations about the culture in the "ethnographic present" tense—Tan's two novels effect it through a number of narratological and stylistic means. (Whether Tan consciously employed them is another matter: means here refers not to goal-oriented artistic choices but an after-the-fact reconstruction of how the reader is affected.) Chief among these is the way the stories about old China are "framed" by reference to the present time of America. In The Joy Luck Club, except for the short chapter entitled "Scars," all the mothers' narratives open with some kind of time signature in the United States of the 1980s, in the form of a silent addressing of the daughter as "you" or some mention of "my daughter" in her present predicament. In The Kitchen God's Wife, of course, Winnie's entire tale is framed by the "now" of Pearl's dealings with her mother in connection with cousin Bao Bao's wedding and Grand Aunt Du's funeral; periodically, too, within what amounts to a lengthy monologue, Winnie supplies answers to queries (unrecorded), rhetorical questions, proleptic allusions, and philosophical musings for the benefit of her daughter.

The temporal distancing that makes possible the Othering of the Chinese mothers does not consist in locating their stories in elapsed time—after all, the daughters too tell about their childhood. Instead, it works through a subtle but insistent positioning of everything in the mothers' lives to a watershed event: arrival in the United States. Like using the arrival of the white man to demarcate two modes of being, the later one redeeming the earlier from cyclical repetition as a matter of inevitable "progress," this practice bears the unmistakable traces of a hegemonic cultural vantage point vis-à-vis a "backward" Third World. The Typological Time in both novels revolves around an unstated aporetic split between the static, ritual-permeated, mythical Time of a China past, where individuals' lives are deprived of choice, shaped by tradition and buffeted by inexorable "natural" circumstances (in terms of which even wars are described), and the unfolding, enlightened, rational, secular Time of contemporary America, where one can exercise decision making and control over one's life and where learning from the past is possible. The mothers, who are portrayed as fixated on old hurts and secrets and obsessed with cultural transmission in the form of aphorisms, and whose transformation in America from young refugees to stolid matrons is never delineated, belong to the mythical time so beloved of many a non-Chinese reader.

The Othering accomplished by temporal distancing is augmented by the stylistic uniformity of the Joy Luck mothers' voices when recounting their lives in China, which has the effect of constructing the Third World women's experiences as interchangeable and predictably constrained, because so overwhelmingly determined by culture. As Renato Rosaldo observes, "social analysts commonly speak … as if 'we' have psychology and 'they' have culture." The content of one set of stories is no doubt distinguishable from the next, but the manner of presentation is not. In The Kitchen God's Wife, despite Tan's claim of a new departure, her stylistic range can hardly be said to be noticeably extended, and Winnie's voice inevitably recalls Lindo Jong's or An-mei Hsu's.

Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife contrast a "low- resolution" picture of the mothers' lives in China with descriptions of high material specificity or informational density in the daughters' sections. The American-born and -bred daughters—whose world Tan shares—are able to name things in their world to a high degree of topical and local precision: a scroll-length calendar from the Bank of Canton hangs on Auntie Hsu's wall; candy is not just candy but See's Nuts and Chews or M&M's; Shoshana's outing is to not just any science museum but to the Exploratorium; the trendy restaurants Rose dreams of asking Ted to go to are Cafe Majestic and Rosalie's. In contrast, the items in the mothers' stories are much more "generic": the fish in the Fen River are not identified; the variety of lanterns at the Moon Festival is not differentiated; the bicycle on which An-mei Hsu's little brother rides has no brand name.

This lack of elaboration cannot be explained away as merely a realistic mirroring of the mothers' memory lapses. In the minds of many older people, recollections of remote childhood events often surpass, in clarity and specificity, those of more proximate occurrences. And young children are not nearly as oblivious to culturally meaningful distinctions as retrospective idealization makes them out to be. Finally, while the consumer orientation of present-day American society may partly account for the profusion of named objects in the daughters' narratives, it would be ignorant and condescending to attribute a preindustrial simplicity to the mothers' China. Whether uneven distribution of authorial knowledge about the two worlds is a factor in the textural fluctuation in the novels, or whether Tan is consciously manipulating the degree of resolution, remains an open, perhaps unanswerable, question. However, from the point of view of reception analysis, the leveling of descriptive details in the "Chinese" segments is an important source of pleasure for white readers, who accept and appreciate it as a "mythic" treatment of a remote but fascinating China.

Markers of Authenticity: "the Oriental Effect"

Are the reviewers simply misguided then when they laud Tan's "convincing details"? Not at all. The details are there, but their nature and function are probably not what a "commonsense" view would make them out to be: evidence of referential accuracy, of the author's familiarity with the "real" China. Rather, they act as gestures to the "mainstream" readers that the author is familiar with the kind of culturally mediated discourse they have enjoyed, as well as qualified to give them what they expect. I call these details "markers of authenticity," whose function is to create an "Oriental effect" by signaling a reassuring affinity between the given work and American preconceptions of what the Orient is/should be.

The term "Oriental effect" borrows from "the reality effect" posited by Roland Barthes. In an essay of that name, Barthes investigates the function of apparently "useless" descriptive details in realist fiction—details that are "scandalous (from the point of view of structure)" or "allied with a kind of narrative luxury," lacking "predictive" power for plot advancement, and salvageable only as a cumulative indicator of "characterization or atmosphere." Citing epideictic discourse in classical rhetoric, in which "plausibility [is] not referential, but overtly discursive"—"it [is] the rules of the discourse genre which laid down the law"—Barthes goes on to argue that in the modern aesthetic of vraisemblance, the function of apparently superfluous details is to announce "we are the real" and produce a "reality effect." "It is the category of the 'real,' and not its various contents, which is being signified." Extending Barthes's analysis, I argue that, in both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, there are many details whose existence cannot be justified on structural or informational grounds, but whose function seems to be to announce "We are Oriental" to the "mainstream" reader. These are the details for which reviewers have praised Tan. Marking the discourse as "authentic," but in a discursive rather than referential dimension, they are in a sense immune to revelations that "real" Chinese cultural practices are otherwise.

An important class of such details is made up of romanized words of limited, at times nonexistent, utility in structural or informational terms. Their usage ranges from "redundant" romanization (such as the appearance of pai in the same sentence where the standard English name for mahjong pieces, tiles, also appears; or adding "bad pichi" to "bad temper," when the latter is a perfectly serviceable equivalent of the Chinese term); to correct renditions of Chinese based on a sophisticated knowledge of the language and culture (such as the clever pun on Suyuan's name); to plausible and justifiable uses of Chinese for concepts without full English equivalents (such as shou for filial piety), or for representing the Americanized daughters' cultural gropings (as when Rose remembers the term hulihudu during her postdivorce disorientation). Errors of the "sugar sister" type, like the ones listed earlier in this essay, actually constitute only a small percentage of Tan's handling of Chinese matters. But whether "gratuitously" deployed or not, whether informed or not, the very insertion of italicized words in a page of roman type, or of explanatory asides about what the Chinese do and think in a story, is a signal that the author has adopted a certain stance toward the audience. She is in effect inviting trust in her as a knowledgeable cultural insider and a competent guide familiar with the rules of the genre in question: quasi ethnography about the Orient.

We can extend the concept of authenticity marking to a peculiar variety of prose Amy Tan has developed, which has the effect of announcing "Chineseness" in the speakers. The preponderance of short, choppy sentences and the frequent omission of sentence subjects are oft-used conventions whereby the Chinese can be recognized as Other. In addition to these, Tan employs subtle, minute dislocations of English syntax and vocabulary—jolting the language out of whack just enough—to create an impression of translation from the Chinese even where no translation has taken place. For example, in Ying-Ying's recollections of her childhood trauma at the Moon Festival, an old woman's complaint about her swollen foot takes this form: "Both inside and outside have a sour painful feeling." This is neither an idiomatic English sentence nor a direct English equivalent of an idiomatic Chinese sentence; it cannot be attributed to Ying-Ying's poor command of English, for the mothers' laborious, grammatically mangled, often malapropric English appears only in "real life," that is, when they are in the United States, speaking with their daughters. Elsewhere, when telling their own stories, they are given a different kind of English, fluent if simple, by Tan's own avowal designed to better articulate their subjectivities, do full justice to their native intelligence, and restore them to the dignity they deserve. This cause is decidedly not well served by such slight linguistic skewings, which in the American popular imagination have been associated with the "comic," pidginized "Asian English" found in Anglo-American writing on Asians. However, reading exactly like the kind of quaint, circumlocutious literal translations, or purported literal translations, in the tradition of self-Orientalizing texts, they indicate the comforting presence of cultural mediation to the "mainstream" reader. Thus it is not surprising to find white reviewers like Miner and Schell praising the authenticity of the immigrant women's diction. This valorized "Oriental effect" exists independent of Tan's sincerity in wanting to give voice to first-generation Chinese women, which we have no cause to doubt.

If, as Todorov maintains in The Poetics of Prose, verisimilitude in literature is less a relation with "reality" than "what most people believe to be reality—in other words, with public opinion," and with "the particular rules of [a] genre," then the reviewers' satisfaction with Tan's details is entirely consistent with their assessment of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife as "mythic" or "lyrical." Tan's details may lack referential precision, but what shapes the reviewers' expectations is verisimilitude in Todorov's second and third senses. The reviewers' dual emphases—on a timeless mythic realm and on presumably authentic details—are ultimately Orientalist in spirit. It is a certain image of what China must be like ("public opinion"—here defined, of course, as the opinion of the "mainstream") and familiarity with a certain type of writing about China ("rules of the genre") that have influenced their estimation of Tan's fiction. Paradoxical as it may seem, an author with more direct historical knowledge about China than Amy Tan may well be less successful in convincing the American reading public of the "truthfulness" of her picture, since, in such a case, the element of cultural mediation would be correspondingly weaker.

Counter-orientalist Gestures

It is fair to say that gestures of cultural mediation are an important component in Amy Tan's novels and are responsible, in no small part, for their popularity. But it is also fair to say that the variety of Orientalism informing The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife is far from simple-minded or unproblematized. It is not the knowingly exploitative misrepresentation described by Peanut in The Kitchen God's Wife:

They sell Chinese garbage to the foreigners, especially people from America and England…. They sell anything that is broken, or strange, or forbidden…. The broken things they call Ming Dynasty. The strange things they say are Ching Dynasty. And the forbidden things—they say they are forbidden, no need to hide that, (italics in original)

After all, Tan, born in racially heterogeneous Oakland, California, in 1952 (albeit in a predominantly white neighborhood), grew up in the 1960s; however peripherally or obliquely, her works cannot but bear traces of the ethnic consciousness movement of that era. These traces range from relatively inconsequential information about the characters or satirical observations on ethnic chic (and its cousin, prole chic), to the pervasive, if often implicit, presence of the vocabulary and concepts of identity politics in The Joy Luck Club—what does it mean to be Chinese? to be an ethnic minority? to be American? The white middle-class book-reading and book-buying public of the post-civil rights era, likewise touched, has learned to enjoy its exotica flavored by the rhetoric of pluralism and an awareness of domestic and global interethnic connectedness. An unself-consciously ingratiating invitation to the cultural sightseer, such as the tourist brochure-style, zoom-in description of San Francisco Chinatown in the opening paragraph of Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, has a decidedly old-fashioned ring to it and no longer carries the persuasiveness it once possessed. Indeed, this type of writing is no longer produced by any Asian American writers of note. A credible cultural middleman for the contemporary "mainstream" reader needs to demonstrate, in addition to access to an authentic originary culture (or the appearance thereof), some sophistication regarding the limitations of monologism.

On this score Amy Tan fits the bill well. Again, whether by design or not, she manages to balance on a knife edge of ambiguity, producing texts in which Orientalist and counter-Orientalist interpretive possibilities jostle each other, sometimes within the same speech or scene. The complex, unstable interplay of these possibilities makes for a larger readership than that enjoyed by a text with a consistently articulated, readily identifiable ideological perspective. The nonintellectual consumer of Orientalism can find much in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife to satisfy her curiosity about China and Chinatown; at the same time, subversions of naive voyeurism can be detected by the reader attuned to questions of cultural production.

Contending Interpretative Possibilities

That Tan's works have a little bit of something for everyone can be illustrated by a few examples from The Joy Luck Club. (The Kitchen God's Wife, which is fashioned from the same range of elements as its predecessor but contours them differently, will be discussed at greater length in a later section.) Waverly Jong's first chapter, "Rules of the Game," contains a portrayal of the young Chinatown girl as hit-and-run cultural guerrilla: to get back at a Caucasian tourist who poses her with roast ducks, Waverly tries to gross him out with the disinformation that a recommended restaurant serves "guts and duck's feet and octopus gizzards." An anti-Orientalist impulse animates this incident; in Tan's account of daily routines among bakeries, sandlots, and alleyways, one recognizes a desire to demystify the tourist mecca and evoke a sense of Chinatown as home, not spectacle. However, this effect is undermined by what appears to be a retroactive exoticizing reading of an everyday detail: Waverly, now seeming to have adopted the tourist's mentality, recalls that her meals used to begin "with a soup full of mysterious things I didn't want to know the names of." Furthermore, the chapter opens with language highly reminiscent of fortune cookie wisdom, Charlie Chan aphorisms, and the kind of Taoist precepts scattered throughout Lin Yutang's Chinatown Family:

I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength…. [S]he said, "Wise guy, he not go against wind. In Chinese we say, Come back from South, blow with wind—poom!—North will follow. Strongest wind cannot be seen."… My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above our circumstances.

At times, the characters in The Joy Luck Club articulate a historicized understanding of their situation and an awareness of the perils of essentializing ethnicity. For example, as her marriage deteriorates, Lena St. Clair begins to appreciate the advice of her friend Rose, herself a disappointed divorcée:

"At first I thought it was because I was raised with all this Chinese humility," Rose said. "Or that maybe it was because when you're Chinese you're supposed to accept everything, flow with the Tao and not make waves. But my therapist said, Why do you blame your culture, your ethnicity? And I remembered reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it's all diminishing returns after a certain age."

Coexisting with such insights into Chinese American exigencies, and indeed outnumbering them, are statements encouraging a culturalist view of Chinese American life. Much is made of the so-called Chinese horoscope with the twelve animal signs: Ying-Ying St. Clair emphasizes the mystical, quasi-genetic cultural transmission from her "tiger lady" self to her "tiger girl" daughter, while Waverly Jong attributes her conflicts with her mother to incompatible horoscope signs, horse and rabbit.

Given the mutually subverting and qualifying copresence of contradictory tendencies in The Joy Luck Club—Orientalist, culturalist, essentialist, and ahistorical on the one hand, and counter-Orientalist, anticulturalist, constructionist, and historicist on the other—the same narrative detail may yield widely divergent readings. Lindo Jong's mother, in response to her daughter's mock-innocent question about "Chinese torture," answers, "Chinese people do many things…. Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture." How is this statement, delivered "simply," to be read? Is it a straightforward expression of the mother's ethnocultural pride? Or is it an ironic gesture of exasperation at, and resistance against, the daughter's early induction into hegemonic discourse? Has she already seen through the daughter's "wickedness" in transforming a personal irritation and minor filial rebellion into an ideological struggle? (If so, then even the mother's air of matter-of-factness is suspect; Waverly could have been simply insensible of her parodic inflection.)

The reader's quandary parallels Jing-mei Woo's puzzlement in the face of her mother's explanation about Jewish versus Chinese mah jong: "Jewish mah jong, they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes…. Chinese mah jong, you must play using your head, very tricky." For all intents and purposes, Mrs. Woo could be just describing the difference between novice and expert playing—in which case the scene affords an intriguing glimpse of culturalism in action: the mother mobilizing ethnicity xenophobically to reinforce the exclusivity of her cultural authority. But if, like Jing-mei, one is brought up on reified ethnic categories and has an emotional investment in believing the speaker's cultural knowledgeability, the purported insider's explication might leave one in a curious state of suspended judgment (which could be mistaken for cultural sensitivity and respect for the mysteries of the Other's life).

The temptation to galvanize this uncertainty into a definite interpretation is strong, and, given the current voguishness of multiculturalist rhetoric, the safest course for the befuddled non-Chinese reader might be to take the fictional "insider" speaker at face value. This spells the ultimate, if circuitously achieved, victory of Orientalist readings at the expense of other approaches. A handful of scholars of Asian American literature have argued emphatically against a one-dimensional view of The Joy Luck Club as a tale of intergenerational cultural confrontation and resolution. Melani McAlister, for example, has provided compelling evidence that socioeconomic class is as much a factor as culture in the mother-daughter conflicts in The Joy Luck Club—that, in fact, "cultural difference" can function as a less volatile or more admissible surrogate term for class anxieties. When the yuppie daughters are embarrassed by their mother's color-mismatched outfits or "un-American" restaurant manners, McAlister observes, they are consumed by the fear of being déclassé, even though they may, in all sincerity, be experiencing their distancing from the mothers in terms of cultural conflict. Like McAlister, Lisa Lowe, as part of a larger theoretical project on the "heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity" of Asian American identity, has warned against reductionist readings of The Joy Luck Club that leave out class concerns. Nevertheless, voices such as McAlister's or Lowe's, already a minority in the academy, are unlikely to reach the "airport newsstand" readership of Tan's works.

Furthermore, McAlister's thesis that culturalist readings of The Joy Luck Club are misreadings—implying that a class-informed reading is somehow closer to Tan's intentions—may itself be a simplification. It is true that, as McAlister points out, when reviewer Orville Schell poses the Americanized daughters against the Joy Luck mothers wearing "funny Chinese dresses with stiff stand-up collars and blooming branches of embroidered silk sewn over their breasts," he is betraying a binarist mind-set. (The Joy Luck mothers have been wearing slacks, print blouses, and sturdy walking shoes for years. "Tonight, there is no mystery.") Schell's telescoping of historical moments—the late 1940s and the late 1980s—freezes the mothers at their moment of immigration, absolutizes the foreign-American distinction, and reproduces the American myth that intergenerational strife is the inevitable price of assimilation. To that extent, one is justified in speaking of a misreading. However, in another sense, Schell is not "wrong," for The Joy Luck Club, as we have seen, is filled with features that would amply support the spirit if not the letter of his reading. The ending of the novel itself offers a powerful essentialist proposition: despite much wavering throughout the crisscrossing narratives, "family" and "blood" eventually triumph over history. When Jing-mei travels to China to meet her long-lost half sisters, she discovers "what part of [her] is Chinese" and is able to "let [it] go." This ostensible reconciliation presupposes the reality of a self-alienating ethnic malaise (without considering how it could be an ideological construction in the service of monoculturalism), then locates redemption in origin, thus in effect nullifying or at least discounting the "American" temporality of the Chinese American experience.

The Joy Luck Club is not a misunderstood, co-opted ethnic text that has been unfortunately obscured by a culturalist haze and awaits recuperation through class- or gender-based readings. To suggest so risks explaining away the persistence of Orientalism as a matter of the individual reader's ignorance, inattention, or misguidedness. It is more defensible to characterize The Joy Luck Club as a multidimensional cultural product, one whose many ideological layerings, reflections, and refractions are aligned, for a broad cross section of the American reading public, with the contending needs and projections of the times. The book's popular success—and the "Amy Tan phenomenon" in general—cannot be fully understood apart from its equivocation vis-à-vis issues of culture and identity, allowing a profusion of interpretive claims to be made with seemingly equal cogency.

The "declaritive Modality" and Its Implications

Many of the issues raised in the foregoing discussion of how to "read" Amy Tan recall the controversy surrounding Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. Some Chinese American critics have accused Kingston of distorting traditional myths and cultural practices to capitalize on the Orientalist inclinations of the white reader. Indeed, The Woman Warrior, like its successor The Joy Luck Club, has excited many reviewers who single out its picturesque details about old China for praise. The tacit assumption, as Kingston notes in an exasperated complaint about many of her so-called admirers, is that the author's Chinese blood is a natural and sufficient guarantor of reliable knowledge; thus the questions Kingston raises in the book about the very cultural ignorance and confusion of the American-born Chinese are casually brushed aside. The question of Kingston's possible complicity in her own misreading is too vast to examine here; her relationship to Orientalism cannot be summed up in a few sentences. And in a way, any ethnic writer who takes on the issue of stereotyping is caught in a bind: like the man in the Zen parable who holds on to a tree branch with his teeth and is asked the way by a straying passer-by, he is lost whatever he does. If he opens his mouth to give the "right" answer, he falls and gets hurt; but if he keeps silent he only deepens the surrounding confusion. How does one protest a problem without mentioning it? But in mentioning it, does one not risk multiplying its visibility and potency, through reiteration if nothing else? Generalization aside, confining ourselves to The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, we may note a crucial difference between the two works: in modality of presentation.

According to Elliott Butler-Evans, The Woman Warrior is distinguished by an "interrogative modality"—it ceaselessly deconstructs its own narrative authority and overtly thematizes the epistemological difficulties of the American-born Chinese. Its governing rhetorical trope is the palinode, or the taking back of what is said. In other words, despite the first-person form, the narrator/protagonist lays no claim to referential advantage: the negotiations of her consciousness are foregrounded. In Naomi Schor's terms, she is an interpretant (interpreting character; as opposed to the interpreter, or interpreting critic/reader of the book), constantly aware of the hazards of under- or over-reading, yet unable to refrain from trying to wrest cultural meanings from bewildering details. Through the interpretant, the author Kingston "is trying to tell the interpreter something about interpretation." In contrast, The Joy Luck Club is epistemologically unproblematized—in Butler-Evans's view, its narrative modality is "declarative." The mothers' narratives about their Chinese life are displayed as immediate, coming directly from the source, and, for that reason, are valorized as correctives to the daughters' unenlightened or biased outlook. The intervention of a narrating consciousness is thus erased. This is what creates the space for equivocation about culture and identity: one is never entirely sure when a reinsertion of this mediation is necessary, and whether attribution of a Chinese American cast to such mediation is justified. Whereas the conflation of Chinese and Chinese American is explored in The Woman Warrior as a perilous legacy of Orientalism—the need to sort out the conflation defines the narrator/protagonist's lifelong act of self-creation—it is never actively interrogated in The Joy Luck Club.

The "declarative modality" of The Joy Luck Club is arguably appropriate for the project of giving voice to the immigrant mothers. Of course, this project is not the only one inferable from Tan's first novel. The "four-by-four" structure of the work—four sections each with four chapters, so that, except for the deceased Mrs. Woo (whose story is told through Jing-mei), each mother-daughter set gets to speak twice—allows the alternating accounts to resonate with, balance out, and qualify each other. The daughters' worlds, if depicted as flawed by greed and small-mindedness, are at least fleshed out enough to be counterpoised against the mothers'. Despite the compromised nature of the voice Tan assigns to the mothers, with its many Orientalist stylistic maneuvers, the narrative design does not draw overwhelming attention to the issue of the voice's truthfulness.

The Valorization of Origin

Yet a question remains, one whose ramifications do not become fully evident until The Kitchen God's Wife. Unlike The Woman Warrior, whose narrator/protagonist has to outgrow the illusion that talking to mother will resolve cultural disorientation and crystallize truth, The Joy Luck Club, while posing subjectivities "declaratively" against each other, does not push the relativistic implications of this move to their limit. The ending of The Joy Luck Club, as well as the tentative dramas of mother-daughter reconciliation within the body chapters, suggest there is indeed a locus of truth, and that locus is origin. The daughter's task is to break through the obfuscation caused by her American nativity and upbringing. Certainly there is poignancy in the picture of the mother whose voice is not heard by her daughter:

Because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me. She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid.

But there is also an asymmetry in the poignancy of this isolation à deux: the burden is on the daughter to educate herself into truth, to put aside her fears and needs, so that she can see her mother for what she is. The China trip—planned by Waverly, actually undertaken by Jing-mei—is in some ways an extended trope for this embrace of origin. Origin stays put, long-suffering but autotelic, awaiting rediscovery and homage.

But if there is a privileging of origin—which, in the context of Tan's books, means privileging China and the Chinese (whether "native" or diasporic)—does it not run counter to the colonialist tenor of Orientalism?

This question becomes even more pertinent when we examine The Kitchen God's Wife, in which both the "declarative modality" of narration and the valorization of the mother's life in China are far more pronounced than in The Joy Luck Club. The broad shape of characters and story types from the first novel is preserved—the assimilated, upwardly mobile daughter married to a white husband and living in the suburbs; the immigrant mother in Chinatown with a thing or two to teach her daughter about life; sufferings in China recounted; secrets revealed, old grievances banished, blood ties reaffirmed. But much more explicitly than in The Joy Luck Club, the daughter's role is ancillary. The staggered framework has given way to a sandwiching of the mother's tale, which forms the bulk of the novel, between two thin slices of the daughter's life. The daughter's presence, its countervailing function almost reduced to irrelevance, is now little more than a conduit for the True Word from mother, a pretext for Winnie's outpouring.

What is accomplished by this accordion-like redistribution of narrative and thematic priorities? Judging from the way they concentrate on Winnie, most reviewers of The Kitchen God's Wife would probably answer "Not much." Humphreys considers Pearl's opening segment merely a "long prologue" making for a "late start" of the "central story," which gathers "energy and momentum" only when Winnie begins speaking. Dew bemoans the novel's "slow start," and Howe feels that whenever Pearl and her husband appear the novel "bogs down." To these critics, Pearl's presence might be the result of an artistic miscalculation, a nuisance one has to get past to reach the good stuff, or else a residue from the successful formula of The Joy Luck Club. Yet in the context of repackaging Orientalism—considered again as de facto impact on the reader—this apparently awkward or primitive narrative convention in fact serves useful functions for The Joy Luck Club and especially for The Kitchen God's Wife.

The Americanized Daughter's Functions

The Americanized daughter, who needs to be enlightened on things Chinese, serves as a convenient, unobtrusive stand-in for the mainstream reading public. White readers, their voyeurism concealed and their curiosity indulged by "naturalized" explanations, are thus relieved of possible historical guilt, free to enjoy Chinese life as a depoliticized spectacle. In such a spectacle, the interesting localness of nomenclature and custom overshadows larger historical issues. The "sugar sister" statement, besides being a "marker of authenticity" establishing the author's credentials, is thus also a cultural demonstration addressed simultaneously to the Americanized daughter and the mainstream American reader, overtly in one case, covertly in the other. Working in much the same way are Winnie's asides about linguistic trivia, such as her remarks on the formulaic expression yi wan (ten thousand) ("That is what Chinese people always say … always an exaggeration"), or the distinction between syin ke (literally, "heart liver"), a Chinese term of endearment, and English gizzard. The phrase taonan elicits the following from Winnie:

This word, taonan? Oh, there is no American word I can think of that means the same thing. But in Chinese, we have lots of words to describe all kinds of trouble.

The English language can hardly be guilty of lacking words for "all kinds of trouble"—a quick flip through Roget's Thesaurus would show that readily. What Winnie gives Pearl is not empirically grounded contrast but the kind of cultural tidbits Orientalist readers enjoy—decontextualized, overgeneralized, speculative, and confirmative of essential difference.

In the larger scheme of China on display, the propositional content of any specific comparison is relatively immaterial. At times the United States seems to come out ahead, portrayed as institutionally more advanced, such as when Lindo Jong of The Joy Luck Club speaks of flood damage: "You couldn't go to an insurance company back then and say, Somebody did this damage, pay me a million dollars." At other times commonality seems to be stressed, such as when Lindo compares herself to an American wife on a TV detergent commercial in terms of eagerness to please the husband. What matters more is that, by setting up the Americanized daughter as the one to whom Chinese life has to be explained, while at the same time endowing the mother with ancestral wisdom born of the sheer vastness of her life experiences, the edge is taken off the suffering of the Chinese people (in particular, Chinese women). The enormity of Chinese suffering is now made safe for literary consumption. As Rey Chow remarks of what she calls the "King Kong syndrome," the "Third World," as the "site of the 'raw' material that is 'monstrosity,' is produced for the surplus-value of spectacle, entertainment, and spiritual enrichment for the 'First World.'"

This is the process that enables Newsweek reviewer Pico Iyer to apply an adjective like glamorous to Winnie in The Kitchen God's Wife: "the dowdy, pinchpenny old woman has a past more glamorous than any fairy-tale, and more sad." The American-born daughters and the readers they stand in for, from the secure distance of their material privilege, can glamorize suffering as ennobling. They can have their cake and eat it too, constructing the Chinese woman—as a type of Third World woman—in such a way that their own fundamental superiority vis-à-vis the foreigner, the immigrant, is not threatened. The Third World woman is simultaneously simpleminded and crafty, transparent and unfathomable, capable of surviving unspeakable victimization but vulnerable in the modern world. She may be strong and resourceful in privation—a suitable inspiration for those grown soft from the good life—but ultimately she still needs the validation and protection of the West (in the form of immigration, a white husband, or, in the case of Winnie, Jimmy Louie—an American-born Chinese who speaks perfect English, dances, wears an American uniform, and has God on his side). Superficially, to concede that women such as Winnie, Lindo Jong, even Ying-Ying St. Clair could hold the key to truth and be teachers to the Westernized or Western woman may seem a sign of humility before the Third World. But such a concession does not really threaten the Western(ized) woman's image of herself as "secular, liberated, and having control of their own lives." Rather, the mothers' repeated message to the daughters is that the latter have frittered away their chance to enjoy what women in the West take for granted—freedom, choice, material plenty. The harrowing accounts of arranged marriages, sadistic mothers-in-law, sexual humiliation, floods and famines, bombings and dead babies, government corruption, technological backwardness, and other assorted bane for the Third World woman are meant to bolster, not undermine, the incontrovertible desirability attributed to the Western(ized) woman's station. (The exaltation of origin is not incompatible with this message, for it removes the Chinese American's proper arena of struggle from material and political concerns in the United States, relocating in privatized psychology and dehistoricized geography.) In fact, to those readers with feminist sympathies, the books' emphasis on sexist oppression as the basis for cross-cultural, cross-generational female bonding invites a facile sense of solidarity. A reassuring projection of universal Woman obscures the role of the West in causing the very historical catastrophes from which Tan's mothers so gladly escape.

In setting tales of personal tribulation against a Chinese historical backdrop, the mothers' chapters in The Joy Luck Club and Winnie's recitation in The Kitchen God's Wife overlap the discursive space occupied by a proliferating number of English-language works in which the upheavals of "recent"—meaning post-Western contact (Fabian's Typological Time is again at work here)—Chinese history are used as a foil for personal dramas, often those of women from prominent, Westernized families, or women marrying prominent white Americans. Constituting a subgenre that might be called "the Chinese Gone with the Wind," these works are billed sometimes as memoirs (of varying degrees of fictionalization), sometimes as historical fiction. Virtually all involve a multigenerational family saga interwoven with violent historical events (the "Boxer Rebellion," the Republican Revolution, the Nationalist-Communist Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre), as well as a culminating personal odyssey across the ocean to the West, signaling final "arrival" in both a physical and an ideological sense. From these works of epic sweep about China in turmoil. American readers can derive the concomitant satisfaction of self-congratulation and limited self-flagellation: "Thank heavens we natives of the democratic First World don't have to go through that kind of suffering; but then again, we miss out on the opportunity to build character and we lose touch with the really important things in life—Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil." So the equation is balanced after all.

The "psychospiritual Plantation System" in the Reagan Era

Thus the daughters' presence in the narratological apparatus of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife serves another vital purpose: it tempers the novels' critique of Reagan-era rapacity and hedonism, rendering it temporarily chastening but ultimately undemanding. After listening with appropriate awe, empathy, and "culture envy" to her mother, the daughter returns to yuppiedom (to which Chinese Americans have been allowed qualified access) and continues to enjoy the fruits of assimilation. In the same manner, the "sugar sisterhood" among Tan's readership returns edified from the cathartic literary excursion, but its core of historical innocence remains undisturbed.

A kind of "psychospiritual plantation system"—a stratified world of privileged whites and colored servers/caregivers—is at work in Amy Tan's novels as well as films from roughly the same period such as Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy, Woody Allen's Alice, and Jerry Zucker's Ghost. All these products of popular culture make indictments against the shallow, acquisitive, image-conscious (read "middle- and upper-middle-class white") world of wealth and institutional power by putting selected members of this world in physical and/or emotional crisis, and by engineering their education/rescue by a person of color. Tan's mothers, the African American chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, the Chinese herbalist in Alice, and the African American medium in Ghost all surpass their uptight, disaffected protégés in vitality, vividness of personality, instinctual wisdom, integration of self, cultural richness, interpersonal connection, and directness of contact with elemental presences (love, death, spirituality). At the same time, these Third World healers, like loyal Black slaves of the past, are remarkably devoid of individual ambition and content with a modest piece of the American pie. If, like the frugal Joy Luck mothers or the flamboyant small-time crook in Ghost, they value money, that interest has an almost childlike forthrightness to it, dissociated from the "rational" pursuit of status that is the forte of their overcerebral, impeccably schooled charges. In short, the world is neatly stratified into those who have wealth and power but no soul, and those who have soul but neither wealth nor power. The latter group nurtures the former but is not interested in displacing or replacing it.

What Renato Rosaldo says of the discipline of anthropology is a good gloss on "psychospiritual plantation" discourse:

Social analysts … often assert that subordinate groups have an authentic culture at the same time that they mock their own upper-middle-class professional culture. In this view, subordinate groups speak in vibrant, fluent ways, but upper-middle-class people talk like anemic academics. Yet analysts rarely allow the ratio of class and culture to include power. Thus they conceal the ratio's darker side: the more power one has, the less culture one enjoys, and the more culture one has, the less power one wields.

Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife tacitly subscribe to a worldview in which the inverse relationship between political power and cultural visibility is deemed natural. Despite its chatty, upbeat tone and inspirational effectiveness, Tan's fiction, too, has a darker side.


Judging from the frequency with which The Joy Luck Club has been anthologized and adopted for courses during the brief period since its publication, and the way Amy Tan has been chosen to perform the Asian American spokeswoman/figurehead function once assigned to Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan currently occupies a place of substantial honor in the "mainstream" literary canon. The movement for curricular diversification in the academy has created a demand for fairly accessible ethnic works of a multiculturalist, preferably also feminist, bent, and The Joy Luck Club, whatever its other complexities, fits the bill well. Tan's place in the Asian-American canon is less clear: there has been some academic interest in The Joy Luck Club (less so for The Kitchen God's Wife), but hardly comparable in amount and intensity to what The Woman Warrior generated. Only time will tell what the staying power of the "Amy Tan phenomenon" is.

The fortunes of once-popular, now overlooked cultural interpreters in Chinese American literary history, such as Lin Yutang and Jade Snow Wong, suggest that cultural mediation of the Orient for the "mainstream" readership requires continual repackaging to remain in sync with changing times and resultant shifts in ideological needs. It will be interesting to see whether Tan will be superseded by another "flavor of the month," and if so, when, how, and to what degree. Unlike Lin Yutang's and Jade Snow Wong's, Amy Tan's books appeared after the Asian American consciousness movement, at a time when Asian American cultural production is burgeoning, Asian American literary studies has been instituted as a force (albeit still a weak one) in cultural politics, and Asian American critics are busily engaged in defining a canon dissociated as much as possible from Orientalist concerns, through teaching, practical criticism, and other professional activities if not conscious, explicit theorizing. Although there is obviously no end point in the canon-formation process, there are already signs that the "Asian American" canon, the one arising from contestations within the community, differs considerably from the one shaped by the publishing industry and the critical establishment. It would be intriguing to study how these two canons are related and how they act upon each other.

Whatever the future holds, the extent of Amy Tan's sensational success becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we see her works as standing at the confluence of a large number of discursive traditions, each carrying its own history as well as ideological and formal demands: "mainstream" feminist writing; Asian American matrilineal literature; quasi ethnography about the Orient; Chinese American "tour-guiding" works; post-civil rights ethnic soul-searching; the "Chinese Gone with the Wind" genre; multiculturalist rhetoric; and Reagan-era critiques of materialism—to name only those touched on in this essay. (The literature of immigration and Americanization is an obvious tradition that has been omitted in this discussion; the literature of New Age self-healing might be another.) This heteroglossic situation, where discourses press against each other, generating now synergy, now conflict, is what makes possible the intriguing equivocation in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife and allows readers of differing persuasions to see what they expect (or desire) in the texts.

(read more)

This section contains 11,652 words
(approx. 39 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong