The Joy Luck Club, 1989
The Kitchen God’s Wife, 1991
The Hundred Secret Senses, 1995
The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2001
“The Language of Discretion,” 1990 (in The State of the Language, Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels, editors)
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Moon Lady, 1992
The Chinese Siamese Cat, 1994
Amy Ruth Tan was born February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California, to John Tan, a minister and electrical engineer, and Daisy Chan (formerly Tu Ching), a vocational nurse. (Her mother was also a member of a club like the one depicted in Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club). Her parents had moved to the United States from China three years before she was born. When Tan was fifteen, her father and one of her brothers died; her mother took her and her younger brother to Switzerland, where Tan finished high school. Later the family returned to the United States, and Tan attended and graduated from San Jose State University. She married tax attorney Lou DeMattei.
In spite of her considerable literary success, Amy Tan’s writing career was unplanned. After holding various jobs, including work as a consultant to programs for disabled children, reporter, managing editor, associate publisher for Emergency Medicine Reports, freelance writer, and technical writer, Tan sought counseling to learn to curb her workaholic tendencies. When her therapist fell asleep three times during their counseling sessions, however, Tan instead began taking jazz piano lessons and writing fiction as a form of therapy and a way to cut her working hours. She eventually joined the Squaw Valley Community, a fiction writers’ workshop. A short story she wrote, which was published in Seventeen, gained the attention of a literary agent, who suggested that she submit a proposal for a novel based on her mother’s friends and family. Tan’s hobby developed into a lucrative career when that novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989. (A film version, for which Tan collaborated on the screenplay, was released in 1993.) Both this first novel, her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and fourth novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, were enormous popular and critical successes.
Chronicling the lives of Chinese American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers, These three novels explore the conflicting and confusing emotions associated with female individuation. Like the characters she writes about in The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tan admits that she once experienced ambivalent feelings about her Chinese background. However, Tan has said that through writing The Joy Luck Club she was able to discover “how very Chinese” she is and how much has stayed with her that she had tried to deny.
Amy Tan comes from a rich tradition of Asian American women writers. Like her predecessor Maxine Hong Kingston, for example, Tan concerns herself with the controversial issue of female individuation and suggests plausible methods for how women can come to a clear understanding of self. Also, like Kingston, Tan uses Chinese myth as a means of explaining and highlighting the problems with self-awareness that many Chinese women experience regardless of whether they are immigrants or native-born Americans of Chinese ancestry.
The singularity of Tan’s vision lies in her intense focus on the mother-daughter relationship and her insistence that female individuation occurs ultimately as a result of bringing that particular parent-child relationship into proper order. According to Tan, successful individuation for women involves unification with the mother rather than separation from her. Thus, June May in The Joy Luck Club, Pearl in The Kitchen God’s Wife, and Ruth Young in The Bonesetter’s Daughter must mend their broken relationships with their mothers in order to become strong women in their own right. June May’s trip to China to fulfill her deceased mother’s dream of returning home and finding her other two daughters is an important undertaking. The trip frees her from guilt over the past failures in her relationship with her mother. Likewise, June May comes to understand that the tension that characterized her relationship with her mother resulted more from their similarities than from their differences. This realization, in turn, encourages her to celebrate rather than denounce the likenesses between her mother and herself. She can now be confident and be comfortable with the woman she has become.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan highlights the issue of female individuation by narrowing her consideration of the mother-daughter relationship to focus exclusively on Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl. In so doing she calls particular attention to the relationship between the freed female voice and successful female individuation. Because Winnie finds the freedom to tell her story openly and honestly, she is finally freed from the demons that have haunted her for a lifetime. Pearl, in turn, is freed by her mother’s openness and finds the strength to share courageously her own secret. By breaking the silence between them and revealing her secret to her daughter, Winnie makes it possible for Pearl to connect emotionally with her and become a complete person.
In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tan’s exploration of the mother-daughter relationship becomes more personal. One character develops Alzheimer’s disease, as did Tan’s own mother. Tan’s works reflect both a traditional and unique perspective on the issue of female individuation and bridge the gap between generations of Asian American women writers. She honestly portrays Asian American women’s lives and in so doing gives voice to the joys, fears, defeats, and triumphs of all women.