4 minute read

Amy (Ruth) Tan Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Oakland, California, 1952. Education: San Jose State University, California, B.A. in linguistics and English, 1973, M.A. in linguistics, 1974; University of California, Berkley, 1974-76. Career: Specialist in language development, Alameda County Association for Mentally Retarded, Oakland, 1976-80; project director, MORE Project, San Francisco, 1980-81; reporter, managing editor, and associate publisher, Emergency Room Reports, 1981-83; technical writer, 1983-87. Awards: Commonwealth Club gold award, 1989, and Bay Area Book Reviewers award, 1990, both for The Joy Luck Club; Best American Essays award, 1991. Honorary D.H.L.: Dominican College, San Rafael, 1991.



The Joy Luck Club. New York, Putnam, and London, Heinemann, 1989.

The Kitchen God's Wife. New York, Putnam, and London, Collins, 1991.

The Hundred Secret Senses. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.



The Joy Luck Club, 1993.


The Moon Lady (for children). New York, Macmillan, 1992.

The Chinese Siamese Cat, illustrated by Gretchen Shields (for children). New York, Macmillan, and London, Hamilton, 1994.


Film Adaptation:

The Joy Luck Club, 1993.

Critical Studies:

Amy Tan: A Critical Companion by E.D. Huntley, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, New York, Peter Lang, 1999; Amy Tan, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

* * *

When Amy Tan's first novel The Joy Luck Club appeared in 1989, there had been a long interval since the publication of any work on Chinese-American identity, a theme briefly and convincingly explored by Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior and China Men in the previous decade. Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife use the framing device of mother-daughter relationships, a motif used in works of American novelists such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, and Anzia Yezierska to name just a few.

In this way Tan draws upon a familiar and comforting tradition for the Western reader. Strategically too this theme is central to Western women in that it explores the twin poles of the daughter's desire for individuation, wherein she demands an identity as separate from her mother. This clashes with her intense and fierce attachment to and sense of continuum with her mother's life. In this, Tan's pursuit of mother-daughter relationships, rather than father-son ones, reinscribes the woman in the interrogation of origins, a theme only explored via sons who are the "legitimate" heirs to any notion of origins.

Marianne Hirsch points out in The Mother-Daughter Plot of 1989, that the mother-daughter narrative varies from the traditional father-son relationship in that the former is marked with opposition and contradiction. She argues that the Western narrative of mother-daughter relationships is located in the Demeter-Persephone myth which enacts the daughter's unbreakable attachment to her mother which is constantly interrupted by her relationship to her husband. To this extent, the daughters Jing-Mei Woo (along with a host of others) in The Joy Luck Club and Pearl in The Kitchen God's Wife indicate the tremendous difficulties of individuation and the loss of the maternal.

In Tan's novels, mother-daughter dyads ultimately become a metaphor for the relationship between China and the U.S. In the early part of this century Anzia Yezierska had written immigrant novels where the mother and daughter embody the old country and the new world respectively and it is within this framework that Tan too explores the Chinese part of a Chinese-American identity. Thus mother-daughter relationships as well as its intersection with the inscription of the old country get played out in the overarching theme of identity. As first-generation Americans, Jing-Mei Woo and Pearl signify the assimilation that America requires whereas their mothers, as immigrants, embody a severe sense of displacement. Jing-Mei and Pearl's desire for individuation thus goes beyond a break from the mother. Their lives also mirror the ambiguous relationship that Chinese-Americans have with the two mother-countries, the U.S. and China. In a further turn of the screw, Tan shows Pearl's mother, Winnie, as a daughter, in China. This repetition of mothers as daughters prefigures in the characters of Ying-Ying St. Clair and An-Mei Hsu in The Joy Luck Club. In this foregrounding of mothers as daughters, Tan reveals her ploy, wherein she wrests this particular theme from the Western tradition and locates it squarely within China. The oriental other who functions as the object of inquiry of the West is revealed to be the maternal progenitor of a Western tradition.

The Hundred Secret Senses uses themes familiar from Tan's two earlier novels: of sisters, of China and America, of competition, of the stories one tells about one's past. Ultimately, the issues that Tan's novels raise are: Can one really assimilate? Does assimilation bring about equality or is the Chinese-American always in an inferior position within dominant American identity? Can one emphasize difference while maintaining equality? There is no resolution to these questions, but rather conclusions that always end in the mother-country, China. Kwan, one of the two protagonists in The Hundred Secret Senses, remains almost entirely Chinese, even though she came to America as a teenager. Her assimilated half-sister Olivia is impatient with her and with her stories of ghosts and dragons, but ultimately Kwan and her stories win her over—particularly after the two travel to China with Olivia's estranged husband Simon, and find themselves in danger.

In addition to her novels, Tan has written two works of children's fiction, The Moon Lady (an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club), and The Chinese Siamese Cat, both of which deal with clever daughters.

—Radhika Mohanram

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II Biography