Amy the New York Times bestseller list.

Amy Tan is known for writing books about Chinese immigrant mothers and their American daughters, but her books speak to larger issues that anyone can relate to. In this lesson you’ll get an introduction to Tan, her most famous book, and a few of her other novels.

Amy Tan

Recently there’s been a lot of buzz about parenting styles. At one end of the spectrum you have parents who feel children should be free to explore their interests, make mistakes and find their own paths. At the other end you have strict, controlling types who excessively push their children to excel. Some strict parents don’t just nag their kids about their grades; they force them to study and achieve the highest results. Good isn’t enough; their children have to be the best.

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Amy Tan, bestselling author of books like The Joy Luck Club, grew up with one of these strict mothers, and their relationship is at the root of much of Tan’s writing.Tan’s background reads like the plot of a novel. Her father, John Tan, was both an electrical engineer and Baptist minister, and he escaped China to avoid the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War. Her mother, Daisy, also emigrated from China – catching the very last boat to leave Shanghai before the communist takeover of 1949. Their marriage produced three American children, Amy and two brothers.To say that Tan’s parents had high expectations of her is an understatement. They decided she would grow up to be a neurosurgeon and a part time concert pianist, and they pushed her to excel in academics and in her piano lessons.

By the time Tan had been enrolled in college, one that her mother selected, their relationship had reached a boiling point. Fed up, she left school, enrolled in a university of her choosing and even dropped out of the pre-med program to study linguistics. Tan earned several linguistics degrees and was in a doctoral program when she rediscovered her passion for writing. She originally started writing fiction as a way to escape the pressures of her work, and her skill quickly drew attention.

In 1989 she published The Joy Luck Club, a book that would go on to spend eight months on the New York Times bestseller list. The paperback rights alone netted Tan over a million dollars. Tan made the easy decision to drop her previous profession to concentrate her full energy on writing, and she has gone on to publish more successful novels, children’s books, and an autobiography.

The Joy Luck Club

Even though The Joy Luck Club is specifically about the American-born daughters of Chinese immigrants, one reason it’s been successful is almost anyone can relate to the characters. Have you ever argued with your mother? Have you ever struggled with meeting her expectations? Do you love your mother even though you can’t stand her sometimes? If you answered yes to any or all of those questions, then you can see why The Joy Luck Club has a wider audience than just daughters of Chinese immigrants.Here’s another reason The Joy Luck Club has been a hit – the way it’s set-up. You know how when you’re on YouTube and a long video comes up on a topic you like? What do you do? Skip it for a shorter one.

Rather than telling one long story, Tan breaks up her book into 16 shorter stories, and when you take them together they build the big picture of the novel. The actual Joy Luck Club is a social group formed by four Chinese immigrant mothers living in California. Each of these women has an American-born daughter who is growing up in a clash of two very different cultures – Chinese at home, American outside of the home. Tan gives each mother and each daughter two chapters to tell her story, thus 16 total chapters. Each chapter reads like an independent story, so you can enjoy The Joy Luck Club by only reading parts of it, or you can string those stories together.A big part of the central plot involves one woman finding out that her mother had been married in China and that she had fled to America to escape a war, leaving behind twin daughters.

She kept this other family secret for many years. She revealed the truth, and her desire to reunite with her daughters, but died before she had the chance to return to China. Her American-born daughter carries out her mother’s dying wish, and in a scene that will involve at least three tissues, the daughter travels to China and meets her half-sisters for the first time. If you need to look tough, don’t read this one in public.

Other Novels

Amy Tan is best known for The Joy Luck Club, but she has also penned several other best-sellers.

The Kitchen God’s Wife tells the story of one immigrant woman’s life in Shanghai and how she came to America. Like The Joy Luck Club, it’s the story of a mother and daughter and a long-held secret, only this one is even more directly based on Tan’s own life and the secrets her mother closely kept for most of her life. The Hundred Secret Senses is also a novel of relationships, and it explores the clash of American and Chinese cultures from a different angle.

Tan also includes a character with yin eyes that allow her to see into the world of ghosts. This book is full of the little stories that people tell to pass on their values and culture, and it’s infused with superstition and talk of past lives.Tan mines some similar veins in most of her books.

She explores the clash of cultures, particularly American and Chinese, questions of how we form identity, relationships between men and women or mothers and daughters, and the way the past shapes our present lives.

Lesson Summary

Amy Tan grew up as the child of Chinese immigrant parents who held overly high expectations for her from an early age. She rebelled, found her own path, started writing, and has made a name for herself as a novelist. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, remains her most famous work, and it tells the story of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Like her other novels, The Joy Luck Club explores relationships, cultural conflicts, and issues around how we create our own identities.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:

  • Recall how Amy Tan got started writing
  • Describe the themes in Amy Tan’s work
  • List some of Amy Tan’s popular novels
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