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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, was Amy Tan's first novel. In a series of interwoven stories, it tells the tale of four immigrant Chinese women and their American-born daughters. Much of the novel was based on Tan's own experiences as the daughter of an immigrant mother.

The Joy Luck Club became an immediate best seller and was made into an award-winning film and a stage play. Its focus on cultural conflict and familial relationships has attracted readers of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Tan's work also helped pave the way for later works by Asian American writers.

1. After her mother suffered an apparent heart attack, Tan decided to write The Joy Luck Club to connect with her.

Tan's mother, Daisy, was hospitalized with an apparent heart attack in 1986. The health scare was just a chest pain, but it forced Tan to realize that life is short. She had not known or connected with her mother as much as she wanted. Tan decided to take Daisy to China, and at the same time she decided to write a book about mother-daughter relationships. Tan completed an outline for the book that would become The Joy Luck Club before leaving for China. When she and Daisy were in China, she learned that a publishing company had offered her a contract for the novel.

2. Tan was influenced by both Little House in the Big Woods and Jane Eyre as she wrote The Joy Luck Club.

When asked in an interview which books might have been literary influences on The Joy Luck Club, Tan mentioned Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She explained, "Wilder wrote this fictional story based on her life as a lonely little girl, moving from place to place ... that was my life." She also pointed to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a tale of an "alienated" girl who "had to make her own way in life."

3. A noted critic viciously attacked The Joy Luck Club.

Asian American author and literary critic Frank Chin is known for calling the writing of Asian American novelists inauthentic. Among his targets has been Amy Tan. In an essay titled "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," he calls the fairy tale that opens The Joy Luck Club "fake" and says it is "not Chinese but white racist." Chin claims it gives a stereotypical view of "Confucian culture" as seen through white eyes. He goes on to accuse Tan, along with other writers, of faking "all of Asian American history and literature" in order to validate their writing. Because of responses like Chin's, Tan stopped reading her reviews.

4. Anxiety over her celebrity caused Tan to grind her teeth so hard they cracked.

Tan wasn't expecting the kind of reaction The Joy Luck Club got. Reviews were incredibly positive; the book was reprinted again and again. Tan had no experience with the kind of public exposure this gave her. When requests for interviews and speaking engagements began to pour in, she became so anxious that she started grinding her teeth, cracking two of them. She noted: "It's as though whoever this person is that wrote this book ... walked off the page and just started another life, and I have no control."

5. Tan's editor wanted The Joy Luck Club to fall off the best-seller list.

Tan's editor thought The Joy Luck Club's place on the best-seller list might diminish Tan's chances of being considered a serious literary writer because of its perception as "popular" rather than highly literary. True to her hunch, The Joy Luck Club stayed on the best-seller list when it was nominated for two famous literary prizes—the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. And it lost both awards.

6. Tan modeled aspects of the mothers' criticisms of their daughters in The Joy Luck Club on her own mother's criticisms of her.

Tan's mother criticized her frequently, and her critiques made their way into The Joy Luck Club. She was, by her own account, a difficult woman who expected great things from her daughter. She wanted Tan to become a doctor and to be a concert pianist in her spare time. She rarely gave compliments but was free with her criticisms. Tan quoted her mother's attitude toward beauty this way: "If you try to rely on beauty, you're going to find yourself lost after a while because beauty doesn't last." Not stopping there, Tan's mother said, "You should be glad that you're not beautiful."

Spending time with her mother in China helped Tan realize that her mother acted out of love. The mothers' criticisms, high expectations, and love of their daughters in The Joy Luck Club all sprang from these personal experiences.

7. The screenwriters had to make considerable changes to adapt The Joy Luck Club into a film.

Tan helped write the screenplay for the film version of The Joy Luck Club. She was warned that it would be very difficult to turn the novel into a movie. Veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass suggested they give the story a voice-over, add a frame story to draw the different stories together, and focus not on a single character but on the group of mothers and daughters as a whole. The structural changes paid off; the film got very good reviews, with the New York Times calling it "a stirring, many-sided fable, one that is exceptionally well told." Variety said it was "beautifully made and acted and emotionally moving in the bargain."

8. The film of The Joy Luck Club has been criticized for featuring Asian actors who are not of Chinese descent.

The movie version of The Joy Luck Club was criticized for its casting. Noah Cho of Hyphen magazine pointed out that in the film of The Joy Luck Club, the four mothers featured are supposed to be Chinese and their daughters Chinese American. One mother, however, is played by a Vietnamese American, another is a French Vietnamese actor, and one daughter is played by a Japanese American. While Cho noted that at the time of its release, the movie received praise for authentic casting, he criticized the casting as "monolithic" because it assumes Asians of different ethnicities are interchangeable.

9. Tan had a cameo in the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club.

In addition to cowriting the screenplay for the movie version of her book, Tan appeared in an uncredited role in the 1993 film. She played a "guest at house party." She was also one of the producers of the film, which enabled her to keep creative control of the project.

10. Tan was in a rock band with Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

In the 1990s a group of literary stars formed the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band that included such well-known authors as Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Stephen King, and Barbara Kingsolver. The band performed for one week a year until 2012, and critics noted that it had "one of the world's highest ratios of noise to talent." Groening claimed, "People are throwing panties at us. They certainly never do that at my book signings."

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