Amy Tan

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Amy Tan

Born: February 19, 1952
Oakland, California

Asian American writer

Amy Tan is known for her lyrically written (using flowing, melodic language) tales of emotional conflict between Chinese American mothers and daughters separated by generational and cultural differences.

Early life

Amy Ruth Tan was born in Oakland, California, on February 19, 1952. Her father was a Chinese-born Baptist minister; her mother was the daughter of an upper-class family in Shanghai, China. Throughout much of her childhood, Tan struggled with her parent's desire to hold onto Chinese traditions and her own longings to become more Americanized (integrated with American ideals). Her parents wanted Tan to become a neurosurgeon (a doctor who performs surgery on the brain), while she wanted to become a fiction writer. While still in her teens, Tan experienced the loss of both her father and her sixteen-year-old brother to brain tumors and learned that two sisters from her mother's first marriage in China were still alive (one of several autobiographical elements she would later incorporate into her fiction).

Tan majored in English at San Jose State, in California, in the early 1970s rather than fulfill her mother's expectations of becoming a surgeon. After graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, she began a career as a technical writer (a person who writes about mechanical and computer issues). As a release from the demands of her technical writing career, she turned to fiction writing, having gained inspiration from her reading of Louise Erdrich's novel of Native American family life, Love Medicine.

First novels

Despite Tan's achievements, her literary career was not planned; in fact, she first began writing fiction as a form of therapy. Considered a workaholic by her friends, Tan had been working ninety hours per week as a freelance technical writer. She became dissatisfied with her work life, however, and hoped to rid herself of her workaholic tendencies through psychological counseling. But when her therapist fell asleep several times during her counseling sessions, Tan quit and decided to cut back her working hours by jumping into jazz piano lessons and writing fiction instead. Tan's first literary efforts were stories, one of which secured her a position in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a fiction writers' workshop. Tan's hobby soon developed into a new career when her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989.

Tan's The Joy Luck Club, received the Commonwealth Club gold award for fiction and the American Library Association's best book for young adults award in 1989 and stayed on the New York Times 's best-seller list for nine months. In 1993, Tan produced and coauthored the screenplay (script for a movie) for The Joy Luck Club which was made into a critically acclaimed film. It was adapted for the stage in a production directed by Tisa Chang for Pan Asian Repertory in 1999. Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, was published in 1991 followed by the children's books The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994). The year 2001 saw the release of yet another successful novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter.

Tan's The Joy Luck Club is made up of sixteen stories told by four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters, linked together by the narrative of June, whose mother had founded a women's social club in China. Nearly forty years later, June's mother has died. The surviving members, the "aunties," recruit June to replace her mother, then send her to China to meet her half-sisters and inform them of the mother's death. When June expresses doubts about her ability to execute this assignment, the older women respond with disappointment. June then realizes the women rightly suspect that she, and their own daughters, know little of the women's lives and the strength and hope they wished to give the next generation. Throughout the novel, the various mothers and daughters attempt to demonstrate their own concerns about the past and the present and about themselves and their relations.

Critical praise

Amy Tan's novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, were enthusiastically received by critics as well as the book-buying public. Focusing on the lives of Chinese American women, Tan's books introduce characters who are uncertain as she once was about their Chinese background. Tan remarked in a Bestsellers interview that though she once tried to distance herself from her ethnicity, writing The Joy Luck Club helped her discover "how very Chinese I was. And how much had stayed with me that I had tried to deny." Upon The Joy Luck Club 's release, Tan quickly became known as a gifted storyteller, a reputation she upheld with the publication of The Kitchen God's Wife.

Tan's The Joy Luck Club was praised as a thought-provoking, engaging novel. In Quill and Quire, Denise Chong wrote: "These moving and powerful stories share the irony, pain, and sorrow of the imperfect ways in which mothers and daughters love each other. Tan's vision is courageous and insightful." In her review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Nancy Wigston declared that Tan's literary debut "is that rare find, a first novel that you keep thinking about, keep telling your friends about long after you've finished reading it." Some critics were particularly impressed with Tan's ear for authentic dialogue. Carolyn See, for instance, wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Tan ranks among the "magicians of language."

Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife deals with a young woman in California who realizes a greater understanding of her mother's Chinese background. A generation gap exists between the two heroines: Mother Winnie has only awkwardly adapted to the relatively freewheeling ways of Americanparticularly Californianlife; daughter Pearl, on the other hand, is more comfortable in a world of sports and fast food than she is when listening, at least initially, to her mother's recollections of her own difficult life in China. As Winnie recounts the secrets of her past, including her mother's mysterious disappearance, her marriage to a psychotic and brutal man, the deaths of her first three children, and her journey to the United States in 1949, Pearl is able to view her mother in a new light and gathers the courage to reveal a secret of her own.

Critics hailed Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife, admiring its touching and bittersweet humor. Sabine Durrant, writing in the London Times, called the book "gripping" and "enchanting," and Charles Foran, in his review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, proclaimed Tan's work "a fine novel" of "exuberant storytelling and rich drama." In a Washington Post Book World review, Wendy Law-Yone asserted that Tan exceeded the expectations raised by her first book, declaring that " The Kitchen God's Wife is bigger, bolder and, I have to say, better" than The Joy Luck Club.

Tan continues to write. In 2001 her novel The Bonesetter's Daughter was released to much of the same praise as her earlier books.

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Amy Tan. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

Kramer, Barbara. Amy Tan, Author of The Joy Luck Club. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Shields, Charles J. Amy Tan. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.

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TAN, Amy

Born 19 February 1952, Oakland, California

Daughter of Daisy (Tu Ching) and John Tan; married Lou de Mattei, 1974

Amy Tan's fiction, infused with the spirit of the fairytales she read avidly as a child, earned the author a fairytale success in real life. While still in her thirties, Tan published two novels to spectacular critical acclaim and commercial gain. She grew up in San Francisco, the child of Chinese immigrant parents who made it out of China just before Mao came to power. Drawing on the tensions and dislocations of this background, her novels depict a new aspect of an honored American literary experience, the immigrant adventure.

In the first, The Joy Luck Club (1989), and even more so in the second, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), Tan exhibits an extraordinarily satisfying storytelling gift: pacing, imagery, descriptive vividness, laced with suspense, humor, emotion, and psychological reality. Clearly a writer with a modern sensibility, she also includes acute social observations in the manner of the 19th-century novel, and the mix results in a masterful tapestry of individual and social anguish. Both novels describe mother-daughter relationships in which exotic elements of Chinese background clash against a contemporary feminist point of view. The mothers are oppressed, but not victims; the daughters strive to place themselves beyond the control of these strong mothers, claiming their own space and time, without losing the richness of their beginnings and their loyalties. The resolutions of the conflicts are emotionally satisfying, without a trace of romanticizing lies or sentimentality.

In "Two Kinds," a short story published in the February 1989 Atlantic Monthly, Tan describes the narrator's mother's background: "She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls." Tan's fiction tells and retells variations of this story, while engaging a modern audience with the further labyrinthine irony and pain of other-daughter love, complicated by dual, conflicting cultures and needs. Further, in The Kitchen God's Wife, the reader is swept into the detailed horrors of the havoc and devastation suffered by the Chinese people throughout the social upheavals of this century.

Tan's father was an engineer and Baptist minister. She knew her mother had been married before, but she learned only at twenty-six that she had half sisters from that marriage still living in China. Tan herself was a middle child and only daughter of her mother's second marriage. Both her father and her older brother died of brain tumors in the 1960s. Her remarkably resourceful mother took Tan and her younger brother from the "diseased" house to Montreux, Switzerland, where Tan finished her high school years. When the family returned to the Bay Area, Tan enrolled in Linfield College, a Baptist school in Oregon, but soon followed her boyfriend to San Jose State University (B.A., 1963), changing her major from premed to English. Her mother had harbored unrealistic hopes for her daughter. "Of course you will become a famous neurosurgeon…and, yes, a concert pianist on the side."

What Tan had always wanted to be was a writer, ever since she won a writing contest at age eight. Disappointing her mother, she married her boyfriend, Lou de Mattei, earned a master's degree in linguistics (San Jose State, 1974), worked at a variety of freelance technical writing jobs, and wrote her stories on the side. She and her mother became more and more estranged until a trip to China resolved Tan's ambiguities about her past heritage and her present sense of herself. For the first time, she felt Chinese as well as American. "When I began to write The Joy Luck Club, it was so much for my mother and myself," to explain the turbulent disagreements of their lives together. She has reported that the writing of her first novel was like "taking dictation from an invisible storyteller." One is reminded of Harriet Beecher Stowe's statement that God had dictated Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Tan's third published book is for children. The Moon Lady (1992) is "set in the China of long ago…a story of a little girl who discovered that the best wishes are those she can make come true herself."

Superficially, Amy Tan's next book, her third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), has much in common with its predecessors. The mother-daughter paradigm in those books is only slightly altered; Tan presents Olivia, a California-born, modern, practical, skeptical career woman and her much older half-sister Kwan, who is nurturing, Chinese-born, unassimilated, accented; Kwan also communicates with the "world of yin," a ghost world. Again, the two women are set in opposition; in Olivia's eyes Kwan is odd, intruding, unsophisticated—a nearly lifelong source of embarrassment and guilt.

The book's plot sends Olivia, her husband, Simon, and Kwan on a pilgrimage back to China. Nineteenth-century China is again explored, this time through Kwan's account of the lives of hers and Olivia's reincarnated selves. However, the heart of the story rests in the resolution of the two sisters' world views, which occurs in Olivia's acceptance of mystery and opening herself to a spiritual life—rather than the acceptance of anything specifically generational or Chinese.

Tan is undoubtedly the best known (and bestselling) Chinese-American author. The film adaption of The Joy Luck Club, for which she cowrote the script, was a box office hit. While her success may have opened doors for other young Asian-American writers, it is also true that every Asian-American writer published in the 1990s has had his or her work compared to Tan's. Though Tan enjoys her fame, she does not relish being pigeonholed as an ethnic writer; she'd like her work (and that of other hyphenated American writers) to be found not on multicultural reading lists but on ones simply for American literature. Regarding her own work, she points out that "the obsessions I write about are very American—marriage, love, the idea that you can create your own life."

Tan doesn't take herself too seriously as a literary star. She's appeared on Sesame Street, and her second children's book, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), is the tale of a mischievous, independent-thinking kitten who changes history. Tan has also appeared as the leather-clad, whip-yielding lead singer of a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders with fellow band members (and fellow authors) Dave Barry and Stephen King.


Cosslett, T., "Feminism, Matrilinealism, and the 'House of Women' in Contemporary Women's Fiction," in Journal of Gender Studies (Mar. 1996).

Reference works:

Bestsellers (1989). CA (1992). CLC (1990).

Other references:

Asian Week (21 Oct. 1994). Far Eastern Economic Review (27 July 1989, 14 Nov. 1991). Independent (10 Feb. 1996). KR (15 July 1994). LATBR (12 Mar. 1989). Newsday (11 Nov. 1995). New Statesman and Society (30 June 1989, 12 July 1991, 16 Feb. 1996). Newsweek (17 Apr. 1989). NYT (4 July 1989, 31 May 1991, 11 June 1991, 20 June 1991, 17 Nov. 1995). NYTBR (19 Mar. 1989, 16 June 1991, 8 Nov. 1992, 29 Oct. 1995). St. Louis Post-Dispatch (11 Nov. 1995). Time (27 Mar. 1989, 3 June 1991). WP (8 Oct. 1989). WPBW (5 Mar. 1989, 16 June 1991). WRB (Sept. 1991).



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TAN, Amy (Ruth)

Nationality: American. Born: Oakland, California, 19 February 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. Family: Married Louis M. DeMattei in 1974. 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. Address: c/o Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014-3658, U.S.A.



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 overparticularly 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

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Amy Tan

Amy Tan (born 1952) is known for her lyrically written tales of emotional conflict between Chinese-American mothers and daughters separated by generational and cultural differences. Together with her distinctive writing style and rich imagery, Tan's treatment of such themes as loss and reconciliation, hope and failure, friendship and familial conflict, and the healing power of storytelling have brought her popular success and critical attention.

Tan was born in Oakland, California. Her father was a Chinese-born Baptist minister; her mother was the daughter of an upper-class family in Shanghai. While still in her teens, Tan experienced the loss of both her father and her sixteen-year-old brother to brain tumors and learned that two sisters from her mother's first marriage in China were still alive (one of several autobiographical elements she would later incorporate into her fiction). Tan majored in English at San Jose State in the early 1970s rather than fulfill her mother's expectations of becoming a neurosurgeon, and after graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, she began a career as a technical writer. After meeting her new-found sisters in China in 1987, Tan was, she has said, "finally able to say, 'I'm both Chinese and American.' … Suddenly some piece fit in the right place and something became whole." As a release from the demands of her technical writing career, she turned to fiction writing, having gained inspiration from her reading of Louise Erdrich's novel of Native American family life, Love Medicine. Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, received the Commonwealth Club gold award for fiction and the American Library Association's best book for young adults award in 1989 and stayed on the New York Times's bestseller list for nine months. In 1993, with Tan serving as a producer and coauthor of the screenplay, The Joy Luck Club was made into a critically acclaimed film. Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, was published in 1991 followed by the children's books The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994).

The Joy Luck Club comprises sixteen stories told by four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters, linked together by the narrative of Jing-mei Woo, whose mother had founded a women's social club in China to sustain its members' spirits during the communist revolution. In the novel, the club becomes a metaphor for the reconciliation of the conflict between maternal expectation and tradition, and filial individuality and cultural independence. In The Kitchen God's Wife, Tan again focused on the mother-daughter relationship in the context of the transition from the suffering and traditions of the Chinese past to the freedom and anxiety of the Chinese-American present. In particular, Tan explored themes of secrecy and misunderstanding, physical abuse and illness, and female friendship and acceptance in the story of the reconciliation of a mother and daughter alienated from each other by the personal truths they conceal from each other. Written for children, The Moon Lady developed a story first told in The Joy Luck Club: a young girl's experience of danger, magic, and wish fulfillment at a celebration of the Moon Festival in traditional China.

Some reviewers of The Joy Luck Club argued that Tan's thematic development was unsuccessful and resulted in strained, "over-significant" scenes, while others found her use of multiple narrative voices to be "limiting" and "over-schematic." However, critical reception of the novel was generally favorable. Carolyn See, for example, described Tan as a "magician of language" while Michael Dorris called Tan a "writer of dazzling talent." Tan solidified her critical reputation with The Kitchen God's Wife. Reviewers found it superior in structure and execution to The Joy Luck Club and applauded Tan's decision to narrow the scope of the narrative to a single mother-daughter relationship. Critics generally commended Tan's storytelling ability and characters development. Josephine Humphreys wrote that The Kitchen God's Wife proved "something profound … about the usefulness of storytelling as a way of … evaluating human experience."

Further Reading

Bestsellers 89, issue 3, Gale, 1989, pp. 69-71.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 59, 1990.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1992, p. 196.

Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1989; March 17, 1991.

Chicago Tribune—Books, March 12, 1989, pp. 1, 11.

Critique, no. 3, 1993.

Detroit News, March 26, 1989, p. 2D.

New York Times, April 1, 1996, p. A10. □

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Amy Tan, 1952–, American novelist, b. Oakland, Calif. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she has taken for her theme the lives of Asian-Americans and the generational and cultural differences among them, concentrating on women's experiences. Tan's novels include The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), and The Valley of Amazement (2013). She has also written a children's book, The Moon Lady (1992), and essays, e.g., the autobiographical pieces collected in The Opposite of Fate (2003).

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TAN, Amy

TAN, Amy. American, b. 1952. Genres: Novels, Children's fiction. Career: Writer. Worked as consultant to programs for disabled children, 1976-81, and as reporter, managing editor, and associate publisher for Emergency Room Reports (now Emergency Medicine Reports), 1981-83; free-lance technical writer, 1983-87. Publications: NOVELS: The Joy Luck Club, 1989; The Kitchen God's Wife, 1991; The Hundred Secret Senses, 1995; The Bonesetter's Daughter, 2000; The Opposite of Fate, 2003. OTHER: The Moon Lady (children's book), 1992; The Chinese Siamese Cat, 1994. Address: c/o Sandra Dijkstra, 1155 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, CA 92014, U.S.A.