Tan, Amy: Title Commentary
Tan, Amy: Title Commentary
AMY TAN: TITLE COMMENTARYThe Joy Luck Club
CATHERINE ROMAGNOLO (ESSAY DATE SPRING 2003)
SOURCE: Romagnolo, Catherine. "Narrative Beginnings in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: A Feminist Study."1Studies in the Novel 35, no. 1 (spring 2003): 89-107.
In the following essay, Romagnolo argues that the "master narratives" imposed on The Joy Luck Club have resulted in incomplete readings of the novel. She suggests that a return to the fundamental narrative beginning can result in a fuller reading of the novel's ideological implications.
Like virginity, literary introductions are often seen as an awkward embarrassment, an obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible in order to facilitate vital experiences. On the other hand, "the first time" is a supremely privileged moment, to be lingered over, contemplated, and cherished. Which is the more telling conception we can only begin to imagine.
—Steven Kellman, "Grand Openings and Plain"
Even feminist narratology … has tended to focus on women writers or female narrators without asking how the variables "sex," "gender," and "sexuality" might operate in narrative more generally.
—Susan S. Lanser, "Queering Narratology"
Few extensive studies of narrative beginnings exist, and not one takes a feminist perspective. Offering almost exclusively formalist readings, existing analyses neglect the ideological implications of beginnings, especially as they relate to gender, race, and cultural identity.2 Even as scholars overlook ideological valence in narrative beginnings, their own readings often indicate, perhaps unexpectedly, that social and cultural concerns adhere to any conception of beginnings. For example, Steven Kellman, one of the first to study narrative beginnings in an extended analysis, evokes ways that cultural bias is embedded in these studies. The sexualized metaphor he uses to illustrate the trouble inherent in starting a literary text testifies to this bias. The problem with his description arises when one considers the historical importance placed on female purity and virginity in numerous cultures. Not only is the conception of virginity as an "awkward embarrassment" a specifically heteronormatively masculinist perspective, but it also posits the proverbial pen-as-penis, page/text-as-female-body metaphor with whose ideological valences we are all familiar. Furthermore, the analogy obscures cultural differences that shape the relationship of a given individual to gendered sexuality. Similarly, A. D. Nuttall, while recognizing that his text on narrative beginnings is a "spectacle of alternating (male) authority and (male) sequence [that] will certainly be unpleasing to some people,"3 never interrogates this exclusively white male focus (vii). These studies serve as examples of the way gender concerns, however invisible, are often already linked to beginnings. They invite us to examine seriously the identificatory variables that have been elided and to take up the challenge identified by Susan S. Lanser to explore how social categories operate in narrative (250).
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is an ideal vehicle with which to begin such a project.4 It is suggestive of a new way to look at narrative beginnings, one that emphasizes a destabilization of conceptions of history that exclude women, particularly those of non-European descent. This way of reading narrative beginnings encourages an interrogation of the relevance of both European American and Asian American cultural and national origins for Asian American female subjects, as well as promoting a resistance to the notion of an alternatively authentic origin. If we attend to the ideological significance of beginnings in Tan's novel, a critique of the very concept of origins—especially in its relation to "American," "Chinese," and "Chinese American" identity—becomes apparent. Moreover, doing so illuminates the discursive constructedness of authenticity, origins, and identity, thereby problematizing reductive cultural representations of female, American, and Asian American subjectivity. Building on recent scholarship about Asian American literature and subjectivity, which has suggested that The Joy Luck Club has been misread,5 this essay attempts to extend, if not disrupt, the readings of many scholars from different disciplines who impose certain kinds of master narratives onto this novel.6 While these readings are not so much "wrong" as they are incomplete, an examination of this text's narrative beginnings can at once help us to theorize narrative with an attentiveness to difference and to recognize this help as integral to the cultural work Tan's novel performs.
Narrative beginnings, as suggested by the example of The Joy Luck Club, assume a symbolic primacy in relation to social identity. Because, as Tan's text demonstrates, they represent one way to conceptualize origins and contest the representational inadequacies of patriarchal, nationalist rhetoric, narrative beginnings often take on figurative status as metaphorical origins and embody the significance of origins in nationalist discourse. Origins and their relation to national identity and questions of authenticity are discussed by a wide variety of cultural and literary critics working in such diverse fields as post-colonial studies, U.S. minority discourse, and feminist theory. Such scholarship has interrogated the recovery of authentic cultural, literary, and historical origins, a nationalist recovery initially embarked upon in an effort to reveal the falsity of stereotypical conceptions of identity and to propose an "authentic" representation in their place. Although a thorough overview is beyond the scope of this essay, this scholarship broadly asserts that the importance placed upon authenticity can lead to discrimination and exclusion. Norma Alarcón et al., for example, explicate the problems associated with nationalism and the "denial of sexual or racial difference" within the nation-state (1). Etienne Balibar theorizes the ironic connection between racism and nationalism, even within what he calls "nationalism of the dominated" (45). And Dana Takagi, in the context of Asian American studies, contends that a fixation upon reclaiming authentic origins can occlude the experiences of marginalized members of a community: "At times, our need to 'reclaim history' has been bluntly translated into a possessiveness about the Asian American experience or perspectives as if such experiences or perspectives were not diffuse, shifting, and often contradictory" (33). In conjunction with such critiques of origins as grounds for social identity, many similarly oriented critics maintain the importance of narrative and narrative form to explicating gender, nation formation, national identity, and individual subjectivity. For example, Lisa Lowe argues that formal attributes of Asian American narratives express "an aesthetic of 'disidentification' and 'infidelity'" (32). Through formal and thematic "contradictions," she explains, this aesthetic critiques exclusionary conceptions of American and Asian American cultural identity. Contributing to such critical debates, my study of Amy Tan's novel demonstrates the importance of focusing on narrative beginnings, specifically, as sites at which these questions about origins, authenticity, and narrative converge.
Using Tan's text as a point of entry, I propose a more fully elaborated way of defining narrative beginnings in order to facilitate understanding of their ideological function and textual significance. Theorists such as Gerald Prince, Nuttall, and James Phelan have defined narrative beginnings in various ways. Prince, for example, defines them as "the incident[s] initiating the process of change in a plot or action … not necessarily follow[ing] but … necessarily followed by other incidents" (10). Nuttall, on the other hand, chooses to narrow his discussion to the actual opening lines and/or pages of a narrative text, claiming that these openings are "naturally rooted, are echoes, more or less remote, of an original creative act" (viii). Phelan, taking another approach, breaks his understanding of opening lines and/or pages into four separate categories: "exposition … initiation … introduction … entrance" (97). These definitions, while useful, fall short of distinguishing the different ways that beginnings may be conceptualized in narrative fiction. In effect, they have been unable to yield a discussion of the many ideological functions a beginning may serve within a narrative. The example of The Joy Luck Club, however, can serve as a source of critical insight from which we might generate a broader framework for the consideration of narrative beginnings. Working with Tan's novel, then, I schematize a critical paradigm for the study of four categories of narrative beginnings:
Structural Narrative Openings—The beginning pages or lines of a narrative, as well as the opening pages/lines of chapters or section breaks. This beginning is the most easily identified and most frequently studied.
Chronological Narrative Beginnings—The chronologically earliest diegetic moments in a narrative. Often there exist several simultaneously occurring textual moments that compete, in a sense, for the status of chronological beginning.
Causal Beginnings—The diegetic moment or moments that represent the catalyst for the main action within a narrative. They initiate or set into motion the conflict of the narrative.
Thematic Origins—The topic of origins or beginnings when it is interrogated or explored by the characters, narrator, or by the author her/himself. This beginning occurs on the story or content level of a narrative.
By working through this particularized framework that Tan's novel helps us to formulate, I propose that we can advance our understanding of both this text in particular and the broader narratological as well as cultural matters it thematizes.
Structural Narrative Openings: Repetition and Revision
The Joy Luck Club begins with what has been described by Asian American writer and cultural critic Frank Chin as a "fake" myth of origin:
Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: "In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for." (3)
This "fake Chinese fairy tale" is so described both because, according to Chin, it overstates the misogyny of Chinese society, and because it represents a misappropriation, a "faking," of Chinese culture (2). The implication of this misappropriation, Chin argues, is that Chinese Americans—particularly women—like Tan and her characters are so assimilated that they have lost touch with their "Chinese" cultural origins. Consequently, they have produced new feminized "versions of these traditional stories," which in trying to pass themselves off as authentic only represent a further "contribution to the stereotype," a stereotype which facilitates the emasculation of Asian American men (3).
We may take this myth to exemplify the structural opening, that is, the beginning lines/pages of Tan's novel. While other theories of narrative beginnings might identify this section of the text as the beginning, its purpose is not as self-evident as might be suggested. It is neither a "fake fairy tale" nor an "echo of an original creative act" (Nuttall viii). In fact, while the structural opening of The Joy Luck Club may initially appear to be trying (and failing, according to Chin) to establish and mythologize an authentic and originary moment of immigration from China to U.S.A. for the "Joy Luck aunties," it, in fact, disrupts the very notion of authenticity, especially in regards to origins. Although the first half of the myth seems to imply an unproblematic transition between Chinese and American cultures, by its ending, the contradiction between an idealized version of assimilation to "American" subjectivity and the fragmentation of identity that historically marks immigrant experiences becomes clear: "But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind." Instead of either idealizing an essential Asian origin or mythologizing a melting-pot ideology of U.S. immigration, Tan's structural narrative opening marks the way "America" strips the woman of her past, her idealized hopes for the future in the United States, and excludes her from an "American" national identity: the woman is still waiting "for the day she could tell her daughter this [narrative] in perfect American English" (3). By opening with a fabricated myth of origin, Tan's novel foregrounds the ideological implications of a search for beginnings and exemplifies the importance of narrative beginnings to an understanding of this text.
As Chin's response attests, Tan invokes a mythic sensibility in these opening lines, yet undermines the authority of nationalist myths of origin that attempt to uncover an uncorrupted past ethnic identity in which the members of the nation can "rediscover their authentic purpose" (Hutchinson 123). Through an ironic use of mythic form, language, and tone, Tan utilizes repetition for subversion. Repetition in this sense is a performance, which has "innovation," to use Trinh Minh-Ha's term, as its goal. Trinh explains:
Recirculating a limited number of propositions and rehashing stereotypes to criticize stereotyping can … constitute a powerful practice … Repetition as a practice and a strategy differs from incognizant repetition in that it bears with it the seeds of transformation … When repetition reflects on itself as repetition, it constitutes this doubling back movement through which language … looks at itself exerting power and, therefore, creates for itself possibilities to repeatedly thwart its own power, inflating it only to deflate it better.
Tan's opening myth utilizes mythic characters such as "The old woman" juxtaposed with historically rooted figures like immigration officials. It invokes mythic situations seemingly ungrounded in time such as a journey across an ocean "many thousands of li wide" contrasted by modern cultural icons like Coca Cola. Her myth, then, reflects upon itself as national mythology, revised. In its self-reflexivity and difference, this formal and generic repetition serves to deflate the power of the so-called original. That is, by mimicking supposedly authentic nationalist mythologies, the self-consciously illegitimate status of Tan's myth exposes the inability of any nationalist project to recover a genuinely original, pure cultural history. Like Homi Bhabha's concept of mimicry, Tan's myth "problematizes the signs of racial and cultural priority, so that the 'national' is no longer naturalizable" (87). Because culture is always hybrid, any project that asserts purity must necessarily be "fake." This "fakeness" should not, however, be read as inauthenticity, but as a de-construction of the very concept of authenticity.
The self-conscious repetition and revision of Tan's myth simultaneously destabilizes the notion of an authentic cultural origin (which gives rise to essentialist conceptions of gendered and racialized identities) and dislodges stereotypical representations of Chinese culture. For although the language of this structural opening might evoke a mythological aura, in its content, Tan's opening myth reflects the hybridity of immigrant subjectivity. That is, it signifies the historical "relationships of unequal power and domination" (Lowe 67) that accompany Chinese immigration to the United States. Moreover, it combines and interrogates stereotypically "Chinese" cultural symbols like the swan and "American" cultural emblems like Coca Cola: "Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca Cola than sorrow." In such cases, Tan utilizes overdetermined cultural symbols, which most readers would recognize as the trite, even clichéd, images that have come to signify the respective cultures. And yet, because of the way in which they are deployed, the repetition of these stereotypes cannot take hold as authentic representations; their authority is subverted. The symbol of the swan, stereotypically representative of Chinese women as graceful, silent, and docile, is hybridized and re-appropriated within Tan's narrative. It comes to symbolize both the woman's past ("the old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum") and her idealized hopes for the future as an American ("I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for"). In combining these contradictory impulses or desires (nativism and assimilation), the symbol becomes unstable, unfixed, never to be resolved within Tan's revisionist myth. Furthermore, as this symbol (the swan) is torn away from the old woman when she reaches the United States, we apprehend both the historical violence of immigration as well as the illusory nature of nativist and assimilationist mythology: "She forgot why she had come and what she had left behind" (3).
Tan also invokes a stereotypical emblem of Americanness in the materialistic and modern cultural icon, Coca Cola. Yet, like the symbol of the swan, this sign is already unstable and dislocated from its supposed referent. For, while Coca Cola has come to represent "Americanness," in fact, in this period of late-capitalism the corporation of Coca Cola is found throughout the world. The transnational character of this icon registers the economic and cultural imperialism entailed in the success of Americanization on a global scale, while contradicting its status as American; for, it both is and is not American. This instability continuously interrogates what it means to be "American." That is, the Coca Cola icon does not have as its referent some real originary "America," but alludes to a popular representation of Americanness as tied especially to diversity ("I'd like to buy the world a Coke"). This image is not only a cultural myth unto itself; it also points back to other media representations of America, which refer back yet again to the popular representation of America in "melting pot" ideology, a construction which has historically contributed to the elision of a United States that is, in reality, fraught with racial contradictions. Thus, through the chain of signifiers set in motion by the Coca Cola icon, Tan's myth not only subverts the authority of cultural symbols, but confirms cultural identity to be discursively constructed. Finally, through the placement of these icons in an opening narrative which undermines its own status as a myth of origin, The Joy Luck Club structurally reaffirms the inadequacy of such "authentic" cultural symbols to represent the "original essence" of their cultures. The final effect of this myth, then, is not a reconciliation of contradictions—assimilation and nativism—but a dialogic representation of an immigrant experience that struggles with both of these impulses.
By positioning an obviously spurious myth at the structural opening of The Joy Luck Club, Tan gives her own text a false originary moment and thus further critiques the notion of origins. The duplicity of this opening structurally and symbolically undermines the text's status as an "immigration novel" that could somehow refer to and represent the "authentic" female immigrant experience. That is, by placing a false myth of origin—which refers only to other illusory origins—in the inaugural pages of her text, Tan implies metaphorically that the novel can never be said to recover any sort of authentic, definitive experience. In searching for the originary moment of Tan's writing, contrary to the "original creative act" that Nuttall finds in his dynasty of white-male authors, one finds an obvious "fake," a performative, symbolic repetition of an originary moment, which itself is discursively constructed (viii). Through this self-conscious performance, the novel argues that any claims of ethnic and/or national authenticity are suspect; they can only be said to allude intertextually to other discursive constructions.
Tan's structural opening is additionally significant in that it acts as a synecdoche for the thematic concerns of the novel. Through its preoccupation with a search for authenticity, origin, and/or the defining moment of one's identity, the story helps us to recognize links between structure and thematic origins. This thematic interest in beginnings is placed in dialogue with the text's structural openings, reinforcing its cultural critique. For example, Suyuan Woo, who has already died as the novel opens, has spent her entire life in an unsuccessful quest to recover the fateful moment when she left her babies on the roadside in Kweilin while fleeing from the invasion of Japanese soldiers. Symbolically, she tells her daughter Jing Mei (June): "The East is where things begin,…thedirection from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from" (22). An-Mei Hsu is also preoccupied with a quest. Her narrative tells the story of an attempt to recover the source of her psychic pain as well as a search for a mother who was absent for much of her childhood. She speaks of this past as a wound: "That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain" (40). And Ying Ying St. Clair, who is similarly in search of a lost self, remembers the sense of loss that accompanied her youth: "The farther we glided, the bigger the world became. And I now felt I was lost forever" (79).7
Despite the almost compulsive search for origin and identity displayed by the stories within this novel, each quest in its own way repudiates the existence of its goal. For example, although Suyuan claims that the East is where all begins, we learn that this "East" is not static; in fact, it moves and changes just as her Kweilin story changes each time she tells it. Although June takes her mother's place on the East side of the mah jong table, the East shifts places: "Auntie Ying throws the dice and I'm told that Auntie Lin has become the East wind. I've become the North wind, the last hand to play. Auntie Ying is the South and Auntie An-Mei is the West" (23). Similarly, An-Mei learns that underneath the multiple layers of memory that compose one's sense of self, there is no authentic core: "you must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh" (41). And Ying Ying finds that although as she ages she feels closer and "closer to the beginning" of her life, that beginning, that origin is fluid—not fixed, but variable. She suggests this fluidity in speaking of the traumatic day in her childhood when she falls from a boat and is separated from her family. This moment in her life comes to represent, for her, the origin of her loss of self and the beginning, in a sense, of her adult life: "And I remember everything that happened that day because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness; the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself" (83). Further undermining any sense of fixed origins, Ying Ying's beginning also represents an end, a loss; for her, coming to a recognition of one's self entails a loss of a sense of wholeness.8 The quests embarked upon by these women, therefore, repudiate the ability to recover any type of static identity which might solidify exclusionary conceptions of gendered and racialized subjectivity; at the same time, however, they stress the importance of the histories of these characters to their ongoing sense of agency, highlighting an idea of history as not completely knowable, but nevertheless significant to the discursive construction of identity.
Alternative Structural Openings: Authenticity and Truth
Although Tan's introductory tale possesses great significance, it merely represents the first of the structural narrative openings in her novel. In fact, The Joy Luck Club is constructed in such a manner that it has at least four section openings and sixteen chapter openings (four sections each with four chapters). Moreover, each of the characters has at least two narratives (which with the exception of Suyuan, each narrates herself) and each of these narratives has at least one opening of its own, not necessarily coinciding with the opening pages of a section or a chapter; thus, the number of conceivable structural narrative openings is quite large. Although these separate stories are tied to one another through content and theme, each on its own arguably qualifies as a narrative with individual structure including an opening and a closing, however open that closing may be. (It seems to me that a reader could start this text at any one of these openings and still comprehend the narrative.) This proliferation of structural openings, in combination with the text's use of thematic origins, undermines the concept of an originary moment in obvious ways. That is, because each opening represents a new structural beginning, it signifies a challenge, contradicting any claim the first opening might make as the originary moment of the text. Thus, this repetition of openings symbolically represents the way in which a search for origins/authentic beginnings uncovers multiple possibilities, none clearly the most privileged, each possible origin continually displacing/deferring the privilege onto other possibilities.
Furthermore, it becomes clear in a close reading of these alternative openings that many are, in and of themselves, revisionist originary myths working to destabilize essentialist notions of authenticity and truth. The opening to the second section of the novel, "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates," for example, expresses a seemingly ambiguous message about cultural mythology and truth. For, while it exposes the book The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates as simply a fairy tale intended to keep young children obedient, this tale proves itself to be quite powerful. The mother in the opening narrative uses the myth in The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates to bolster her authority and support what she views to be best for her child—staying close to home: "'Do not ride your bicycle around the corner.'…'I cannot see you and you will fall down and cry and I will not hear you.' 'How do you know I'll fall?' whined the girl. 'It's in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house.'" If we read this opening as a comment on the use of mythology in nationalist projects, Tan's revisionist myth can be seen as illustrative of the way in which the invocation of an "authentic" mythology/past may be used to manipulate subjects of a nation into loyalty to the "mother" country:
"Let me see the book."
"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me."
"What are they, then?" The girl demanded. "Tell me the twenty-six bad things."
But the mother sat knitting in silence.
"What twenty-six!" shouted the girl.
The mother still did not answer her.
"You can't tell me because you don't know! You don't know anything!"
Similar to the recovery or enforcement of a national language and the naturalization of ethnic and national identity, the mother's use of the "mother-tongue" (Chinese) in her invocation of this myth implies that the daughter's ethnic purity is questionable while simultaneously reinforcing the legitimacy of the myth. Both uses, then, are attempts to prevent the daughter from questioning the authority of the myth and to assert the daughter's inferiority to the mother's authenticity. The daughter, in recognizing and rejecting this authority and authenticity, exposes the actual status and purpose of the myth and in the process suggests a goal of nationalist mythology.
Yet, while the first half of this narrative seems to subvert claims of originality and truth, the ending of the narrative appears, at first, to reinforce the power of the very myth the opening exposes. Although the daughter uncovers the constructed nature of The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, the prophecy her mother claims to extract from this myth comes to fruition: "And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner" (87). Clearly, we are not to suppose that the myth actually predicted this child's injury; instead, we understand this ending to represent the ability of the myth to enter the child's imagination and prompt her to attribute her fall to the story's premonitory power. Thus, the narrative argues that the power of national mythology lies in the subject's imagination, not in some intrinsic truth.
Chronological and Causal Beginnings: History and Time
While the numerous structural openings of this novel are, like the structural openings of all novels, clearly located in fixed textual positions, the chronological beginning of Tan's narrative is not. The earliest diegetic moment is, perhaps, easy to identify in a single linear narrative; but, a text like The Joy Luck Club is difficult to view as a single entity at all. It seems more appropriate to refer to the text's narratives. And yet, even when we recognize their plurality, the actual earliest moments, or chronological beginnings, of all of these narratives are elusive. This fact is represented structurally in the complex chronological arrangement of Tan's text, as well as thematically in each of the stories. The numerous flashbacks and concurrent narratives that characterize the chronological organization of The Joy Luck Club challenge the idea of history as linear and objectively knowable. Each section of the text is narrated from a different perspective, many of the incidents occurring simultaneously. For example, through flashbacks, we learn about Lindo Jong's first arranged marriage, which coincides with Suyuan Woo's experience in Kweilin. Both stories take place during the Japanese invasion of China, and yet the two experiences are markedly different. For Lindo, the war remains a backdrop to her personal experiences, while, for Suyuan, the war represents a catalyst for a personal tragedy from which she will never fully recover. We cannot choose one woman's experience as more representative than the other's, nor can we choose one view of the war's impact over another. In understanding these simultaneously occurring events and experiences as equally important, we as readers will find it impossible to choose one as the definitive chronological beginning of the novel. This non-linear structure, accordingly, undermines the teleology often associated with traditional narrative sequence, which, as feminist theorists like Margaret Homans, Nancy K. Miller, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis have asserted, is linked to restrictive conceptions of femininity.9 The novel combines what is traditionally seen as the "personal" history of women with the typically male-centered "public" history of war, destabilizing the hierarchical relationship between these seemingly opposing narratives. It undermines a nationalist conception of history as progress, as a "shared real or imagined past … [that] defines the present in the trajectory toward a common future" (Moallem and Boal 251).10 This conception of history is reinforced by nationalist narrative, which as Mary N. Layoun argues, strives "to give the impression of coherence" (251). And, as Alarcón, Kaplan, and Moallem explain, this coherence is enmeshed in patriarchy, engendering exclusion of women from participation in the nation-state, which according to these critiques, is the "central site of 'hegemonic masculinity'" (Alarcón et al. 1). Tan's structure counters this narrative by depicting the many disjointed trajectories that history takes through the stories of these individual women. Unlike national historical myths, which tend to imply progress toward either successful immigration/assimilation or a return to authentic cultural origins, the directions that history takes in the stories of Tan's women cannot be perceived in terms of progress. Instead, the movements from China to the United States and back to China are lateral, significant because of the material effects they have upon the women of Tan's story. Thus, the text implies a more complex understanding of the relationship among cultural origins, history, and the development of individual female and cultural identities.
Just as a chronological beginning to the novel itself is impossible to locate, so too are the causal beginnings of the individual characters' narratives. Causal beginnings, like chronological beginnings, are especially elusive in modern and postmodern narratives. These narrative moments are not connected to any fixed textual location or to any particular place in time. Borrowing from Prince's definition of a "narrative beginning"(Prince 10), they are instead defined as the moment or moments in a story that represent the catalyst for the main action. This beginning is clearly the most subjective in that each reader may have his/her own interpretation of what qualifies as the catalyst. And yet, despite its subjective nature, it can be key in identifying important cultural work being performed by a text. As The Joy Luck Club progresses, we read a narrative about each mother-daughter relationship first from the daughter's perspective and then from the mother's. Inhibiting the reader's ability to locate a causal beginning to the struggles within each mother/daughter narrative, the text structurally and causally links each daughter's present problems directly to her own childhood in the United States as well as to her mother's past in China. For example, in "American Translation" we hear from Lena's point of view about her unhappy marriage to Harold. And later in "Queen Mother of the Western Skies" we read about the same situation from her mother Ying Ying's viewpoint. Ying Ying attributes her daughter's instability in the present directly to her own past weakness: "Now I must tell my daughter everything. That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has no chi. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?" (286). Lena, however, finds a different origin to her present marital strife, seeing it as something she deserves for mistakes made as a child: "I still feel that somehow, for the most part, we deserve what we get … I got Harold" (168). The mothers return to their Chinese roots to understand their daughters' present strife, while the daughters locate the origin of their pain in their American childhoods. Neither causal beginning is placed in a more structurally prominent position; nor is one legitimized by content over the other. The novel leaves the reader vacillating between two causes, two origins of the daughters' identities; it thereby disrupts a sense of sequentiality, portraying identity as "simultaneously" constructed, a state of being described by Ketu H. Katrak as a "simultaneous present of being both here and there … challeng[ing] the linearity of time and specificity of space by juxtaposing … here and now … with histories and past geographies" (202). The text, therefore, acknowledges an integral continuity between the past in China and the present in the United States.
Thematic Origins: Subjectivity and Deferral
The representation of thematic origins is, perhaps, best illustrated through the repetition of Suyuan Woo's "Kweilin" story, a self-created myth of origin, which she and other characters begin to tell over and over again. Like Tan's novel itself, the deferred telling of Suyuan's full story can be read as manifesting a compulsion to recover the defining moment of one's identity at the same time her tale refutes the possibility of such a recovery. June searches for knowledge of her own beginnings through her mother's story, in much the same way that Suyuan attempts to recover her whole self by repetitively beginning her originary story. June describes her mother's obsession with the telling of this story:
Joy Luck was an idea my mother remembered from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before the Japanese came. That's why I think of the Joy Luck as her Kweilin story. It was the story she would always tell me when she was bored, when there was nothing to do … This is when my mother would take out a box of old ski sweaters sent to us by unseen relatives from Vancouver. She would snip the bottom of a sweater and pull out a kinky thread of yarn, anchoring it to a piece of cardboard. And as she began to roll with one sweeping rhythm, she would start her story. Over the years she told me the same story, except for the ending, which grew darker, casting long shadows into her life, and eventually into mine. (7)
Significantly, like the yarn of the sweaters Suyuan unravels, she dismantles the complex weave of her story each time she begins to tell it, re-forming it, like the balls of yarn she tightly winds, into a new and re-usable shape constructed from the substance of the previous form. Suyuan's story and the way that she relates it thematically represent the text's conception of the past and its connection to individual identity; for the organized pattern of the sweater may also be read to symbolize both History and authentic subjectivity. Like Suyuan, Tan's novel attempts to snip the threads that hold these tightly knitted structures together, unraveling them as it constructs new ideas of history and identity which are at once subjective, personal, and polymorphous.
Just as the story evolves when Suyuan tells it to June, it is also significantly altered by the several characters who advance the narrative after Suyuan's death, each storyteller attempting to decipher the "truth" of this originary story. And yet, the novel asserts no version of this narrative as definitive, just as it posits no authoritative representation of history; each remains in dialogue with the other, none on its own signifying an essential truth. The concepts of storytelling and history, then, are directly connected to one another, as we see when closely examining the final telling of the Kweilin story. When June travels to China to meet her sisters, her father again begins to tell her mother's story, this time attempting to close it. In its final version, however, the historical event of the invasion of Kweilin by Japanese soldiers seems to permeate the "personal" story of Suyuan's lost babies. This conflation of the personal and historical dismantles the dichotomy of personal/private vs. historical/public and interrogates notions of truth and the power of representation:
"Japanese in Kweilin? says Aiyi [June's Aunt]. "That was never the case. Couldn't be. The Japanese never came to Kweilin."
"Yes, that is what the newspapers reported. I know this because I was working for the news bureau at the time. The Kuomintang often told us what we could say and could not say. But we knew the Japanese had come into Kwangsi Province. We had sources who told us how they had captured the Wuchang-Canton railway. How they were coming overland, making very fast progress, marching toward the provincial capital."
The contradictions between personal experiences and documented history exemplified by this passage clearly exhibit the text's play with notions of history and objectivity, for they make apparent the fact that the representation of historical events is as manipulable and subject to questions of power as storytelling. Thus, by complicating notions of historical objectivity and truth, Tan examines the way in which political power affects the representation of historical events as well as an understanding of individual subjectivity.
The completion of Suyuan's story is continually deferred in an attempt to recover an irretrievable past which represents her unknowable beginning. The deferral of this narrative, however, may also be seen to signify an anxiety over representation, which, as we have seen, is a theme continually worked through in Tan's novel. The inability of the other Joy Luck Club characters to tell Suyuan's story in its entirety, therefore, symbolizes the impossibility of depicting an authentic subject through language. This same anxiety is expressed when June's aunties tell her that she must visit her sisters and tell them of her mother: "What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don't know anything. She was my mother" (31). June's apprehension, expressive of the novel's concern with the representation of subjectivity, is never quelled and the question of how to represent an authentic subject is not definitively answered. Instead, the metaphoric search for an authentic and stable identity represented by the search for origins in the Kweilin story is, like the story itself, destined to remain infinitely fragmented and ultimately irretrievable, for it refers only to other discursive representations whose "truth" can never be discerned.
Although we as readers learn more about Suyuan each time the Kweilin story is begun, we never receive the complete story, only fragments that we must try to piece together to compose the whole narrative. The text, nonetheless, renders this act of construction impossible, for it mixes fact, myth, and incomplete memories seemingly indiscriminately among the narrative pieces. Accordingly, neither the reader nor June can distinguish between them: "I never thought my mother's Kweilin story was anything but a Chinese fairy tale" (12). Although we might suspect much about the origins of the Joy Luck Club to be fable, neither the text nor Suyuan distinguishes this element of the narrative as more or less truthful than the other fragments. Moreover, June's interpretation of the new versions of the story (told by her aunties and her father) are inextricably colored by her previous knowledge. Instead of referring to a "real" event for her, the story as told by her mother's friends only refers back to stories her mother had told her. She remembers the refrain from one of those stories ("You are not those babies") and can only think of her sisters the way they were represented in her mother's narratives, as babies:
The babies in Kweilin. I think. I was not those babies. The babies in a sling on her shoulder. Her other daughters. And now I feel as if I were in Kweilin amidst the bombing and I can see these babies lying on the side of the road, their red thumbs popped out of their mouths, screaming to be reclaimed. Somebody took them away. They're safe. And now my mother's left me forever, gone back to China to get these babies.
Even Suyuan's knowledge of her own story is intertextual, for it refers back to prior versions of the story as well as to other narratives, all of which are inseparably combined with the language of fairy tale and myth:
Oh, what good stories! Stories spilling out all over the place! We almost laughed to death.…We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that's how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck.
The language used here, like that of the first opening myth, ironically mimics the language of fairy tale causing the line between fact and fiction to be irreparably blurred for both June and the reader. We cannot always separate what is performance from what is factual, thus we are forced to interrogate our own notions of truth, as well as the nature of history and identity.
It only appears to be ironic that I wish to conclude my discussion of narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club with a look at the ending of the novel; for it seems clear that these beginnings have resonance throughout the entirety of the novel, its close being no exception. It has been argued that Tan's text ends on a note of reconciliation, forcing to quiescence all of the contradictions and interrogations raised throughout; however, if we choose to examine the ending(s) in light of the novel's many beginnings, such a reading is, perhaps, dislodged. That is, by focusing on the way the beginnings of this text foreground a search for origins, we see that the endings to the many narratives actually leave the conclusion of this quest quite open.
Because the endings of Suyuan's and June's stories are the most easily perceived as conciliatory, it is on their conclusions that I will focus most closely. Suyuan's search as well as the telling of her story, as I have intimated, is displaced onto June throughout the text. And although it might be argued that this quest achieves resolution through June's trip to China, the fact that Suyuan dies before returning herself to China means that she can never be said to have actually achieved her goal; symbolically, she never recovers her origins. Instead, the displacement of this achievement onto June leaves it indefinitely deferred, the goal eternally displaced. Similarly, June's search for her mother/origin is displaced onto her sisters. When she finally reaches China she sees her mother in the faces of her two sisters ("Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish"); however, the text acknowledges that the daughters "look like," or signify their mother, but they are not actually her (332). June, therefore, can only recover the sign of her mother/origin, never her actual mother. Additionally, although the daughters, as representatives of their mother, see her "long-cherished wish" come to fruition, Suyuan herself does not.
Finally, in much the same way the denouement of June and Suyuan's story is displaced and deferred, so are the resolutions of the other mother-daughter stories. For, none of these narratives actually end in resolution. Like the other stories, Waverly and Lindo's narrative ends with unresolved questions: "What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks" (305). Certainly, adhered to these questions is a hope for future answers, but no real sense of closure. Instead, the perception of closure comes exclusively through June and Suyuan's story, which, as we have seen, simultaneously offers and rescinds this sense of resolution for the reader. Thus, by giving a sense of closure without "real" resolution, Tan's novel subverts the notion that the contradictions set up by both the content and form of her novel can be reconciled. For as Trinh has argued: "Closures need not close off; they can be doors opening onto other closures and functioning as ongoing passages to an elsewhere (-within-here) … The closure here … is a way of letting the work go rather than of sealing it off" (15).
Narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club invoke questions about origins, cultural identity, individual subjectivity, gendered identity, and history; they, therefore, enable a critical interrogation and reconfiguration of these ideas. Destabilizing a nationalist conception of cultural, national, and historical subjectivity, which relies heavily upon the recovery of origins, Tan's text suggests an alternative narrative based upon a feminist, contingent, contradictory, and heterogeneous conception of history. The understanding that narrative beginnings are integrally connected to questions of narrativity and social identity undermines notions of authentic subjectivity accomplished through the recovery of an originary historical moment. This study, through an illustrative reading of The Joy Luck Club, stresses the necessity of focusing instead on a broader, more fluid sense of the historical and material conditions giving rise to gendered and racialized subjectivities. This way of considering narrative beginnings is vital to ensuring that we attend to difference on all levels and in all formal elements of narrative, a focus which helps to make visible the roles these cultural factors play in our critical reading and writing practices.
- I would like to acknowledge the help and support of the following mentors, friends, and colleagues: Kandice Chuh, Brian Richardson, Emily Orlando, and Scott A. Melby.
- Although Edward Said's Beginnings is an example of an extensive philosophical examination of the concept of beginnings, Said does not include in this study a consideration of the formal functions of beginnings within narratives; nor does he consider the implications of social identity in relation to formal beginnings.
- Nutall's use of parentheses in this statement is particularly telling in that it seems to reveal a certain reluctance to admit that his all-male study may not be universally representative.
- This study of narrative beginnings in The Joy Luck Club is part of a larger project on beginnings in women's literature. The framework for the larger project has been derived through my examination of Tan's text.
- See Lisa Lowe, Melani McAlister, and Malini Johar Schueller for discussions of the misreading of Tan's novel. Lowe, for example, points to the tendency of The Joy Luck Club to be appropriated as a text that "privatizes social conflicts and contradictions" by figuring "broader social shifts of Chinese immigrant formation" as a "generational conflict" and "'feminized' relations between mothers and daughters" (78). She has asserted that The Joy Luck Club actually critiques the way this trope of mother-daughter relationships has become a symbol for Asian American culture and has rendered cultural and class differences in conceptions of gender invisible (80). Malini Johar Schueller uses Lisa Lowe's theories of ethnic and racial subjectivity to discuss how Tan's text works to "affirm a politics of resistance and difference," and to emphasize the "discursive nature of gender and ethnic identity" (74). Also see Patricia Hamilton and Yuan Yuan, who both offer alternative, perhaps less universalizing, readings of the "generational conflict."
While, as my examples show, many scholars have recently sought to look beyond the generational conflict that so clearly underestimates this text's complexity, most have not recognized the important role narrative form plays in The Joy Luck Club. I will be stressing this role.
- For example, some feminist scholars, such as Bonnie Braindlin and Gloria Shen, read Tan's text as a universal exploration of mother-daughter relationships. Similarly, such scholars of American literature as Walter Shear tend to identify The Joy Luck Club as an example of the "successful-immigrant" narrative. And still further, many scholars of Asian American literature such as Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong read Tan's text as a narrative which encourages orientalist views of the Chinese American community.
- Although there is not space to discuss each example, all of Tan's characters are involved in a search for an origin of some type. Each daughter, for example, searches in some way for her own origins as she seeks to know her mother. Furthermore, as Schueller has noted, this search for mothers may be interpreted as a metaphoric search for the motherland.
- Each character's search for a definitive moment of identity formation is similarly undermined. For instance, although each daughter comes closer to a complete knowledge of her mother, she can never fully achieve her goal, for much of the mother's past is unknowable. Moreover, the mothers only represent a small portion of the daughters' discursively constructed identities, which are variously formed by the stories their mothers tell, their education in U.S. schools, and their exposure to the media's representations of their cultural heritage.
- Although many feminist scholars of narrative assert that sequential narrative form is inherently conservative and restrictive, this essay takes the position that narrative form in and of itself is without inherent ideological value; the ideological valences are instead attributable to the "social uses that can be made of [narrative form]," to use Margaret Homan's words (7). See Brian Richardson in his recent essay "Linearity and Its Discontents: Rethinking Narrative Form and Ideological Valence," where he discusses this issue extensively, arguing against those who would assert inherent political value in literary form.
- For scholarship on narratives of nationalism, see Between Woman and Nation, eds. Kaplan et al.
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