The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Amy Tan -

"All my stories have been in the first person; I must write as though I am talking to somebody close to me."

Biographical Information

Tan was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Oakland, California. Her relationship with her mother not only influenced her life, but her writing as well. While growing up Tan and her mother had a stormy relationship because of both a generation gap and a culture gap. They grew up in different ages with different expectations. The American culture was in constant conflict with the traditional Chinese culture. As she grew up Amy finally heard her motherís life story which was the basis for one of her books, The Kitchen Godís Wife. Amyís family moved frequently which she says was the reason for her vivid imagination.

Before becoming a fiction writer Tan was a language-development consultant and an extremely successful freelance business writer. She became involved in a couple of fiction writerís workshops which led to some of her stories getting in the right hands. A trip to China with her mother helped her to find an identity she had been missing all her life. She was able to put together her American views with her Chinese heritage and write from the heart. The interest in Tanís stories led to a contract with a publishing house to publish her first novel. Interactions between the generations was the theme of the Joy Luck Club which was so successful it was translated into seventeen languages and was made into a screenplay in 1993. She now lives in San Francisco with her husband where she continues writing.


Illustrated by Gretchen Schields. The Chinese Siamese Cat. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1994. (Childrenís Book)

The Hundred Secret Senses. New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons, 1995. (Novel)

The Kitchen Godís Wife. New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons, 1991. (Novel)

The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989. (Novel)

With Ronald Bass. The Joy Luck Club. Hollywood Pictures, 1993. (Screenplay)

Illustrated by Gretchen Schields. The Moon Lady. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992. (Childrenís Book)


The Joy Luck Club
~ Commonwealth Club Gold Award for Fiction
~ Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction
~ American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults Citation
~ National Book Critics Circle Award Nomination for Best Novel
~ Los Angeles Times Book Award Nomination

The Kitchen Godís Wife
~ Booklist 1991, Editorís Choice Citation
~ Bay Area Book Reviews Award Nomination
~ Best American Essays Award

Quotes from Reviews

Joy Luck Club
"These moving and powerful stories share the irony, pain, and sorrow of the imperfect ways in which mothers and daughters love each other. Tanís vision is courageous and insightful."

Quill and Quire
"is that rare find, a first novel that you keep thinking about, keep telling your friends about long after youíve finished reading it." Toronto Globe and Mail
"rings clearly like a fine porcelain bowl." Time
"a wonderful eye for what is telling, a fine ear for dialogue, a deep empathy for her subject matter, and a guilelessly straightforward way of writing." New York Times Book Review
(one of the) "magicians of language" Los Angeles Times Book Review

The Kitchen Godís Wife
"gripping" and "enchanting" London Times
"a fine novel" of "exuberant storytelling and rich drama." Toronto Globe and Mail
"The Kitchen Godís Wife is bigger, bolder, and I have to say better " Washington Post Book World
"Tan has transcended herself again" Time
"can be read and reread with enormous pleasure." Chicago Tribune Books

The Moon Lady
"invitation to young readers to attend a long-ago autumn moon festival in China." New York Times Book Review

Summary of Books

The Joy Luck Club

After her motherís death, June Woo is asked to take her place at the mah jong table to play the traditional Chinese game with her three aunts. The aunts want to send June to China to meet her two half-sisters who were forced to be abandoned by Juneís mother during the chaos and destruction of World War II. The aunts are shocked when June confesses that she didnít really know her mother and doesnít know how to tell her sisters about their motherís life. In June, the aunts see their own daughters, who they fear have abandoned their Chinese culture and heritage in order to live as fully assimilated Chinese-Americans.

The novel consists of sixteen separate stories, each told by one of the aunts or one of the daughters. These stories range in setting from pre-World War II China to modern America. Beautifully crafted and tenderly written, each story illustrates one womanís struggle to become her own person in the face of cultural and societal adversity. Wonderful examples of Chinese traditions, holidays, foods, and superstitions are woven throughout each story. Although each story stands on its own, collectively they reveal a progression toward understanding and acceptance on the part of both mothers and daughters. The daughters start to understand the inner strength and beauty of their mothersí lives, while the mothers begin to accept that their daughters can be both Chinese and American without abandoning either side of their heritage. This is a truly wonderful and compelling book.

The Kitchen Godís Wife

Pearl has always been slightly embarrassed by her mother Winnie. Unable to see beyond her motherís quaint Chinese ideas, customs, and broken English, Pearl is unable to share her deepest feelings, including her fears of multiple sclerosis. When Pearlís Aunt Helen is diagnosed with a brain tumor, she decides to reveal all of Winnieís secrets to Pearl. Rather than allow Pearl to hear this from a third person, Winnie decides to tell Pearl the story of her life.

Set in China during the 1920ís, 30ís, and 40ís, the bulk of the novel is the story of Winnieís life. Through her eyes we see Chinese culture changing through modernization, war, and Communist revolution. With this as a backdrop, Winnie tells of how she allowed her hopes, fears, and weaknesses to lead her into a terrible relationship with a horrible man and how she fled to America to try to start her life over again. Pearl learns the dark secret of her own origin and gains a deeper understanding and respect for her mother, bringing them both closer together. Pearl eventually comes to understand how to use her motherís tragic past to rectify mistakes she has made in her own life. This is a tremendous novel about the perseverance of love and the human spirit.

The Hundred Secret Senses

Olivia meets Kwan, her grown Chinese half-sister, for the first time when her mother acts as protector for the abandoned woman. Kwan secretly tells Olivia that she can see "yin people": Chinese spirits of the dead who give her guidance in life. Kwan believes herself to be guided by the spirit of a Chinese serving girl who died many years ago. Olivia, resentful of the attention Kwan receives, reveals this secret and inadvertently gets Kwan placed in a mental institution.

Years later, Olivia, unable to forget what she did to Kwan, starts to understand Kwanís way of looking at the world when her marriage falls prey to the "ghost" of her husbandís deceased first lover. Accepting a magazine assignment to cover rural life in China, Olivia, her husband, and Kwan travel to Kwanís home village where Olivia has a supernatural encounter with Kwanís yin people and experiences the enduring power of true love.

The Moon Lady

In the format of a childrenís book, Tan retells one of the stories from The Joy Luck Club. When her grandchildren become bored on a rainy day, Ying-Ying tells of her own childhood in China during the Moon Festival. While enjoying a pleasant feast and a relaxing day on a boat, Ying-Ying ruins her new clothes with blood after getting to close to a woman cleaning fish. The girl is stripped to her underclothes and left by herself as punishment, but she falls overboard and is rescued by kindly fishermen. Because they can not find Ying-Yingís family, they deposit her on shore where she watches a performance of the story of the Moon Lady who can grant a secret wish to anyone on this day. Following the Moon Lady backstage after the performance, Ying-Ying learns a valuable lesson about the surface appearance and the actuality of wishes.

The Chinese Siamese Cat

In this delightful childrenís book, Tan tells the story of the Miao family, pearl white cats who live in the palace of a mean and spiteful minister. The minister forces the parents to use their tails to write unfair laws which make the people very unhappy. One day Sagwa, the most mischievous of the kittens, accidentally falls into a pot of ink and changes one of the magistrateís unjust laws to a happy law and has his tail, his head, and his paws stained black. Fearing that the cruel magistrate will punish the entire family, Sagwa hides under a chair. When the people learn of the new, happy law, they sing songs in praise of the magistrate. The magistrate is so touched by the peopleís praise that he rescinds his prior unjust laws and becomes a good magistrate. The cats are given a place of honor in the palace, and this story explains how Siamese cats got their distinctive markings.

Unifying Elements of Amy Tanís Work

There are several common threads running through all of Amy Tanís work. The most obvious is the wonderful description of Chinese culture. Because of her use of this culture, Tanís works are also rich in very vivid, poignant images. The healing of culture gaps between east and west and young and old is also seen in much of her writing. Even though many of her novels have characters having to deal with oppression and family problems, in each of Tanís works, we can see the perseverance of love and the human spirit overcoming any problems the characters must face.

Student Activities

Because of its structure, The Joy Luck Club seems to be the most accessible of Tanís novels. For more advanced high school students, it may be taught as a novel. The wonderful themes and complex issues explored in the novel can best be seen when the entire novel is examined. For more reluctant readers or students at a lower grade level, each of the individual stories in this novel can certainly stand on their own as a fine addition to any multicultural literature unit. There are a wide variety of themes and discussion topics in these stories such as: arranged marriages, family honor, loyalty to parents, parental pressure to succeed, extended families, and divorce just to name a few.

The Joy Luck Club also deals with misunderstandings between parents and children. Through the motherís stories, we can see that their lives are surprisingly similar to their daughters. This would be an excellent opportunity to have students interview their parents and write a story based on something the parent may have done when s/he was at the same age as the student. This would also help involve the parents in their childrenís education.

The common theme of a Chinese heritage in all of Tanís writings provides an excellent vehicle for students to examine their own heritage and family background. Using The Kitchen Godís Wife or The Hundred Secret Senses as a backdrop, students could be asked to write about family traditions which may seem strange to outsiders or about family customs which may seem strange to them.

Page compiled in part by: Chris Buschlen and Andy Madajski

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