[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On two easily overlooked histories at the heart of the bestselling cycle.
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) is one of the most popular and influential American novels (or collections, or—so it goes with short story cycles!) of the last quarter-century. While there are many elements that have contributed to that success, I would argue that there’s a particularly universal appeal to the book’s focus on four mother-daughter relationships, and to Tan’s creation of the evocative and engaging perspectives and voices of those women (who narrate their individual stories to each other as intended audiences). And Tan’s short story cycle links those universal parent-child dynamics to one of the most widely shared American stories, that of first and second generation immigrant families experiencing the old and new worlds of their two cultures, and the issues of assimilation, acculturation, language, culture clashes, tradition and change, and more that come with those experiences. All of which is to say, it’d be possible to argue that the specific Chinese and Chinese American contexts of Tan’s book could be shifted to other cultures without changing much about Joy Luck Club.
Possible, but wrong. Despite those universal and American connections, Tan’s book is profoundly linked to and influenced by Chinese American histories, and indeed can help us better remember a couple often forgotten such histories. For one thing, there’s the vital World War II setting of the mothers’ immigrations to the U.S., a key historical moment in the evolution of American immigration law. For the first time since the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), a few Chinese arrivals were allowed to enter the United States legally—as long as they could prove that they were fleeing the war’s horrors, as part of an annual quota of 105 visas allowed by a 1943 revision to the Exclusion Act (I disagree with the term “repeal” in that description, as the law remained in force for virtually all Chinese arrivals). Besides helping us better remember the discriminatory origin points and gradual, often painful evolution of our immigration laws, this World War II moment also powerfully informs both the immigration experiences and the perspectives of Tan’s mother characters. As she describes the arrival process for an exemplary such mother, in the short prefatory text that opens her book, “Then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind.”
Notwithstanding those challenges and frustrations, the mother characters are able to immigrate to the U.S.—and they settle and begin their new lives in San Francisco, a city with its own longstanding, too often forgotten or minimized Chinese American histories. That is, of course 20th century San Francisco is known for its Chinatown and Chinese American community, but far too often (I would argue) our collective narratives portray that community as a relatively recent or new one. Whereas in historical reality, San Francisco’s Chinese community predates Anglo arrival and settlement, going back to the early 19th century when the city and California were under Spanish and then Mexican rule. Better engaging with that longstanding history helps us see the experiences of Tan’s characters and families—and perhaps especially of her daughter characters, growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown—not as simply immigrants from one culture moving into another, but as new arrivals to and members of a hybrid cultural community that has existed within multiple nations, across multiple centuries. A hybrid community nicely reflected by the hybrid literary genre of Tan’s short story cycle.
Next cycle tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?
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