NEA Big Read
The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

To me, imagination is the closest thing we have to compassion. To have compassion you have to be able to imagine the lives of others, including people who are suffering, and people whose lives are affected by us.

Amy Tan, 2003 (Copyright Robert Foothorap)

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today we'll discuss Amy Tan’s ground breaking novel of Asian-American immigrant experience and family life, The Joy Luck Club.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!—it is too beautiful to eat.

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.

James McBride: No one quite deals with magical realism in woman characters like Amy Tan does. She's brilliant. She's an American original.

Carolyn See: One of the interesting things about the book, aside from the culture, is that it was almost completely shepherded and handled by women.

Charles Shields: When Amy Tan was looking for a deep well that she could draw from, she looked at the tension between her mother and herself and why it was there, because it's not just about being Chinese. It's about the American experience.

John Kuo Wei Tchen: The Joy Luck Club, I think contributes towards Americans’ understanding how we really share a lot of basic human qualities between mothers and daughters, between changes in society and how different generations are struggling to deal with those changes.”

Gioia: Amy Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California to recently immigrated Chinese parents. The daughter of a Baptist Minister and a traditionally strict mother, Tan heard stories as a child that would later inform her distinctive lyrical prose style that moves effortlessly from the mundane to the mysterious.

In 1989, her collections of interlocking stories was published as the critically acclaimed novel, The Joy Luck Club.

Amy Tan: I grew up with a real Joy Luck Club. The name—Joy Luck Club—was actually the name of the club.

Gioia: Amy Tan.

Amy Tan: My parents used to meet with a group of friends. They were all Chinese. They were all immigrants. They all were hoping they would find the American Dream or they would find a version of the American Dream that would get better and better and better.

Tchen: Joy Luck Club is really about mother-daughter relationships.

Gioia: Historian, John Kuo Wei Tchen.

Tchen: And it's about Chinese-American women of a certain time period that came. It's not about the earlier Cantonese who came over, mainly who were men. Then they could not bring their wives over and they couldn't have families. They could not become American citizens. This is really another generation.

China was still in the early 40s, they were still in the midst of the war with Japan, but it was complicated by the fact that China was also in a Civil War.

Gioia: The design of this novel is both richly complex and elegantly simple. The stories that make up The Joy Luck Club formed chapters that alternate between China and America. As a starting point for the novel, Amy Tan used the lives of women in her family and China’s turbulent history in the 1930s and 40s.

Tan: When I began to write these stories, I found it was important for me to get some sense of the history, because it was the history that shaped a lot of what happened to my parents.

Tchen: Leaving China, you really didn't necessarily know if you are going to be able to gain access to United States. You had to go to this detention center at Angel Island, which is in San Francisco Harbor next to Alcatraz.

Gioia: Unlike Ellis Island on the East coast, Angel Island was initially designed to keep immigrants out of the United States. Eventually the laws changed and the Chinese were no longer banned from entering the country. The immigrants who passed Angel Island’s rigorous screening process found comfort and familiarity in the now revitalized Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland.

Tchen: With the 65-68 immigration laws becoming de-racialized, you start getting tens of thousands of people coming into Chinatowns and in many ways Chinatowns become repopulated. Their role in helping to transition immigrants in becoming a place in which immigrants feel comfortable speaking Chinese different dialects of Chinese. So Amy’s family is really part of that revival of both Oakland’s Chinatown and also San Francisco’s Chinatown. They, after all, are not Cantonese, they're coming speaking Potunghua, which is a Mandarin national dialect. It's a different dialect of Cantonese.

Gioia: The title, The Joy Luck Club describes a small group of friends and relatives who gathered to play the popular game of Mah-Jongg. Originating in China, four players sit around a table and strategically picked tiles much like the card game bridge. It is a competitive game requiring skill and chance, but it is primarily a time for friends and family to eat home-cooked food, drink tea, gamble, and collectively escape their worries through sociability, laughter, and storytelling.

Amy Tan’s relatives were part of the original Joy Luck Club, first in China then in San Francisco.

LA Times critic Carolyn See wrote an early rave review of The Joy Luck Club.

See: The Joy Luck Club was first started with another set of wives, sad wives in China and they would get together and play Mah-Jongg and just have fun, I mean just to have fun. Just to laugh at fate.

Gioia: John Tchen.

Tchen: The Joy Luck Club is really the safety net for these women and families, but for these women especially; it was their space to get together and figure out how to survive tough times.

Gioia: Amy Tan.

Tan: I also think of our beliefs in luck as being related to hope, and that some people who are without almost any hope in a situation. I think of immigrants who are here without documents for example, still cling to luck.

One of the American dreams is that you could, through luck and hard work, find yourself great success and that equaled joy. Joy and luck were something everybody understood.

Gioia: Author and jazz musician, James McBride.

McBride: This book was the first major bestseller that kind of opened America’s eyes to the extraordinary tapestry and wonderful visionary life that existed behind the eyeballs of Asian-American brothers and sisters.

Tchen: What's really remarkable and it's always typical is that the mother carried all these stories with her, stories about a different place and, in many ways, a different time.

Gioia: Amy Tan’s creative writing instructor and early mentor, Molly Giles, describes the captivating and unique voices captured in The Joy Luck Club. The book began as a collection of short stories.

Molly Giles: So Amy gave me a short story she'd written. It was her first short story. It was distinguished by a very powerful voice of a Chinese mother that just struck me right away as being something fresh that I'd never seen before or read before.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

"I dreamed about Kweilin before I ever saw it," my mother began, speaking Chinese. "I dreamed of jagged peaks lining a curving river, with magic moss greening the banks. At the tops of these peaks were white mists. And if you could float down this river and eat the moss for food, you would be strong enough to climb the peak." [...]

And once you reached the top, you would be able to see everything and feel such happiness it would be enough to never have worries in your life ever again.

In China, everybody dreamed about Kweilin. And when I arrived, I realized how shabby my dreams were, how poor my thoughts. The peaks looked liked giant fried fish heads trying to jump out of a vat of oil. [...] And then the clouds would move just a little and the hills would suddenly become monstrous elephants marching slowly toward me! Can you see this?

Gioia: The Joy Luck Club is written in the voices of eight women, four Chinese mothers and their four American-born daughters. 16 stories spanning half a century in two continents, addressed the tensions of mother-daughter relationships and the challenges and sacrifices of immigration.

Molly Giles.

Giles: The way that Amy was so original, I think, is the way the stories are intertwined and intermeshed, and that reminded me of those Chinese ivory balls carved within carves within carves.

Gioia: Carolyn See.

See: It's a question of finding out scraps and pieces about a life that has been hidden. Again, that's very much an immigrant pattern.

Tan: It's that story of leaving behind some part of you.

Gioia: Amy Tan .

Amy Tan: And keeping that a secret for all those years that is part of the story and was part of the family life. My mother had to leave three daughters behind when she finally was able to get a divorce and the Communists were about to take over Shanghai, she thought if she could leave, that one day she might be able to come back and get those girls.

Gioia: In the novel, this astonishing confession comes as June’s mother describes her desperate fight to Chungking during World War II.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

I pushed toward Chungking, until my wheel broke. I abandoned my beautiful mahjong table of hong-mu. By then I didn't have enough feeling left in my body to cry. I tied scarves into slings and put a baby on each side of my shoulder. I carried a bag in each hand, one with clothes, the other with food. I carried these things until deep grooves grew in my hands. And I finally dropped one bag after the other when my hands began to bleed and became too slippery to hold on to anything.

Along the way, I saw others had done the same, gradually given up hope. It was like a pathway inlaid with treasures that grew in value along the way. [...]Until one could see cages of ducklings now quiet with thirst and, later still, silver urns lying in the road, where people had been too tired to carry them for any kind of future hope. By the time I arrived in Chungking I had lost everything except for three fancy silk dresses which I wore one on top of the other.

“What do you mean by 'everything'?” I gasped at the end.... “What happened to the babies?”

She didn't even pause to think. She simply said in a way that made it clear there was no more to the story: “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.”

Lijun Wang: My name is Lijun Wang. My sister is Amy Tan. They had a very bad relationship between my mom and my father, by that time my mom couldn't take us three children with her to move to the United States, so had to leave us in China.

Gioia: Biographer, Charles Shields.

Shields: Her mother expressed a lot of regret about what she had lost, so while on the one hand, America was a great opportunity and they were grateful for what happened to them, nevertheless there was the uprooting and there was the ghostliness of the past.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we are discussing The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

In the same year as the 1989 publication of The Joy Luck Club, violence erupted in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The fear and unrest generated by this bloody event motivated Amy Tan’s mother to seek asylum for her Chinese daughters just as she herself had done after World War II.

Lijun Wang.

Wang: In 1989, the events in Beijing, after that my mom decided to apply my family to immigrate to United States. I was almost close to 50 years old. So I had to give up everything. I had to start all over again. I did not know what kind of future I would face but I thought I work hard, study hard, and finally I would be successful.

Gioia: The difficulties and triumphs of the Chinese-American experience as described in The Joy Luck Club ring true for Americans from other immigrant backgrounds, even from completely different continents and cultures.

Carolyn See.

See: My parents and grandparents were Irish and one side of them came over during the famine. I would ask my mother, you know, what it was like when she grew up and she would say, "Who wants to know?" You couldn't pry it out of her and it was because her life was hideously awful. And she didn't want to pass that on. At the same time, I know, now, she desperately wanted to be understood, but how can you be understood if you don't give any information?

Gioia: Amy Tan.

Tan: I learned about my sisters at a time that my mother and I were having terrible problems. We were having a violent argument in the hall of the home we lived in after my father and brother died. And suddenly she said, "Why did I have a daughter like you? I have other daughters who would have listened to me." And so to discover that I had not only three other sisters, but that my mother had been married before—she, the wife of a minister. This is a terrible shock. It is like your whole identity of where you belong in the world is just shaken.

Gioia: The Tan family did well in the United States. Tan’s father was an electrical engineer as well as a Baptist minister. Then suddenly, when Tan was 16, her father and brother died from brain tumors in the same year. Like most kids in America, the young Amy Tan wanted to fit in. She adopted current American styles and rebelled against the confines of her mother's traditional strict demands for obedience. Some of her mothers’ dark life lessons haunt Tan even today.

Charles Shields.

Shields: Her mother made her look at the face of a classmate who was being waked in an open casket ceremony and pointed to the face of the classmate and said, see that's what happens to children who disobey their mothers. She just meant to drive home the point that the wages of disobedience could be death. My wife is Mexican-American and her mother was fond of saying "the earth will swallow you up if you do things really bad." There'll be almost a divine kind of retribution.

Gioia: In Amy Tan’s celebrated essay “Mother Tongue,” she describes how she integrated what she calls ‘all the Englishes I grew up with.’ These included the simple English she used when speaking to her mother, the broken English her mother used to speak to her, her own watered down translations of her mother’s Chinese, and what she imagined her mother would say if she could speak fluent English.

Tan: My parents didn't force me to speak Mandarin because they believe that our chances of doing well in the United States hinged on our becoming fluent in English.

Shields: The voice that you hear when you are reading her stories is of somebody who speaks English very well as their second language. The voice you are hearing is of an educated Chinese-American who's bilingual and is very conscious of the words that she's choosing.

Gioia: John Tchen.

Tchen: My youngest sister was five when she came to this country and spoke Chinese very well, Mandarin just like Amy, but she really became American. She went to Catholic school, she was editor of high school newspaper. At the same time, she would spend a lot of time arguing with our mother, because the American ways of doing things are so dramatically different from the Chinese culture of that time.

Tan: I was raised bilingually in the beginning and I would say throughout, but in different degrees. So when I was young when I was mostly at home as a child up to the age of five, my parents spoke to me in Chinese or a combination of Chinese and English and I probably answered back in a combination of Chinese and English.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open up a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

"Of course, you can be prodigy too," my mother told me when I was nine. "You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she only best tricky."

America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.

Tan: Ask anybody, "What does it mean to be an American?" and you will get a discussion that could go on for years and years and years. And by the time you are finished with that discussion, where you have started, it's different again. We are recreating who we are as Americans by the minute. And so when you come to this country as an immigrant, you're asking these questions. How can I fit in? What's an American? What do I need to do? Nobody has the single answer to that question.

Gioia: John Tchen.

Tchen: It's not to say that somehow this was ancient China versus modern America. It wasn't that at all. A place like Shanghai was already quite modern in both the Chinese way and also was influenced by Western cultures. Chinese and American are two sets of cultures trying to negotiate dramatic changes that are happening in each of their cultures.

Gioia: Many of the stories of The Joy Luck Club are loosely based on the real lives of Amy Tan’s relatives.

Tan: The most important parts of the stories for me are what happened to my family. The rape of a woman who is forced to become a concubine and then kills herself - that was the story of my grandmother. She is also the woman in the story called “Scar,” who cuts her arm, her piece of flesh to make a soup for her dying mother even though her dying mother had essentially kicked her out of the house when she became disgraced as a concubine.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

I saw my mother on the other side of the room. Quiet and sad. She was cooking a soup, pouring herbs and medicines into the steaming pot. And then I saw her pull up her sleeve and pull out a sharp knife. She put this knife on the softest part of her arm. I tried to close my eyes, but could not.

And then my mother cut a piece of meat from her arm. Tears poured from her face and blood spilled to the floor. My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time. She opened Popo's mouth, already too tight from trying to keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Popo flew away with her illness.

This is how a daughter honors her mother. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. 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.

Tchen: I think part of what's really important about Amy’s writing is that she has taken on the trauma of the mother, of the wartime trauma, the trauma of violence of being separated from her daughters, the trauma of the Japanese invasion, the trauma of the civil war. That unresolved trauma that the mother carried with her to this country is something that she's now resolving

Gioia: Carolyn See.

See: It's one of four books that have ever made me stand up and walk around the room. I mean where it got so intense, I had to stand up.

Gioia: Charles Shields.

Shields: It's the nature of the American experience to try and find your identity, your own way, whereas in some other cultures you find your identity via the culture.

Gioia: James McBride.

McBride: Like any great piece of art, it's hard to say what it's about, but for me it's about identity, and it's about discovery, and it's about how one finds one’s truth within one’s own cultural history.

Gioia: Amy Tan’s mother died in 1999 just as her character, June, accepts the long shadow her dead mother casts over her life, Tan wrestled with and eventually accepted the two competing halves within herself: her Chinese half and her American half.

Tan: Whether I became a writer or not, I think it's important to always examine where you're getting your truth and it may be from very good people and very good sources. At least for me, I had to find my own questions and I had to start with confusion and I think today as a writer that confusion is the best place to start a story.

Ming-Na reads from The Joy Luck Club...

The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese.

"Cannot be helped," my mother said when I was fifteen and had vigorously denied that I had any Chinese whatsoever below my skin.

I was a sophomore at Galileo High in San Francisco, and all my Caucasian friends agreed: I was about as Chinese as they were.

"Someday you will see," said my mother. "It is in your blood, waiting to be let go."

But today I realize I've never really known what it means to be Chinese. I am thirty-six years old. My mother is dead and I am on a train, carrying with me her dreams of coming home. I am going to China.

Music from Abigail Washburn’s “Song of the Traveling Daughter”

And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mahjong table, on the East, where things begin.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe and Dan Stone. Readings of The Joy Luck Club were by Ming-Na. Instrumental Chinese music performed by Music From China. "A Cup of Happiness” arranged Zhou Long.“The Lost Lamb” and “Song of the Traveling Daughter” currently playing in the background taken from Abigail Washburn’s full-length album, Song of the Traveling Daughter used with permission of Nettwerk Productions.

Special thanks to Philip Brunelle, Susan Cheng, JT. Griffith, Erika Koss, Kate Kaiser, and Ted Libbey.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to That's

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