"So easy to read!" was Daisy Tan's reaction to her daughter Amy's stories. Tan's style is deliberately transparent and neat. Her writing captures the different "Englishes" with which she grew up-her mother's "broken English," her own "watered-down" translation to English from Chinese, and the "simple" English used by the generations to communicate with one another. Tan crystallizes these forms to capture Chinese imagery and rhythms. She strives to give accurate voice to the characters, expressing the immigrant experience by borrowing the unique characteristics of the melded languages. Tan's much-anthologized essay "Mother Tongue" illuminates how she developed this unique writing style.
The themes of The Joy Luck Club include family, heritage, assimilation, and fate. Many of Tan's characters struggle to reconcile American individuality and freedom of choice with Chinese wisdom and respect for tradition. Tan excavates the bones of human relationships through singular characters, quick pacing, and sharp storytelling.
Tan transforms family history to serve "emotional memory." As depicted in The Joy Luck Club, her grandmother was a fourth wife, a concubine who ended her life by swallowing an overdose of opium. Tan's mother was the small child who witnessed the suicide. Tan has said, "When I place that memory in a fictive home, it becomes imagination [....] It has the power to change my memory of the way things really happened."
The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life (2003) is a collection of essays, speeches, and articles. Here Tan writes that her mother told her, "For many years, I carried this shame on my back, and my mother suffered, because she couldn't say anything to anybody." Tan's joy-luck stories grew out of the will to give her mother back her voice.
Tan's first four novels feature generations learning to understand one another and the clash between cultures. In The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), Winnie tells her daughter Pearl the stories of war-torn China in the 1940s.
The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994) are illustrated children's books. The Moon Lady retells Ying-ying St. Clair's story of the Moon Festival from The Joy Luck Club for children. The second book, inspired by Tan's favorite cat, was later turned into Sagwa, a children's cartoon series for PBS.
Ghosts are a prevalent symbol in Tan's third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995). Olivia, the first-generation American protagonist, meets Kwan, her Chinese step-sister, who can see "yin people"—or ghosts. In The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), the heroine translates her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother's journal in an attempt to understand their shared past.
Most of the action in Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) takes place in the present, as twelve American tourists travel to Burma. The narrator, Bibi, is a travel-agent ghost. True to Tan's style, the depiction of the characters' lives is deeply convincing, as if channeled from the chorus of many ghosts.
Some of Tan's recent work breaks from the theme of mothers and daughters, but her gift of storytelling—passed on from her mother—endures. At the peak of her career, Tan's deceptively simple handiwork lasts, ensuring her work will be shared and enjoyed between new American generations and around the world.
"At the end of the [CliffsNotes] booklet was a list of questions. I read one: 'Which daughter in the book is most like Amy Tan? Why?' What luck. This very question was often asked of me in interviews, and I had never known what to say. Here in my quaking hands, just one page turn away, was the definitive answer."
—Amy Tan, from The Opposite of Fate