THE JOY LUCK CLUB: Scenes from the Mother and Daughter Question

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Nancy Snyder

Staff Writer

I am a left coast native and writer; my working life began after studying at San Francisco State University; I have been an office worker and a labor organizer; longtime freelance writer covering books and labor and assorted cultural and political issues.

Thirty years ago, the publishing world learned an amazing fact: novels that focus on female relationships, may become instantaneous bestsellers and earn strong critical acclaim from  influential reviewers. In this example, I am referring to Amy Tan’s breakout novel The Joy Luck ClubFiction that focused on four immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters, a novel that is centered on women and their interlocking relationships, just did not appear to be what people wanted to read.

Thirty years ago, Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club, shattered any myth previously held by the publishing executives: Tan’s extraordinary The Joy Luck Club was a finalist for the National Book Award and has become an established work of modern literature widely taught in colleges and universities.

“I had a really unusual experience, and I would say it should never be a model for how one gets published, especially if you’re not in the mainstream,” Amy Tan recalled in an interview with writer Celeste Ng in The Lily. “I was writing short stories, and an agent saw one and wanted to be my agent…I thought she was a scam artist, because this simply does not happen. During that time, there was no market – no acknowledged market – for a book like that. So I had a hard time believing this would get published…The fact that it actually became a bestseller was mind-boggling.”

For your reading pleasure and to entice you to read much more of Amy Tan, here are some of the universal scenes of the mother-daughter question which include: the struggle over ensuring our children’s happiness and safety; repeating the patterns of self-subservience that the mothers never intended for their daughter; and, the everlasting bond between mother and daughter that doesn’t end – no matter how many thousands of miles they may be separated.

  • “It would have been enough to think that even one of these dangers could befall a child. And even though the birthdates corresponds to only one danger, my mother worried about them all. This was because she couldn’t figure out how the Chinese dates, based on the lunar calendar, translated into American dates. So by taking them all into account, she had absolute faith she could prevent every one of them.” – “Half and Half,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “My mother did not treat me this way because she didn’t love me. She would say this biting back her tongue, so she wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers.” – “The Red Candle,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.” – “Rules of the Game,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “And my mother loved to show me off, like one of the many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies.”
  • ‘I told my daughter, Use your horses to run over the enemy,’ she informed one shopkeeper. ‘She won very quickly this way. And of course, she had said this before the game – that and a hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning.” – “Four Directions,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds ‘joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.” – “The Joy Luck Club,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “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 from trying to keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Pop flew away with her illness. Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain.” – “Scar,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out. And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me.  She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid.”
  • All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me.  She sees a lot of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: We are lost, she and I, unseen and and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others.” – “The Moon Lady,” The Joy Luck Club
  • “I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even thought I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.” – “Magpies,” – The Joy Luck Club


What are some of your favorite scenes from The Joy Luck Club that explore the mother-daughter relationship?