In Defense of Joy Luck

I read a review in Slate today that quoted a detractor of Amy Tan’s seminal novel The Joy Luck Club dismissing the work as “the Panda Express of Asian-American lit.”

As someone exposed to that particular sub-genre long before Amy Tan inked a deal with a publisher. I found that the more I learned about China and the more Chinese I spoke, the better I understood and appreciated Maxine Hong Kingston and the tiny coterie of Asian-American writers who were finding their voices in the 1970s.

And that’s the problem. Not everyone has the time and inclination to study a culture and language long enough to gain that level of appreciation, and the Asian-American lit written for an Asian-American audience is often so inaccessible to those outside the community that great writing talent and amazing stories go unappreciated.

The lesson is unmistakable: if one wants their unique cultural stories to be told to and understood by wider audiences, one very good writer – or several – need to create the literary onramp that brings the rest of us to the point at which we can thoughtfully engage with that culture in the first place.

Thus, if The Joy Luck Club was the Americanized version of the Asian-American experience, my heartfelt retort is “so what?” Asian-American lit probably needed a Panda Express to get us all engaged, opening the door for more mainstream appreciation of a new generation of Asian-American voices. What Tan did for Asian Americans was on a par with what Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison did for African-Americans; what Sandra Cisneros and Tomas Rivera did for Hispanic Americans; what William Saroyan did for Armenian-Americans; what Sherman Alexie did for Native Americans; and what Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and Phillip Roth did for Jewish Americans.

Did each of these writers make artistic decisions that aimed their works at an audience beyond their own community? Without a doubt. Does that mean they sold out, somehow compromising their art and cheapening the experience they sought to portray? Or does that mean only that these authors understood that sometimes, in telling a story, a writer needs to meet his reader halfway, to build a bridge that enables understanding and empathy?

Do not misunderstand: I am as uncomfortable with some of the artistic choices made by Jewish writers who seemed at times more interested in assimilating us into the wider culture than in celebrating our differences. But I would like to think I have always understood the greater value, in the American milieu, of making one of our nation’s component communities a little less foreign, and a little more like the rest of us.

I first read The Joy Luck Club thirty years ago, and it has stayed with me since. It  opened the door for me to a range of relationships life experiences that I might have shunned otherwise. It opened the door to a range of literature I would never have plumbed any deeper than the syllabus required. And it gave me an insight into the experience of my Asian-American hapa child that has strengthened our relationship.

So cast your brickbats, purists. But understand that when the history of Asian-American literature (and possibly of Asian literature) is written, The Joy Luck Club will be recognized as critical juncture in the development of the literature of the Pacific Civilization.

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