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A personal recount of happiness and achieving the happy life as a mother

The daughters do not know what has inspired their warnings and advice: They recall moments in their past when they were faced with similar circumstances but defied what they believed was bad fate in order to find their true worth.

The book begins in the voice of June Jing-mei Woo, a woman in her thirties, who lives in San Francisco. To these aunties, June confesses what every mother fears: Their warnings were backward superstitions.

Their love was not embracing but suffocating. In interwoven voices, mothers and daughters privately recall pivotal moments from their past, as girls and as young women, when they failed their mothers in public and private ways, and thus built walls to protect themselves in the future.

  • The stories will be about the family and what it has already faced generations ago, how it has survived many times, no matter what the circumstances given or chosen for us;
  • Instead of being jubilant, I was upset that my former life had been usurped by success that was out of control;
  • All four of the daughters in this book have ended up unlucky in love in one way or another—Jing-mei is still single at forty, Waverly is about to get married for the second time, and both Rose and Lena are on the verge of divorce.

The individual stories are grouped into four sections, each tied together by emotional themes. The first section concerns sacrifice and loss, what is meant by giving of oneself and giving up. As recalled by June, Suyuan tells of giving up her life to save her twin babies during wartime, only to learn she has survived but her babies have been lost.

An-mei recalls the pain of watching her mother sacrifice her own flesh to save the life of her own mother, who has already disowned her. Lindo recounts her submission to an arranged marriage but not to a fate handed to her by someone else. In the next two sections, the daughters recall moments of uncertainty, anger, or fear in childhood. They are also stories of resistance and rebellion and the rejection of what they see as false beliefs their mothers have tried to instill.

The reverberations of these childhood lessons reveal themselves when the four grown daughters face marital conflicts, career setbacks, and the despair of never having found what mattered to them.

  • The irony today is that educators select my book so that young readers can identify with the story;
  • My mother, for example, wanted Lou to prove his love for me by standing up to his parents when they suggested we break things off;
  • The irony today is that educators select my book so that young readers can identify with the story;
  • I went on to write a second story, this one in the voice of an older woman;
  • He is happy he fooled them into being scared;
  • There is so much that a story can do that is not required.

They must now choose for the future yet do not know what to do. The Joy Luck Club is about the power of storytelling between generations: Through storytelling, the fragile bonds between mother and daughter are pulled and tightened, as each feels what the other means by hope. The Joy Luck Club is a portrait of four fictional families set against the backdrop of China and America, yet the discoveries of family legacy and individual identity, of clashes and reconciliation, are universal to us all.

Tan was also a coproducer and coscreenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Cluband her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

She lives with her husband in New York and San Francisco. The Joy Luck Club was your first book.


Were you surprised at how successful it became, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for more than half a year? How did your life change after the publication of this book? I wrote this book with no expectations that it would be read by very many people. I had been told that the typical first book by an unknown writer might sell five thousand copies—if you were lucky.

I heard that it might last on the bookstore shelves six weeks—if you were lucky. With these reasonable expectations, I wrote The Joy Luck Club without the self-consciousness I would later feel when the book landed on the bestseller list. Instead of being jubilant, I was upset that my former life had been usurped by success that was out of control.

I kept telling myself week in and week out, that this would wind down the following week. Instead it escalated, and I was soon inundated with requests for interviews and appearances, which created even more chaos and anxiety.

In part, I did not want to trust it or embrace it, thinking it was illusory and dangerous. When I tried to write a second book, I was unnerved by the expectations. I had constant back pain from the perceived weight of public pressure. Seven months a personal recount of happiness and achieving the happy life as a mother before I accepted my new life and the joy that I could write fiction the rest of my life.

But I also wrote down the focus of my life and my writing, what mattered most, because I knew I would need the reminder when another cycle of chaos might ensue. It is easy to lose sight of what is valuable and meaningful in the blinding lights of commercial success. In many reviews and articles written about The Joy Luck Club, it is referred to as a novel, but you have said that you consider it to be a collection of short stories.

How did you approach writing these stories? How did you decide how to arrange them? My process was confusion. I wrote a short story to attend my first writers conference in 1985. It covered in thirteen pages the life of a character from age six to age thirty-six.

Writer Molly Giles critiqued my work and said it had no consistent voice and a dozen story threads, but no true narrator or story. She suggested I start over and choose one story thread and one voice. But what is a voice and what is a story, I wondered. Molly advised I write and see. So I wrote a story about a chess champion and her mother.

Much to my surprise, I could see a voice and a story emerge. The voice was not dialogue but that inner voice of a person with secret thoughts. And the story had less to do with plot as it did with a transformation of perspective by the end.

The Joy Luck Club Reader’s Guide

There were more surprises. I was a success. That editor, by the way, has since become editor-in-chief of a well-known publishing company.

I went on to write a second story, this one in the voice of an older woman. In between, an agent saw the first published story and asked to represent me.

I had nothing to sell, so she badgered me every week to write another story. I did, and then she asked me to write up a description of what a whole book of these kinds of stories might include so that she might find interested publishers. I thought she was unrealistically optimistic, so I spent only a few hours conjuring story ideas that came off the top of my head, each described in about three sentences. Because the other three stories were unrelated, I wove them into a premise: They would be stories concerning five families, and of older and younger voices, all of whom belonged to a community.

The community, I decided, would be a social group, the Joy Luck Club. The five families were reduced to four when I ran out of story ideas that afternoon. I did not intentionally limit the stories to those of mothers and daughters. That naturally came to be, and I only recognized it in retrospect. When the book was published, the short story collection was called a novel by reviewers. All of the stories in this book involve relationships between mothers and daughters.

How much did your relationship with your own mother influence each story? Are there two characters in particular who mirror your own experience as the American-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant?

My relationship with my mother has much to do with each story. Shortly after I started writing fiction, my mother suffered what I was told was a heart attack.

That was the reason I went to China, why I started with a story about a daughter who has just lost her mother, and who later travels for the first time to China and meets her half-sisters who were left behind. The stories are not a mirror of either me or my mother. They are more like refractions, different angles of some part of us, a bending of what really happened.

My mother was alive when I wrote the story, but what would I have felt if she had died? I began a story that concerned exactly that: Waverly rebels against her mother, thinking she has become smarter and no longer needs to take her advice. My mother left behind three daughters in China and eventually was reunited with them.

I met them when I went to China with my mother in 1987. In the story version, my mother believed her twin baby daughters died during the war, and after the mother died, June learns the other daughters are alive and goes to meet them. What is common to both the real and fictional is a connection to the past and seeing what is shared despite circumstances. The subterfuge of fiction is necessary for me as a writer to find truths.

How Your Career Can Make You a Better Mom

I know that sounds contradictory. To me, writing fiction is about cloaking myself in a subterfuge, making myself the hidden observer. But what often happens is my realizing some of observations have to do with what is hidden in my family and in me.

There is another strong influence of my mother in the way I write fiction. When she told stories of her past, she would act as if the memory was the same as the moment she was in. She would act out the scene as if it were unfolding in front of her, an invisible scene with ghosts, with her relaying to me what was occurring with an immediacy of details and emotions. Go ahead and kill me, I tell him, and he is putting the gun in my face, right here, and everyone is screaming, and suddenly he is laughing and he is putting the gun down.

He is telling everybody it is only a joke. He is happy he fooled them into being scared. I know it is not a joke. The Joy Luck Club was made into a feature film in 1993, and you wrote the screenplay for it.

What was that experience like? What are your thoughts on the resulting film? Would you consider adapting any of your other works of fiction for movies? In spite of being aware and wary of all the bad things that can happen to writers who dream of turning their novels into films, I had a surprisingly good experience, and it resulted in a movie I love. In the beginning, I turned down several offers to option the book, because I feared that someone would make a film that was appalling in its depictions of Chinese people, for example, that people would wear coolie hats and have curved dagger fingernails, even though they were not in the rice fields or selling opium to Charlie Chan.