Mothers, daughters and dreams
The Joy Luck Club seemed interesting for many reasons, and I must admit that among all those, being a daughter in a complicated relationship with her mother, thanks to the generation gap; was a major one. Much has been said about how this book was influenced by Amy Tan's own experiences with her mother, and their diasporic identity, but the book goes beyond the feminist and/or nationalist tag it has been bearing. It becomes more about the journey, the heritage, the lessons handed over by mothers to daughters; to know the person behind the womanly wool, to know what made her so. Coming out as Tan's first novel in 1989, this was enough to establish the belief that Asian-American writers are going to deliver bestsellers indeed, which was initiated by the release of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior in 1976.
The story travels back and forth with the characters, as they go down memory lane, in between China and current-day America. Like the game of Mahjong, the story has four parts, each having four chapters, dedicated to each mother and daughter duo. The parts are indeed a parable to the actual game and it is like telling the story through the Mahjong tiles. Amy Tan's mellifluous and effortless way to continue the stories, in a composed, secluded tone, with her attempts to signify all the women in concern, with an equal amount of attention again resembles one set Mahjong table, open and inviting to be played. The issues with the migrated people, the dilemma and determination to continue the legacy, and living between the Chinese past and the American Dream are something Amy Tan could portray efficiently.
The four stories can be started at any point as individual ones, and would still make sense. The mother's and their (hi)stories are packed with every possible essence of China, and the extreme situations women, particularly among the financially insufficient ones, might face. The comparison between their life in America and in China is very obviously distinct, and that is something Amy Tan has focused on deliberately. The trauma, the memories, the past and the gaps are hard to ignore, or irresponsive of. Of course the concerns of nationalism, friendship, sufferings, sacrifices, new generation diasporic Americans and the inheritance that womanhood receives keep coming back, and keep forming the contents of the novel. It is how the mothers connect with their daughters; it is how they leave their mark on the world that scarred, soothed, scattered, and structured their own little worlds.
The book begins with a prelude, of how a woman made her journey towards a new life, with hopes larger than life. This portion is written so engagingly that a reader would find it almost impossible to let go of the book. Suyuan Woo, and her desperate attempts to be able to get out of her unbearable wounds, to be able to begin a new life in the “Land of Dreams” and to hand over all she had left in the form of a single feather from the duck, that stretched its neck to be a goose, entangle the readers. She was the duck, indeed, who wanted to be something she would give everything to be: happy, secure, and a mother. Amy Tan succeeds in putting that in a way that readers will read the following lines twice, while thinking about all the time they had to overcome the past, with the hope of a better future.
“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.'” (I.Prologue.2)
The novel also deals with one significant belief very interestingly, and that is in ghosts and spirits. The superstition traveled with the mothers from China. It is also one particular heritage that the mothers want to pass over to their daughters, like their mothers did. The superstitions also helped the mothers to escape their miseries, like Lindo did from her nightmare of a marriage. It was possible only because the people she was being tortured by had their superstitions strong. Since all the mothers wanted to give only those things that, at certain points of their lives, helped them overcome their barriers; real and cruel ones, they made sure superstition was there in the list.
Even the presence of Suyaun Woo from the very beginning of the story as an essence, resembles the feel of a ghost, or perhaps a holy guardian, watching over the lives of her near and dear ones, to mend the patches that she could not get enough time to do, to get the pieces of her family, her parts together which she has lived for her whole life.
The chapter names are quite suggestive, too. Tan has this tendency to pre-hint the readers to what they can expect to experience, and ends up adding some surprises. The storytelling is so engaging that one might even forget at certain points what the chapter previewed is to be about, because they are already glued to it. Amy Tan's heartfelt, close-to-authentic approach to set her stories made those seem pages out of our daily lives, vivid and imaginable.
Jing-mei's attempt to visit China to be the final substitution of her mother in finding her sisters is perhaps also an attempt to see what happens when representation of memory enters another phase of transition through diverse ethnic perspectives as well as to find what is lost in these multiple transmutations. The fact that often the stories shared by the mothers seem so fairy-tale like puts Amy Tan's uncertain approach to her never-seen homeland in the Far East. Also, her treatment of the East as the dungeon for people to live, especially women of various ages, can be taken as biased sometimes, whereas the problems the daughters face in America are less humiliating, less violent and more of psychological ones, apparently.
Mehnaz Tabassum has studied Literatures in English at Jahangirnagar University. She writes fiction and is a literary critic