Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is one of my favourite books of 2013. Although it may only be February, I have no doubt that it will still be placed firmly within my top ten by the end of the year. The novel features a range of narrators, all belonging either to the generation of ‘the Mothers’ or the generation of ‘the Daughters’ (even though, strictly speaking, many of these daughters are actually mothers themselves). The novel attempts to bridge the chasm between the two groups. This generational gap is not the central focus of the novel, however: it also considers the broader issue of the trauma of the immigrant experience, of what it means to hold onto your own culture while simultaneously trying to adapt to a new way of life.
Divided into four sections, the novel is interlaced with fragments which read like haunting, modern-day fables. The first, ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ features a line which I thought perfectly encapsulated the conflicting fears and hopes of the Mothers:
Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.
The Mothers’ narratives explore the difficulties they face in helping their daughters to pursue the American dream without losing their own histories along the way. Despite their efforts, a sense of loss pervades their stories. The Mothers fear that their experiences of violence and upheaval (‘How much can you wish for a favourite warm coat that hangs in the closet of a house that burned down with your mother and father inside of it?’) will be forgotten by the future generations.
Granting a narrative voice to the Mothers allows the reader to witness first-hand stories the experiences of the past generation, experiences of which the Daughters themselves have little knowledge. This is the result of the misunderstandings which pepper the novel: a linguistic barrier has developed between the two groups, as one can only communicate in broken English, while the other was taught only stock-phrases in Chinese. A sense emerges that certain feelings or experiences belong to a single language, and cannot be expressed in other tongues. ‘It was one of those Chinese expressions’, says Jing-Mei Woo, more commonly known as June; ‘I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.’
The extent to which the novel manages to assuage the Mothers’ fears is left for the reader to decide. For me, the overall experience of the novel was uplifting; ultimately, the two generations will remain connected, even if their culture and language are forced to change and adapt.
All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.