Books · Whiteness & racism

Hearing the unsaid

The Joy Luck ClubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

The blurb on this edition focusses on the struggles of mothers and daughters to understand and help each other, and Tan’s skill in conveying emotions. As usual, there is no acknowledgement of the book as a feminist work, so I’m going to begin by hailing it as such in all its woman-oriented glory. Aside from the fact that men are merely accessory to all of the narrative strands, and that the majority of conversations are between women and girls, Tan positively critiques patriarchal tropes throughout by revealing the constrictions on women’s lives imposed structurally through their chattel position as wives and mothers, through their socialisation by older women, and through the domineering behaviour of men. Very overt features of gendered hierarchies which tend to hide in plain sight are kept in view, and Tan writes very cleverly to reveal more subtle aspects, making them evident in countless interactions, punctuating these little revelations with pauses for contemplation. Below the surface swim slow thoughts lightly veiled:

Even the old ladies had put on their best clothes to celebrate: Mama’s aunt, Baba’s mother and her cousin, and Great-uncle’s fat wife, who still plucked her forehead bald and always walked as if she were crossing a slippery stream, two tiny steps and a scared look

This is surely an intimation, from a child’s perspective, that the woman has bound feet. The treatment of An-Mei’s mother, who has become a concubine to a rich man after being widowed, illuminates some of the distinctive features of (pre-communist) Chinese heteropatriarchy. However, Tan is not about to aid the cause of USian supremacy and White saviourism by setting stories like this against a mythical American equality; her depictions of marriages and relationships in the US reveal a different but hardly better situation for women, especially Chinese/immigrant women for whom White husbands feel entitled to speak.

My favourite mother-as-girl story is Lindo Jong’s. Trapped in a marriage that places her in servitude to an exacting and heartless mother-in-law, she nonetheless uses great ingenuity. The moment when she recognises her impressive inner resources is striking; few girls can rely on such self-confidence and awareness, but even so armed, her empowerment is very limited, so the story throws light on the real plight of girls like her. I was even more fascinated though, by the ways that Chinese cultural values and traditions played out in her scheming. This happened throughout the book; modes of modesty, influencing of feelings and events, showing love, all revealed ways of knowing and being rooted in different soils and waters and fed by different suns from those that have nourished me.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, is inevitable in the meeting of USian directness and the more subtle, artful Chinese manner of expression, heedful of hidden feelings deduced through the fine filaments of perceptive empathy only a combination of shared culture, affinity and thoughtfulness can forge. Careful reading reveals that supposed ‘directness’ leaves many things sadly incommunicable. Much humour is made at the mothers’ expense:

One day, as she struggled to weave a hard-toothed comb through my disobedient hair, I had a sly thought. I asked her ‘Ma, what is Chinese torture?’ My mother shook her head. A bobby pin was wedged between her lips. She wetted her palm and smoothed the hair above my ear, then pushed the pin in so that it nicked sharply against my scalp. ‘Who say this word?’ she asked without a trace of knowing how wicked I was being. I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘Some boy in my class said Chinese people do Chinese torture.’ ‘Chinese people do many things,’ she said simply. ‘Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.’

This kind of intimate mockery is hilarious, but a risky thing to gift to an outsider like me. I had the feeling that I must be careful not to generalise beyond time, place and particularity, to find myself thinking ‘I know this about Chinese mothers, because I read it in The Joy Luck Club’. Another difficulty I had was with disturbing aspects of anti-Blackness and homophobia which I wanted to chase up, but which had to be let drop, presumably for the next generation, the grandaughters, to decolonise. I enjoyed, on the other hand, the wry laughs minted from the thoughtlessness self centredness of ignorant White men.

Degrees of integration vary, but all of the mothers are at some stage shocked by the extent of their daughters’ assimilation into USian culture, while the daughters feel to some extent cut off from their Chinese heritage. If I wanted to extract a lesson, it would be: maintain your culture against Whiteness! Whatever is in you or known to you that is not White, honour it, nourish it, tell it, create with it, share it, weave it into the new stories you live and make. It takes, surely, deep effort and much energy to resist the action of White supremacy, the hollowing out of living cultures into exotified fetishes, consumable and subsumed.

I recommend this book especially to those who like reading about food, as I do. Tan presents a culture relentlessly attentive to good eating, the comforts of the table, and the expression of love through cooking. The demythologising fortune cookie story, brilliantly conceived, is, to me, this book in a nutshell.

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