Like the stories its mother characters pass on to their daughters, it’s time for The Joy Luck Club to be shared with another generation.
Amy Tan’s bestseller turns 30 this year, and Penguin Random House is celebrating the milestone with a special edition of the novel, including a new preface by Tan. “The anniversary reminds me of the passage of time,” the author tells EW. “Its endurance is remarkable to me.”
The beloved book revolves around four Chinese women, immigrants to the U.S., whose deeply held values and dramatic personal histories have a profound impact on their complex relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. Structured as sixteen vignettes (four about each mother-daughter pair), the now-classic novel marked Tan’s debut and was adapted for the screen in 1993.
The composition of the anniversary edition’s preface gave Tan a chance “to reflect on the reasons why it has endured, and a lot of that is based on what [people have] said to me at readings or lectures, that it struck a chord because of their relationship with their mother or daughter,” she says. “Even though the characters are Chinese mothers and Chinese-American daughters, the gist of it [is about] this gulf between people, between generations and cultures. When you can get people to feel the emotions of the story, it becomes universal. It doesn’t matter what the culture is.”
That response, to the feeling over the details, speaks to Tan’s approach in writing it. While many readers assume the novel is based on the author’s own family history, “these are not stories that are biographically factual,” Tan clarifies. Rather than being literally accurate, though, the tales are emotionally truthful: “They have to do with the emotions between these mother-daughter pairs. That was something I was going through. That was about my emotional relationship at that time with my mother.”
The author’s mother has died since the initial publication, but, as Tan writes in the new preface, she loved her daughter’s debut novel. “She loved that the feelings in [it] were absolutely true, and she believed that I had listened to her and that I appreciated what she was trying to teach me,” Tan tells EW. “And that was the best review I could have gotten for that book. It was the best, the absolute best that I got.”
That one might never be topped, but the raves have continued for three decades. “I [am] very grateful but also surprised that this book has lasted so long,” the author says. “It was not a book that I thought would, first of all, get published, let alone be read by more than a few people when it was first published.”
A lot of things in the creation of the novel came as a surprise. The first was when an agent approached Tan asking to send the writer’s work out to publishers. “I said ‘Yeah, well, you’re going to go make any money off me,’” Tan recalls. Even more astonishing, “[the agent] went to New York and she sold this thing. And I thought she was a scam artist!” the author laughs. “I [said], ‘You sold this book? About Chinese-American characters, by me, a total unknown?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you have four offers!’”
The final surprise came once the book was finished. “I didn’t think I was writing a novel,” Tan admits. The Joy Luck Club was originally planned as a short story collection, but an advance review referred to it as a novel, and the publisher decided to run with that and take the word ‘stories’ off the title page. “I completely had no idea how to structure a novel,” Tan recalls. “It [all] just kind of came together, just gradually, through happenstance. I am not a good model when people say, ‘Well, what’s a good way to get published?’”
Tan’s singular path to publication is all the more remarkable considering how much the market has opened up for diverse perspectives in the decades since the late ‘80s. “At the time The Joy Luck Club was published, it was one of the very few books…that was about Chinese characters and had something to do with Chinese culture,” the author says. “But look at all the books that have come out since then and are coming out now — and we had that blockbuster film, Crazy Rich Asians!”
Last year’s summer smash — the first American studio film with an all-Asian cast since the 1993 adaptation of The Joy Luck Club — broke down barriers for Asian representation onscreen and, hopefully, opened the door for more stories of its kind to reach a mainstream audience. “I hope it continues to blow out the stereotype that films about Asian-Americans can’t make money,” Tan says of the blockbuster (which is now the sixth highest-grossing rom-com of all time). “That’s what it’s going to require. It requires, to make a change in publishing, in film, in all of these forms, requires that they make money, not simply that they receive literary accolades.”
“The other significant difference is that, because of all these books out there by a number of Asian-Americans, we’re finally able to see that there are different stories to be told,” Tan continues. “One book doesn’t have to represent everything about a culture. Which, in the beginning, I think that was the case. If [we] were the only one… we had a burden placed on us to represent all of the culture, all of the positive parts of the culture.”
The Asian experience in Crazy Rich Asians, for example, differs significantly (an understatement) from that of The Joy Luck Club — which is part of the pleasure and power of the film. “Not very many of us have the lives that were depicted in the movie. [Still] there were things about it, situations we could identify with,” Tan says. “You just go with it and say this is hilarious; you don’t have to believe all Asians are like this.”
But the depiction of that lavish lifestyle is also a representation victory in itself. “There are still some people who think China or anything Chinese is still this backwater. That people are poor, they’ve never seen a car, they don’t have electricity, they’re riding bikes to get to work,” Tan says. “It [shows] how far people in China and Asia have come economically, and in terms of their awareness of what’s techie, cool, and all of that. But again, I’m not saying [that] the values of being crazy rich — nobody’s looking at it as a model of how Asians should be!”
The crowd-pleasing rom-com is, however, absolutely a model of how movies should be. “I saw Crazy Rich Asians three times because I loved it so much,” Tan enthuses. “And god, that lead! Constance Wu and Henry Golding — I mean, adorable! They can be leads for any movie — and that’s what I hope happens.”