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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Liberate the Asian American Writer: Embracing the Flaws of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club


An Asian American bestseller and a required reading in many classrooms, The Joy Luck Club by Chinese American author Amy Tan has prompted substantial debate—some zealously laudatory of its rich narratives and cultural insights, some seethingly critical of its Orientalist motives, some neutrally analytical of its cultural symbols—over its representation of Chinese and Chinese Americans in the literary mainstream. Unfortunately, few scholars have considered detaching representational power from ethnic texts and alleviating the burden on ethnic writers to represent their communities. This thesis uses cultural criticism and reception theory to examine three things: the novel’s cultural and linguistic inaccuracies, the role of shame in forming the Chinese American identity, and the cumulative influences of popular reviews, educational guides, and public commentary on readers’ tendencies to attach representational value to the novel. I find that the novel functions as a subjective (fictional) Chinese American experience more so than an all-encompassing Chinese cultural and linguistic lesson; there is potential for Chinese Americans to transcend the “Chinese” and “American” binary and exist with nuance and without dual alienation; it is the novel’s reception, not Tan herself, that has constructed its representational power. These findings suggest that the experiences and identities of American ethnic minorities are multifaceted and nuanced, and therefore incapable of being comprehensively represented and dichotomously regarded. To prevent absolute dependence on media for developing multicultural awareness, readers must consume critically and introspectively, maintaining the awareness of our reader subjectivity and of the limits of literature—especially fictional literature.

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