It was not until the 1976 publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s mystical memoir of her San Francisco childhood, The Woman Warrior, that Asian-American writers broke into mainstream American literature. Even so, ten more years had to pass until another Asian-American writer achieved fame and fortune. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s first novel, sold an astonishing 275,000 hard-cover copies upon its 1989 publication. The success of Tan’s book increased publishers’ willingness to gamble on first books by Asian-American writers. Two years later, at least four other Chinese-American writers had brisk-selling books. Gus Lee’s China Boy, for example, had an initial print run of 75,000, huge for a first-time author. His advance was nearly $100,000. The Literary Guild purchased the rights to the book; Random House did an audio version with M. Butterfly’s B. D. Hong as the reader. Two publishers fought for the right to publish David Wong Louie’s Pang of Love, a collection of short stories. Gish Jen’s Typical American is an equally big hit.
At the same time, Japanese-American writers are flourishing. Perhaps not since the literary community “discovered” Jewish-American writers in the 1950s have we experienced such a concentrated ethnic wave. In part, this interest in Asian-American literature can be attributed to the near doubling of America’s Asian-American population, from 3.5 million to 6.9 million in the past ten years. The fact remains, however, that more Asian-Americans are writing, and their books have a fresh and original voice.
The Joy Luck Club describes the lives of four Asian women who fled China in the 1940s and their four very Americanized daughters. The novel focuses on Jing-mei “June” Woo, a thirty-six-year-old daughter, who, after her mother’s death, takes her place at the meetings of a social group called the Joy Luck Club. As its members play mah jong and feast on Chinese delicacies, the older women spin stories about the past and lament the barriers that exist between their daughters and themselves. Through their stories, Jing-mei comes to appreciate the richness of her heritage.
Suyuan Woo, the founder of the Joy Luck Club, barely escaped war-torn China with her life and was forced to leave her twin infant daughters behind. Her American-born daughter, Jing-mei “June” Woo, works as a copywriter for a small advertising firm. She lacks her mother’s drive and self-confidence but finds her identity after her mother’s death when she meets her twin half-sisters in China.
An-mei Hsu grew up in the home of the wealthy merchant Wu Tsing. She was without status because her mother was only the third wife. After her mother’s suicide, An-mei came to America, married, and had seven children. Like Jing-mei Woo, An-mei’s daughter Rose is unsure of herself. She is nearly prostrate with grief when her husband, Ted, demands a divorce. After a breakdown, she finds her identity and learns to assert herself.
Lindo Jong was betrothed at infancy to another baby, Tyan-yu. They married as preteens and lived in Tyan-yu’s home. There, Lindo was treated like a servant. She cleverly tricked the family, however, and gained her freedom. She came to America, got a job in a fortune cookie factory, met and married Tin Jong. Her daughter, Waverly, was a chess prodigy who became a successful tax accountant.
Ying-ying St. Clair grew up a wild, rebellious girl in a wealthy family. After she married, her husband deserted her, and Ying-ying had an abortion and lived in poverty for a decade. Then she married Clifford St. Clair and emigrated to America. Her daughter, Lena, is on the verge of a divorce from her architect husband, Harold Livotny. She established him in business and resents their unequal division of finances.