Illustrations by Hanna Lee Joshi.
When Amy Tan published her debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” in 1989, nothing quite like it existed on American bookshelves. Here was a young Chinese American woman telling an unabashedly women-focused story: one about the intricate relationships between four immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact it had upon release. Americans, not just Asian American women, loved it. “The Joy Luck Club” was an instant bestseller, garnering praise from major reviewers; it became a National Book Award finalist that year. Since then, it has endured as a foundational work of American literature.
As Tan celebrates the 30th anniversary of “The Joy Luck Club,” we wanted to revisit the impact it had in 1989 — and explore how Tan, who has published several books since, paved the way for the next generation of Asian American women writers. What better way to do that, we thought, than to put Tan in conversation with someone like Celeste Ng?
Author of the bestselling novels “Everything I Never Told You” (2014) and “Little Fires Everywhere” (2017), Ng, 38, has been one of the most buzzed-about writers in recent years. It was just announced that “Little Fires Everywhere” — the paperback version of which comes out May 7 — is being adapted for a Hulu limited series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
So, on a recent Tuesday evening, we had Ng call Tan. They discussed the criticism they’ve received specifically from Asian men, their advice for writers, and even the essay Ng once wrote called, “Why I don’t want to be the next Amy Tan.”
But we’ll let them do the talking.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Celeste Ng: Amy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. You were one of my literary and life heroes, so I’m very grateful.
Amy Tan: Congratulations on your books. It’s fabulous how well those books have done.
Celeste Ng: Thanks, thanks so much. And congratulations to you on the 30th anniversary of “The Joy Luck Club.” I know it’s been such a touchstone for me and so many people. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like trying to publish your story [in 1989]?
Amy Tan: I had a really unusual experience, and I would say it should never be a model for how one gets published, especially if you’re not in the mainstream. I was writing short stories, and an agent saw one and wanted to be my agent. … She submitted three short stories to publishers, and without my knowing what she was doing, she came back and said:
She said there were people who wanted this book.
I thought she was a scam artist, because this simply does not happen. During that time, there was no market — no acknowledged market — for a book like that. So I had a hard time believing this would get published. … The fact that it actually became a bestseller was mind-boggling.
Celeste Ng: I love that your agent — you hadn’t even written the book yet — that she said there were people who wanted to read it. Clearly, she was right. Even if nobody knew it at the time, there was a desire for a story like the one you were telling.
Amy Tan: I worried — what was it that they saw in this? I thought, did it come across as exotica? I didn’t want this to be seen as promoting exotica or orientalism or anything like that. Being one of the first, or being singled out at that point, made me very wary of the ways this could be promoted, interpreted.
Celeste Ng: Totally. I wanted to ask you about the conflation that so often happens with being the first and the only. Because your books, for so many, are the first they’ve read by an Asian American woman. And for me, personally, that was incredibly powerful: to see a kindred experience that I almost never got to share with other people around me and to see my culture represented on the page, and then for it to be celebrated in this huge way.
But I know for so many people, it’s often the only work by an Asian American woman taught in their high school or sometimes even their college classes. Like you said, people put all kinds of expectations on you.
I’m embarrassed to admit this to you, but years ago, before I had even finished my first novel, I wrote an essay called, “Why I don’t want to be the next Amy Tan.”
Well, I never thought I’d be talking to you about it! But, what I wanted to say, and what I hope I said in the essay, is:
There’s this idea that there can only be one. I thought, I want to write my own stories, and I also want Amy Tan to stick around and keep writing her stories. I don’t want anyone to replace her.
Amy Tan: People gave me credit for breaking down barriers. That was never my intention; I’m glad it happened, but I can’t take credit for it, because I didn’t know what I was writing, I didn’t know what was going to happen with the book. Now I can talk about it from a different point of view. … We still need more stories to show that within the Asian American community, there’s diversity. We’re not all the same families. Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian — whatever it is, we’re not all the same.
But it was so great to see eventually there were more, and more, and more. … And then that my books were no longer Asian American literature, but they were simply American literature.
Celeste Ng: It’s as if [reviewers] suddenly recognized that what you had to say might resonate with people who weren’t just Asian American, right? Like what a revolutionary idea.
Amy Tan: [Laughs] And all of these were small steps, and they became bigger and bigger. And I still don’t think we can take it for granted. I think that there is a perception that your story should be about such-and-such. I used to get a lot of criticism from young men in ethnic studies programs who said ... that I needed to create positive role models for men. That all the men in my stories were terrible.
And I thought, well, when women are in crisis, a lot of times it’s not because they didn’t buy the right dress. It has to do with family, maybe their mother or their husband or their boyfriend or their child.
Celeste Ng: It’s funny to hear that — yes. I’ve gotten some of that myself. And it’s true, I wrote people who weren’t perfect. But in some ways, I understand their desire to have good representation, because there hasn’t been a lot of good representation for a lot of Asians and a lot of Asian men. At the same time, it’s less that we need to represent them as perfect as it is that we need to represent them as people: some of whom are great and some of whom do bad things.
Amy Tan: Well, I used to get this at lectures. Unbearably, some young man would say something about the negative male role models or depictions. ... Let’s call this what it is: This standard for literature is not placed on other people, and it should not be placed on anyone who’s not in the mainstream.
Celeste Ng: Absolutely. It’s so often placed on women, it’s so often placed on people of color.
Amy Tan: And, in fact, fiction works well when your characters are flawed and have something seriously compromising.
Celeste Ng: I think it works best that way, too. I’m curious to know — what interests you or excites you about the literature that’s being written by young Asian American women today? These issues are still around; all these questions and expectations are still there.
Amy Tan: They are? Are they?
Celeste Ng: I think so.
Amy Tan: Did you get a lot of that?
Celeste Ng: I did, and I was sort of surprised. There were a number of people — and I do want to say that it was a very small subset — but they were upset [about the characters in “Everything I Never Told You”]. They said, “You wrote this family, but there’s this Asian man and he has an affair.” And I’m like, but, but, but. First off, I didn’t think that necessarily made him a bad person, but I also understood why they were upset. Because when you don’t see anybody else who’s like you, and this is one piece where you see someone who’s sort of like you, there’s a lot riding on that.
Amy Tan: I think film has a lot to do with that, too. You see the one Asian person, and he’s a spy or murderer — it’s like, wait a minute.
Celeste Ng: I really like the way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it. She has a talk where she discusses the danger of a single story. It flattens out all of this experience to say, you know, this is the only way that a Chinese American man could be. Her argument is that one of the ways we can try to address this is, like you said, having more stories so we can see more kinds of people, instead of just the one.
Amy Tan: I think it’s important to have a progression of culture. Any time you look at culture in general, you are building a history and you need those reference points. When you start off, when you’re the only dot on the graph, there’s no movement. You can’t see what the movement is.
Celeste Ng: I love that idea.
As you’re talking about the importance of having more than one data point, over the last 30 years, do you feel that readers’ interpretations of “The Joy Luck Club” have changed?
Amy Tan: They have, and in part because the demographics have changed. There were many people who had never encountered someone on a personal level who was Asian American. ... I used to have people come up and say, “I have a Chinese daughter,” and it’s an adoption, or people come up to say, “I have a Chinese son-in-law.” Or some white guy comes up and says, “Thank you for helping me understand my mother-in-law.”
Celeste Ng: I’ve had people say that to me, too.
Amy Tan: And you say, “No, no, no, not necessarily.”
Celeste Ng: Right — it’s like, I’m glad if it helps, but that wasn’t my goal. But it’s true. There are a lot more touch points or places of intersection.
Amy Tan: I’m sure that the writers today — I’m sure you have gone through this — that you are conscious of how something will be interpreted. But you can’t let that be your guide. You cannot succumb to the pressure of how somebody will misunderstand what you have to say.
Celeste Ng: I want to be mindful of your time, so I’ll just ask one last question, which is, what other advice do you have for young Asian American writers today? What you just said is a great example: Don’t be constrained by how other people are going to misunderstand what you write, which I think I’m going to put up on my wall.
Amy Tan: I would say it would go back to what I thought about when I first was writing, and it is to be authentic. When I started writing my earliest fiction writing, I thought it was boring to write about anything that had to do with my life, my parents’ life. So my characters were actually quite well-to-do, they were German American. They were completely unlike the characters I eventually wrote about, and they were inauthentic.
Celeste Ng: I think that’s fantastic advice. What I hear you saying is: Write with an emotional authenticity ... that some part of it connects to you.
Amy Tan: Well, I’m sure this has happened to you. Where you’re writing, and all of a sudden you have this moment where you gasp and say, “Oh, now I’ve captured something perfectly.” It could be in a little sentence, but you’ve said it now. It’s like a breakthrough.
Celeste Ng: It’s a rare moment for me, but it’s such a good one. It feels, for me, like when you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and you find that one piece that clicks in. There’s that very satisfying little click — you feel the click. And you’re like, “I’ve done it, I’ve finally done it.” And then you go to the next sentence.
Amy Tan: Then you slog away. But you’re waiting for the next —
Celeste Ng: The click.
Amy Tan: Yes, that next opening, that next epiphany.