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amy tan & toni morrison

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
modern american literature
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Amy Tan The Joy Luck Club &

 Toni Morrison's Beloved

As a “woman-centered narrative that challenges the phallusy of history” as Ellen Parker put it, Toni Morrison’s Beloved rewrites slave narratives to recover the stories of women like Margaret Garner by, in the author’s words, “ripping the veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate” .

While Amy Tan’s Joy-Luck Club (JLC) seems on the surface a very different text, in its incorporation of the story of Tan’s own grandmother Jing-mei who committed suicide by swallowing raw opium to escape her life of concubinage it can similarly be read as a way to imagine the histories that have been left out.

This project of recovery has been criticised by critics such as Wong and Crouch as placating sentimental feminist ideology, Crouch critiquing what he sees as Beloved’s capitalizing on the vision of the black woman as “the most scorned and rebuked of the victims,” while Wong argues that in Tan’s novels the Americanised daughter serves as an unobstrusive stand-in for the mainstream reading public, and “Chinese suffering is…made safe for literary consumption” citing the King Kong Syndrome which Rey Chow describes as seeing the third world as the “site of raw material that is monstrosity…produced for the surplus value of spectacle [and] spiritual enrichment.”

As Aihwa Ong argues, by portraying women in non-western societies as identical and more exploited, liberal feminists encode a belief in their own cultural superiority. However, rather than resurrecting stereotypes of fragile lotus-blossom women Tan can be seen as polemically recording the marginalisation of all women within patriarchal insitutions, with Lindo describing her experience as being like that of the ladies on American TV, so happy to have washed out a stain, and An- Mei voicing the disempowerment of women across cultures and generations through her description of women being like stairs, going up and down but still going the same way.

In this sense Tan can be seen as “undermining the imperialism within universalist feminism” in Schueller words in a way which can be compared to Beloved where Paul D moves across gender lines, as Amy crosses lines of race to collaborate with Sethe. Both texts show that as Spelman says, “gender identity is not neatly separable from other aspects of identity such as race and class,” rejecting the stance of pluralism which denies the existence of class structure, while negotiating the “difficult task for women of colour” in Schuellers words, and articulating “a politics of resistance without resorting to purely differential concepts of ethnic identity.”

Both Beloved and JLC can be seen as exploring the fact that race and class oppression creates a pattern of rupture which intensifies the need to discover an untroubled matrilineal heritage. As Hirsch argues, black feminist writers more than white feminist writers often find it necessary to ‘think back through their mothers’ “in order to define themselves identifiably in their own voices as subjects.”

Both texts can be interpreted through Maglin’s model of the literature of matrilineage: in contrast to the white middleclass feminist family romance which is centered on the experience of daughters and their need to escape from fixed nuclear family. In diverging from this family model, different experiences of broken family bonds in these two texts reveals the inadequacy of universalist feminism, where universal can be another word for Eurocentric. As African American critics have pointed out, the black family distorted through the history of slavery needs to be understood through alternative models. Similarly the way Chinese women were “regarded as…detachable appendages” experiencing arranged marriages and concubinage in Heung’s words, can be seen as a community survival strategy in the face of China’s past of hardships, famines and wars.

As Horvitz has noted, in Beloved, Sethe’s disconnection from her mother emphasises the pattern of mother/daughter rupture which suffuses the text, and her escape from slavery, like the mothers escape from China, in a way repeats this pattern as the daughters cannot connect with their mother’s experiences. By moving maternity to the centre and foregrounding the voices of both daughters and mothers, both Tan and Morrison reject the essentialism implied in the view which posits the mother as a potent symbol of ethnic identity, in Shirley Lim’s words, “the figure not only of maternality but of racial consciousness.”

In both texts the mothers develop survival strategies in response to their experiences. In JC, the original Joy Luck Club which is the embodiment of the Chinese survival mentality is as Hueng notes “founded to transmute a painful history into a communal expression of hope” so that we can “forget the past wrongs done to us” as Suyuan says, a refusal to wait for death with “proper sombre faces”. In this sense the JLC seems to be a parallel to the self-celebration implied in Baby Sugg’s feast, however at the same time, the fact that the feast offends by excess indicates the community’s inability to forget the trauma of the past. As in Beloved, in JLC Tan foregrounds the idea that strategies of self-defence can be transformed to a form of self-destruction, the “inability to forget” rather than what Nietzche terms “the memory of the will”.

In JLC, Suyaun struggles with the memory of abandoning her daughters, caught up in compulsive retellings of her refugee story which as Xu notes, are “symptomatic records of a traumatised soul making a deep effort to push back the memory of the tragic loss” however the memories which are suppressed do not go away, as is shown when Suyuan’s husband feels she was “killed by her own thoughts.” Similarly Sethe in Beloved as Mobely says “lives in a psychic bondage to the task of keeping the past at bay.” Like Winnie in KGW, Sethe attempts to “put all [her] secrets behind a door.” However the past is not simply an enemy but the source of our present selves. Like Lena, who Ying Ying realises has no chi, Denver “has no self” her “unnatural childishness and inner emptiness” as Bonnet puts it, a result of the fact that she has been “deprived of proper nurturing”. In Beloved a constant analogy is drawn between storytelling and nurturing, suggesting that a culture’s history and myths are its sustenance, and are under constant threat of erasure.

Similarly in JLC the only means available to the mother to ensure ethnic continuity is to recollect the past and tell tales of what is remembered, as the JLC aunties realise when June remarks that she does not know what to tell her sisters about her mother. Ying Ying, like Sethe, can be read in terms of Irigray’s model of the hysteric who “senses something remains to be said that resists all speech” her sudden awakening of memory a parallel to Sethe achieving reconnection with her mother through linking her antelope kicking baby and her antelope dancing mother, a sojourn in the semiotic which provides access to the language she has forgotten.

Both Sethe and Ying Ying determine to bridge separation between their daughters and themselves, as Ying Ying says “I must tell her about my past, it is the only way to penetrate her skin” realising that, as Rich notes, the quality of the mothers life however embattled is her primary bequest to her daughter. However, in JLC as in Beloved, the possibility of communication is undermined by the fact that the daughters can not relate to their mothers stories.

Whereas the mothers in both JLC and Beloved were literally detached and separated from their mothers, the daughters are figuratively disconnected, in Beloved Denver “hated the stories her mother told her that didn’t concern herself”, as in JLC Suyuan had struggled to translate her war stories to a resisting daughter, who can only relate to them as Chinese fairy tales.

The mothers attempt to connect is registered as possession in both texts. In JLC as Shen notes, the mothers try to leave an “imprint” of themselves on their daughters, the mothers wish for their daughters to have a better life ironically becomes the very source of conflicts. As Lawrence suggests, the univocal tyranny imposed by Beloved as the memory of the past is symbolized in the monologue at the end, with its possessive refrain you are mine, with Denver’s story charts a progression from this stifling world, to self-fulfilling separation, inititating her own spiritual rebirth by accepting separation from her mother, as she tells Paul D “I think I have lost my mother.”

In JLC Jehlen notes June who has grown up haunted by the words “you are not those babies” rejects her mother by reclaiming her sisters. Like June, Denver identifies with her lost sister and retells the stories she has heard as a way to “construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold b” as the “monologue became… a duet.” As Holden-Kirwan notes, when Beloved appears, her gaze “fulfils [D] desire to be acknowledged.” in a similar way June’s identification with her sisters fulfils JLC transformative project “from daughter text to mother text to sister text” as Heung puts it.

June finally recuperate her maternal loss through her sisters “together we look like our mother.” This emphasis on the discursive in JLC like in Beloved offers “potential alternatives to the notion of ethnic essence” emphasising the socially constructed nature of both ethnic and gender identity, as Schueller says. Similarly as Boudrea suggests, Beloved can be read as dramatizing the way in which identity is “constructed according to one’s audience,” as Beloved literalises the dilemma of embodied subjectivity, where “language and memory bear responsibility for the constructions of the self”.

As Holloway notes, the recursive structures of language in lit by contemporary African American women writers are signalled by what is essentially a multiplied texts that are characteristically polyphonic. Beloved, for example, can be read in terms of the blues, the pattern of call and response shaping the collective story of slavery that binds memoriess of the community together, and similarly JLC can be described as a collection of intricate and haunting memories.

As Amy Ling notes, African American writers use of “multiple presences , ambivalent stories and circular and fluid narratives” correlate with the experience of cultural dislocation and destabilised, fluid identities. In the Chinese American mother-daughter story, Heung notes that “the absence of a reciprocal progression in the daughter’s stories suggests the truncating of a truly dialogic process” however, Rocio Davis points out that “the fusion of stories in the readers imagination” creates a vision of unity. “The composite image of 3 daughters who together make up one mother” in Bonnie Tu Smith’s words reflects the novels communal subtext working as a counterpoint to textual surface of individualistic strife.

Significantly, it is through the fusion with her sisters that June finally recuperates her loss and feels what part of her is Chinese. In Beloved there is a similar vision of the possibility of transcending pain in the fixing ceremony which reaffirms the unity of the one with the whole, as the original sound the townswomen turn to “broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptised” symbolising her rejuvenation. Finally Paul D, like June’s father in JLC, comes to lay his story alongside her, and like Lindo who pledges "never to forget" herself, Sethe recognises she is her own best thing.

However, these endings are not presented unproblematically. In Beloved the ambiguity about Beloved’s exorcism is evident in the paradoxical insistence that the story the novel has recovered is ‘not a story to pass on.’ Similarly in JLC while the vision of fusion at the end seems to build up a romantic, idealistic concept of cultural origins as family and blood eventually triumph over history, Tan chooses not to end at this moment but with a commentary on it, recognizing an ethnic identity but only through her active interpretation of it.

In their reconstruction of seductive patterns of feeling, both texts can be read in terms of Du Plessis’ term, ‘writing beyond the ending’, leaving “gaps for the reader to come in” as Morrison says and engaging the reader as active constructor of meaning, allowing the feminist novel to project a community of readers to recover the stories.

written: 2008
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