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I Called Amy Tan A Dirty Word--And Then She Friended Me

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The day that a review of my first novel ran in the New York Times, I received a Facebook friend request from Amy Tan. It seemed she was welcoming me into the club--of novelists, Chinese American novelists, Chinese American female novelists reviewed in the Times. I was about to eagerly accept when I remembered that during my first radio interview a few days earlier--an interview I'd posted to my website, Twitter, and Facebook--I'd called her a dirty word.

Well, I hadn't called her a dirty word. I'd said that among a younger generation of Asian Americans, her name had become a dirty word. Let me explain.

While Amy Tan had just become marginally aware of my existence, I'd already had a long and complicated relationship with her. I was ten when she published The Joy Luck Club. My mother, my sisters, and I took turns devouring it. At a time when Publishers Weekly thought it seemly to praise the novel's "Oriental orientation," when my New York City public school still circulated a social studies textbook that described the Chinese as a yellow-skinned and slanty-eyed people, those vibrant, complex portraits of present-day Chinese Americans were revelatory.

But by the time I was a high school senior, a teacher's mention of Amy Tan unleashed vitriol from every Asian American in the classroom. We were sick of having our personal essays, our anecdotes about our mothers, our every mention of Asian travels, customs, or dishes, summarily compared to The Joy Luck Club. There was something too easy, too knowing, about white Americans' embrace of the story.

"Is that Amy Tan's fault?" the teacher asked. This mostly silenced us, but if there was a general, inarticulate feeling, it was: Well, yeah.

We had no idea that this feeling had already mutated into a rancorous debate, notably led by Frank Chin, who attributed the acclaim and popularity of The Joy Luck Club to its depictions of Chinese culture as cruel, backwards, and misogynistic--depictions that, according to him, not only play to racist assumptions but also lack authenticity.

The caveats and counterarguments here could (and should) fill entire books. But for my generation of Asian Americans, widespread ardor for Amy Tan dovetailed with the fetishization of Asian women, the denigration of Asian men, essentialist ideas about Asian cultures, the abiding preference for preconceived notions of who we are. Whether or not we bought Chin's argument, whether or not we'd even heard it, we knew the feeling behind it.

So we formed a backlash--and what a backlash. Until now, I've never publicly admitted to being moved by Amy Tan's work. Few of my peers would be caught dead with one of her books. I can't recall the last time I heard an Asian American mention her name without a grimace, a smirk, a rolling of the eyes. And I've never felt bad about this, until now.

More than twenty years after I first read The Joy Luck Club, I've just published my first novel, A Thread of Sky. The story of a family of six strong-willed Chinese American women who reunite for a tour of their ancestral home, uncovering political history and family secrets that have shaped each of their lives, it was inspired by a trip that I took through China with the women in my own family.

The moment I conceived of the idea--perhaps while I was still on that trip--I worried about being compared to Amy Tan. But this was my story, and I needed to write it. For more than five years, I immersed myself in the work--moving to China, viewing the landmarks through the eyes of my characters, researching contemporary Chinese history, revising and writing and revising.

I eventually wrote a scene in which my characters reference The Joy Luck Club because they feel the weight of those expectations on their own journey, but I didn't think of myself as writing in Amy Tan's shadow. Other people sometimes invoked her name to me, but it was usually ironic. I thought that maybe, as a society, we could finally allow for plurality.

When the time came to market my novel, my publisher finally mentioned The Joy Luck Club as a comparison title. Of course: Chinese American women, mothers and daughters, a return to the homeland. I couldn't argue with the comparison as long as it wasn't meant to be all-encompassing. I hoped readers, once reached, would see that in my novel, setting foot in China is the beginning of a complicated story, not the end; that a major storyline is how the American-born daughters, having assumed their strength and independence are the result of their Westernization, now learn about a Chinese tradition of female heroism and their own grandmother's buried past as a feminist leader and revolutionary; that, all in all, my story was my own.

Then the reviews started to come in. Library Journal: "This novel will appeal to fans of Amy Tan." Booklist: "Fei stakes a claim in Amy Tan territory." Even the local publications simply listing my events couldn't resist--the Portland Mercury, for instance: "Somewhere, Amy Tan's ears are burning."

As a debut novelist, I was in no position to scorn any review, any mention, any attention at all. And it was some consolation that the reviewers allotted more than a paragraph read the novel on its own terms (the Times, the Chicago Tribune) or tackled the Amy Tan thing head-on (Feminist Review).

But it wasn't just that I was being pigeonholed. I feared that white Americans would assume they already knew the story, while my own cohort wouldn't go near it. A few reader comments bore out that fear: an Amy Tan fan complaining that my novel wasn't what she'd expected, an Asian American wondering if I was "a sellout." The latter accusation might've been easier to swallow if my novel was actually selling out.

So when I was invited for that radio interview, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak for myself. I read an excerpt, discussed my characters, described my process. Then, with about one minute left, my interviewer--a young, incisive Asian American--asked me about those Amy Tan comparisons, which she called "obnoxious." At last, I was being given the chance to defend myself--by sneering at Amy Tan.

I didn't want to. I wanted to say that I knew where my interviewer was coming from, but that in blaming Amy Tan for how we get pigeonholed, we also pigeonhole her. We impose on her the burden we loathe: that of being representative. And my hope was that we'd soon reach a place where each work of literature would be read on its own terms, just as we as individuals would like to be known.

When I said that "Amy Tan" had become a dirty word, I meant it in the full sense: a taboo, a line drawn in the sand, a barrier to understanding. I don't know if that came through.

As for Amy Tan's friend request, I accepted it, of course. The truth is, I felt honored. And while I occasionally worry that someday she'll listen to that interview and hate me, I know she has much better things to do--writing her novels, simply being herself. May we all avail ourselves of that privilege.

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Deanna Fei's A Thread of Sky