Two generations. Four families. Eight women. China. America. These are the ingredients of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a novel about mothers and daughters and immigrant identities.
The Joy Luck Club is not a book that carries you away on an adventure. It’s not a book that challenges the conventions of language or form. It’s not a book that makes the heart sing with joy or ache with sorrow. It’s pedestrian, normal and that’s what makes it beautiful.
There are two kinds of high school English books: the famous ones you read because they’re famous and the not-famous ones you read because they’re worth talking about. The Joy Luck Club is in the latter category. In many schools, it’s already a standard part of the curriculum (hooray!) and this is why:
- Let’s study character! The Joy Luck Club has eight – eight! — main characters and they can be tricky to keep distinct. What did they say about themselves? What have other characters said about them? The Joy Luck Club presents a clear opportunity to study characters and track the ways they’re similar to and different from each other.
- Let’s study narration! The novel has seven – seven! – different narrators. The mothers and daughters narrate differently, especially in how they treat flashbacks and the languages used to communicate. How does each character’s narrative voice contribute to what we know about them as a character? Few other novels enable the study of different narrative voices as well as The Joy Luck Club.
- Let’s write! There are so many ways to respond to this book in writing. Studying narration naturally leads to a creative emulation assignment. Studying relationships and identities naturally leads to personal narrative writing and self-reflection (increasingly emphasized under the Common Core and in preparation for college applications). And what would English class be without analytical essays? The prompts about the influence of family and culture practically write themselves.
- Finally, the most important reason to teach The Joy Luck Club is that it affirms identities and expands worldviews. During student teaching, when my students from South Asian families read The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri, a novel about the son of two Indian immigrants, they saw themselves and their lives and their families reflected in the pages of a school book for the very first time. It was empowering for them to see people who looked and thought like them, who struggled with the same issues of identity, in a book certified as Good Literature because we were reading it in school. For those students who didn’t identify with the specifics of the novel? The Namesake and The Joy Luck Club are both novels that expand worldviews, enrich and complicate notions of self and other.
If my students use a book like The Joy Luck Club to think about who they are and what they value, I believe they will enter the world a little bit more confident and a little bit more compassionate, a little bit more likely to make the world a better place.
Up Next: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.
Why? I need an action/adventure fix