Representing History in Amy Tan's the Kitchen God's Wife

By Adams, Bella | MELUS, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Representing History in Amy Tan's the Kitchen God's Wife


Adams, Bella, MELUS


"Historical literature" is often understood according to binary logic, with critics tending to privilege either phenomenalism or theoreticism. A phenomenalist approach assumes that historical literature is a reliable source of information about past experiences, and a theoretical approach argues that "'events' are never not discursively constituted and that the language of historiography is always also language" (Spivak, In Other Worlds 242). In short, historical literature is generally understood as either phenomenal fact or theoretical fiction. When imagined simply in terms of a binary opposition, both approaches are beset by limitations. It is the task of this discussion to examine these limitations via a reading of Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife, specifically the section narrated by Jiang Weili, otherwise known as Winnie Louie. This novel is valuable because in representing a particular period of Chinese history, namely Japan's occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s as well as the Rape of Nanking (1937) it promotes an analysis that resists two equally conservative, if not downright oppressive, ideologies: neocolonialism and Japanese revisionism. These ideologies exploit phenomenalism and theoreticism respectively, allowing neocolonialists to factualize literature and Japanese ultranationalists to fictionalize history.

The Kitchen God's Wife negotiates between these two extremes in terms compatible with deconstruction by generating a debate about the difficulty of referencing past experiences a la phenomenalism. This difficulty urgently needs addressing in the wake of holocaust denial if the historical record is to be set straight about what happened during the Sino-Japanese War. It is important to note that "difficulty" does not mean the end of history; rather, it necessitates a theoretical inquiry into the concept of history. Such an inquiry about how history is constructed, both ideologically and linguistically, makes possible a radical critique of Japan's claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened. Iris Chang argues that this claim effectively perpetrates "A Second Rape" (199). Whether rape is a phenomenal fact or a theoretical fiction, it functions oppressively in both instances. The Kitchen God's Wife responds to rape in this second sense inasmuch as it affords insights about "the [ideological] forces of history and the [linguistic] process by which history is made" (Chang 200). At no point in Tan's novel is doubt cast on the phenomenality of the (first) Rape of Nanking. Arguably, The Kitchen God's Wife addresses the fictionalization of rape to affect radically historical understanding of the factual rape, which in turn ensures that both events are brought into history.

Moreover, an attention to language, particularly the literary or the rhetorical dimension of language, enables a radical critique of neocolonialism, which (mis)uses "ethnic" (2) literature by valuing it merely for its capacity to teach dominant groups about "the really important things in life--Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil" (Wong 200). An emphasis on language resists the neocolonialist effort to displace the literary dimension of The Kitchen God's Wife. This displacement seems also to occur in this discussion, were it not for the fact that its theoretical insights respond to the novel's complex negotiation of literariness. An emphasis on literary language does generate a problem, however, which Weili repeatedly highlights in her narrative. Theoretically speaking, she confronts the unreliability of linguistic structures as they simultaneously ratify and resist the production of reliable information about the phenomenal world.

Deconstruction responds to this resistance or the discontinuity between linguistic and natural reality, and thus stands accused of advocating "pure verbalism, ... a denial of the reality principle in the name of absolute fictions, and for reasons that are said to be ethically and politically shameful" (De Man, Resistance 10). …

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