The Silencing Effect of Canonicity: Authorship and the Written Word in Amy Tan's Novels

By Dunick, Lisa M. S. | MELUS, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Silencing Effect of Canonicity: Authorship and the Written Word in Amy Tan's Novels


Dunick, Lisa M. S., MELUS


In the past twenty years, novels such as Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, and works by an array of African American women writers have become relatively common occurrences on university syllabi. The inclusion of these female authored texts is often a function of their difference from the grand narratives of "traditional" American literature. University instructors and literary critics alike have tended to highlight traditionally oral forms of narration, especially women's oral story-telling, found in many of these ethnic women's texts as equal to the traditional grand narratives of Western literature. While the attention given to these authors has broadened our definitions and understanding of what we consider literary, it has at the same time highlighted these authors' difference to such an extent that they remain always in some respect outside of or in opposition to a traditional conception of the canon. In some cases, the effect of this limitation has been to valorize texts that fit into the neat models of what writing by ethnic American authors should do and has relegated writers who do not fit into these models to the outskirts of our critical interest. Thus, certain writers become naturalized as intrinsically important, while others are relegated to the realm of the popular. (1)

In the realm of Asian American women's literature, we can see this exclusionary effect in discussions about Amy Tan's works. The criticism about Tan's works centers on the way that the dialogic nature of talk-story functions either to create or to bridge gaps between bi-cultural, bilingual immigrant mothers and their Americanized second-generation daughters. (2) In particular, since Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior underscored the Chinese tradition of "talk-story" as a major trope in Chinese American women's narratives, focus on this specific oral tradition has become the center of much of the critical work being done about Chinese American women writers. However, in the case of Tan's texts, this critical focus on the importance of talk-story serves to limit the interpretive work to be done on these texts. Studies of Amy Tan's first three novels, The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), and The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), have correctly identified patterns of tension in her texts that result from the conflict between the oral storytelling of Chinese mothers (what has been identified as talk-story) and their American daughters' initial resistance to and eventual acceptance of that mode of narration. (3) Critical work on Tan's texts has largely ignored aspects of that corpus which separates it from the work of writers like Kingston--the importance of written texts and the literacy of Chinese mothers. (4) Consequently, by failing to recognize that Tan highlights the crafting of written texts as important, critics also have failed to appreciate fully Tan's representation of her Chinese mothers (5) and the work that these texts do within a broader context of literature.

This critical shortcoming may be recognized and perhaps rectified with a reassessment of her work through the lens of The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001). This novel's intense focus on the literary quality of women's writing may allow us to recognize that literacy in the form of writing and written texts represents an important and often more effective means of transmitting cultural memories and cultural identity across generational lines than talk-story. Furthermore, The Bonesetter's Daughter is not a completely new development in or deviation from Tan's previous themes, but represents a more fully developed reworking of issues about identity and language than we can find in many of her works. (6) Through an analysis of the importance of written texts, this study will demonstrate the ways that Tan's works present literacy and writing in order to reveal the critical problems with identifying non-Western narratives only through an understanding of oral traditions.

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