Narrative Beginnings in Amy Tan's the Joy Luck Club: A Feminist Study (1)

Article excerpt

Like virginity, literary introductions are often seen as an awkward embarrassment, an obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible in order to facilitate vital experiences. On the other hand, "the first time" is a supremely privileged moment, to be lingered over, contemplated, and cherished. Which is the more telling conception we can only begin to imagine.

--Steven Kellman, "Grand Openings and Plain"

Even feminist narratology ... has tended to focus on women writers or female narrators without asking how the variables "sex," "gender," and "sexuality" might operate in narrative more generally.

--Susan S. Lanser, "Queering Narratology"

Few extensive studies of narrative beginnings exist, and not one takes a feminist perspective. Offering almost exclusively formalist readings, existing analyses neglect the ideological implications of beginnings, especially as they relate to gender, race, and cultural identity. (2) Even as scholars overlook ideological valence in narrative beginnings, their own readings often indicate, perhaps unexpectedly, that social and cultural concerns adhere to any conception of beginnings. For example, Steven Kellman, one of the first to study narrative beginnings in an extended analysis, evokes ways that cultural bias is embedded in these studies. The sexualized metaphor he uses to illustrate the trouble inherent in starting a literary text testifies to this bias. The problem with his description arises when one considers the historical importance placed on female purity and virginity in numerous cultures. Not only is the conception of virginity as an "awkward embarassment" a specifically heteronormatively masculinist perspective, but it also posits the proverbial pen-as-penis, page/text-as-female-body metaphor with whose ideological valences we are all familiar. Furthermore, the analogy obscures cultural differences that shape the relationship of a given individual to gendered sexuality. Similarly, A.D. Nuttall, while recognizing that his text on narrative beginnings is a "spectacle of alternating (male) authority and (male) sequence [that] will certainly be unpleasing to some people," (3) never interrogates this exclusively white male focus (vii). These studies serve as examples of the way gender concerns, however invisible, are often already linked to beginnings. They invite us to examine seriously the identificatory variables that have been elided and to take up the challenge identified by Susan S. Lanser to explore how social categories operate in narrative (250).

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is an ideal vehicle with which to begin such a project. (4) It is suggestive of a new way to look at narrative beginnings, one that emphasizes a destabilization of conceptions of history that exclude women, particularly those of non-European descent. This way of reading narrative beginnings encourages an interrogation of the relevance of both European American and Asian American cultural and national origins for Asian American female subjects, as well as promoting a resistance to the notion of an alternatively authentic origin. If we attend to the ideological significance of beginnings in Tan's novel, a critique of the very concept of origins--especially in its relation to "American," "Chinese," and "Chinese American" identity--becomes apparent. Moreover, doing so illuminates the discursive constructedness of authenticity, origins, and identity, thereby problematizing reductive cultural representations of female, American, and Asian American subjectivity. Building on recent scholarship about Asian American literature and subjectivity, which has suggested that The Joy Luck Club has been misread, (5) this essay attempts to extend, if not disrupt, the readings of many scholars from different disciplines who impose certain kinds of master narratives onto this novel. (6) While these readings are not so much "wrong" as they are incomplete, an examination of this text's narrative beginnings can at once help us to theorize narrative with an attentiveness to difference and to recognize this help as integral to the cultural work Tan's novel performs. …