For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Netflix debuted a two-hour documentary about Chinese American best-selling author Amy Tan that focused on how her books became reflections of her life and her mother’s life.
After seeing immediate success with her debut novel The Joy Luck Club in 1989, Amy started a writing career that followed the story’s legacy of featuring two generations of American-born daughters and Chinese-born mothers.
The documentary follows Amy’s childhood where she loses her older brother and father both within six months of their back-to-back brain tumor diagnoses. Amy talks about feeling scared being left with her suicidal mother, who moves Amy and her younger brother to Holland from the San Francisco Bay Area. Once she returns to the U.S. for college, Amy reconnects with her best friend who was another child of the real-life Joy Luck Club, a small social group of Chinese American immigrants who met to discuss investment opportunities, play mahjong and cards, and feast at midnight with the kids.
Years later, Amy is making a career as a business technical writer and living with her husband. One day she receives a call from her brother that her mother had a life-threatening heart attack. She said she made a vow to God that she will spend more time with her mother and talk to her about her life in China. When Amy connects with her mother, she learns her mother experienced angina after an argument at a fish market. Her mother was fine, but the promise echoes and inspires her to sit down with her mother and discover her mother’s life in China.
“I started to ask her about her life, and I listened instead of saying, ‘I’m really busy now. I can’t listen to you,'” Amy says in the documentary. “I would listen to everything and that profoundly changed everything. I wasn’t fighting it anymore. And I learned a lot by simply being quiet and actually listen.”
The Joy Luck Club became an instant sensation resonating across cultures with the common thread of generational trauma.
“It gives you curiosity; you want to ask questions you want to understand and in the answers you get stories,” says author Isabel Allende in the documentary. “That’s what Amy has been doing. She observes her mother and her aunts and the culture and at the same time she totally belongs here. So it’s in the conscience, in the complexity that she finds her language, her inspiration.”
Four years later in 1993, the book became the first film to feature a majority Asian American cast. That success wouldn’t be repeated until 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians based on Kevin Kwan’s first book in his soapy series.
“Not to do any disservice to the amazing Asian American writers that came before Amy, but I think this is the first book that really crossed over into becoming a mainstream mass market success. It had such a huge impact on paving the way for other writers of color to tell their stories,” Kevin says in the documentary. He adds he saw the film five times in the theater growing up in Texas where all his friends were White, but he was proud to be able to show them “English-speaking contemporary Asians.”
The novel has also seen its critics who Amy says believed she had used ethnic tropes like starting the novel with a fake Chinese folktale to portraying the grandmother as a concubine who commits suicide. Except the tropes Amy is accused of putting in her book actually happened to her family and in her life, she says.
“When I was given this mantle for speaking for the Asian American community, suddenly there were these expectations. I started getting a lot of criticism. Some said I did it wrong, that I had created stereotypes and pandered to those,” Amy says. “Mothers speaking in broken English, or concubines who had killed themselves. These were stereotypes.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what to say. I would be caught off-guard,” she adds, “but then I realized that they wanted really was role models. They wanted me to right the social wrongs, the social injustices and finally they had someone in the limelight who should now address that and not be pandering, so to speak, to the mainstream.”
Besides The Joy Luck Club, Amy is the author of seven other books, including memoirs and children’s books.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is streaming now on Netflix.