Amy Tan, Contemporary Novelist


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 9: Amy Tan, Contemporary Novelist
Dec. 2-6, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of Amy Tan.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Choose some aspect of Amy Tan’s perspective as a novelist—contemporary, female, Asian-American, Western—and discuss how this perspective shapes her novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter. 

Presentation: “Amy Tan, Contemporary Novelist” (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Language: Discuss the necessity and failures of language in the novel.

Family: How do family ties and pressures affect the novel’s main characters?

Form: Choose an aspect of the novel’s form—point of view, for example—and discuss how this formal quality helps to shape the narrative.

Past: Like Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and other Southern writers, Amy Tan seems interested in the past and its impact on the present and future.  Discuss this impact.

Presentations: Amy Tan (Jemn Hershberger, Cresta Strickland)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.


Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following:

  • flashback
  • point of view


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


Anniina’s Amy Tan Page features numerous links to interviews, biographical sketches, and other material.

Updated December 2, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In our final lesson, we will examine a novel published just last year, Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter.  You also will have a chance to sign up for a time to take your oral examination next week.


Amy Tan, 1952-


At a time when America is teeming with novels and novelists, Amy Tan has risen to the top.  She was 37 when she published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), which became a best-seller and drew her extensive critical attention.  Since that relatively late start, she has come out with three other novels, including The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001).  Like her fellow Asian-American, Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan draws extensively on her family’s Chinese background and takes a special interest in exploring issues regarding mothers and daughters.


Born February 19, 1952, in Oakland, California, An-mei Tan was one of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan.  

Growing up in California, particularly Santa Clara, Tan was exposed to American culture.  A turning point came when as a teenager she lost both her brother and her father to brain tumors.  In a profile of Tan, Stephen Soitos explains: “Daisy Tan felt the loss deeply and renewed her ancient Chinese customs by invoking help from Chinese deities and soothsayers.  Amy Tan was immersed into Chinese culture, an experience that would later infuse her novels” (290).  While she was still a teenager, Tan moved with her mother and remaining brother, John, to Switzerland.  After returning with her family back to the United States, she studied English and linguistics at San Jose State University, graduating in 1973.  A year later, she earned a master’s degree in linguistics from the same university and married Louis DeMattei.  After a stint at the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens, where she was a language consultant, she worked as a professional writer, composing not novels, but speeches and other material for the business community.


Tan turned to fiction in the 1980s, publishing a short story called “Endgame” in the magazines FM and Seventeen.  In 1989, she came out with her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, which garnered Tan a nomination for the National Book Award.  A successful film adaptation of the novel helped increase Tan’s popularity.  Since that initial success, Tan has published additional novels, as well as essays, short stories, and two children’s books.  She is also a force behind the PBS children’s television program Sagwa.


The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001)


Over the past four centuries, American literature was generally dominated by white men, such as John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and a host of other writers.  The same can be said of the American novel.  Since its emergence in the late eighteenth century, the most significant contributions to the genre have largely come from the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and other white men.  America saw an occasional masterpiece from a woman, such as Edith Wharton, or an African-American novelist, such as Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright, but major novels by Latino or Asian-American writers were unheard of.


The American literary scene changed dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, however, with the emergence of major writers from what had previously been the margins.  Along with major black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, who continued a strong tradition of African-American writing, there were numerous writers from other ethnic backgrounds, many of them women.  The Asian-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston, for instance, was honored by the National Book Critics Circle for her nonfiction narrative The Woman Warrior (1976) and received an American Book Award for her next book, China Men (1977).  Other leading writers from the last three decades include Latino writers Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldua, Native Americans Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich, and Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee.


In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tan draws heavily on her Chinese heritage, incorporating both her mother’s background and some treatment of the Chinese language into her narrative.  Indeed, language itself is a major theme of the novel, as can be seen in Ruth’s annual episode of becoming dumb, her mother’s profession as a calligrapher, even her ancestors’ ink-making business.  Tan also explores mother-daughter relationships in her novel, which recounts not only Ruth’s interactions with her mother, but also her mother’s relationship with her own mother.

Work Cited


Soitos, Stephen.  “Amy Tan.”  American Writers.



We have concluded our lessons on the American novel.  Next week, you will have the opportunity to show how much you have learned in your oral examination.