The Namesake and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

Themes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan

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3 Themes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan

Both Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan are the children of migrants to United States. Jhumpa Lahiri was born to Bengali parents in 1967 and the family immigrated to U.S. two years later. Despite the fact that Amy Tan was born in 1952, more than the decade before Hart-Celler Act took effect, they were both growing up during the era characterized by the situation when the immigrants were already affected by the law. Chinese and Indian migrants were no longer minorities characterized by poverty and low socio-economic status. While aware of their specific situation, for ‘children of 1965’ “being perceived as Americans is more important than whatever attenuated ties they might have to the Asian countries” (Song 353). Lahiri and Tan are, too, different from their predecessors in the scene of diasporic literature because they make use of different themes. Ma, for example, notices that in comparison with more than a decade old novel The Woman Warrior, written by famous Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan handles her ethnic heritage in a different way. Ma claims that Tan’s position towards China and immigrants from China “mellowed” (Ma 15), and The Joy Luck Club reflects the transformation of political and cultural conditions since Asian Americans do not feel a necessity to differentiate from non-American Asians (Ma 15). Whereas Tan is considered to be less firm in her position towards the people of the same descent, Lahiri is considered as reflecting improved conditions of diasporic immigrants even more. Her characters are no longer contrastive to other Americans, and they live in “the milieu in which brown skin matters exponentially less than a degree from Brown” (Waldman n. pag.). It is therefore not only their parents’ culture, but also the era which shaped their literary concerns. Their position towards ethnic communities therefore reflects in their texts in that they do not represent members of the low social classes. On the contrary, the characters which the authors portray are either prominent first and second generation characters, as it is the case of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, or prosperous second generation migrants in the case of Amy Tan’ novel.

Besides their foreign family background, another feature the two authors have in common is their ‘overnight’ literary fame. They were the authors’ first books which granted them the literary celebrity status. Before her first novel, Jhumpa Lahiri was completely unknown to the literary world. Lahiri then became the first South Asian recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories named Interpreter of Maladies (2000). This thesis, however, concentrates on Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, which was published five years after the Interpreter of Maladies, in 2005.

Amy Tan also became widely known thanks to her first novel, The Joy Luck Club. The positive reviews consequently catapulted the novel into the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for nine months (Wong 83). Tan’s novel was praised by the critics, too, since it was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lahiri’s writings are labelled either as diasporic fiction or immigrant fiction (Huang 126). Her short story collections and the two novels are linked either to Indian continent or to Indians and the second generation Indian immigrants in the U.S.. The themes of Amy Tan include the complexity of human relationships, cross-cultural experience, cultural exoticism and authenticity and also fate and faith (Dong viii). The writings of both authors therefore explore their cultural heritage and usually avoid depicting non-diasporic or non-ethnic America. The two selected novels, The Namesake and The Joy Luck Club, are also marked by ethnographic writing since they focus on the first and on the second generation immigrants, especially on the relationship between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Such themes are not uncommon among second-generation immigrant writers. As Lim observes, the individual depicted in Asian American writing is created as an intersection of “two national cultures, two homeland, two origins” (Lim 292). The second generation migrants in the two novels are, too, composed in relation to two cultures because they were born and are raised in the U.S. but at the same time are influenced by their parent’s origin. As the characters in the novels grow up, struggling with various everyday problems, they, also, encounter some problems with their parents. Lim addresses this when she claims that second-generation writers often focus on either generational or cross-cultural conflicts which occur between native-born and foreign groups (Lim 292). As this thesis argues, Jhumpa Lahiri rather depicts the differences between parents and their children as originating in generational differences, while Amy Tan focuses mainly on cultural difference between parents and their children.

The Namesake portrays the lives of the Ganguli family but it mainly concentrates on the life of Gogol Ganguli. The novel opens with the main character’s mother, Ashima, giving birth in American hospital. The story then depicts the life of the protagonist’s father’s accident and his arranged marriage to Ashima. Mishra characterizes the lives of the immigrant parents in the novel as an attempt to “preserve their ‘home cultures’, and on the other hand they [parents] also try and groom their children for the American way of life” (Mishra 67). Sometimes characterized as a coming-of-age novel or Bildungsroman, The Namesake concentrates not only on the development of the main character, but also on the parents who are subject to transformation for they change from mourning for their homeland to the characters satisfied with their American lives. The Joy Luck Club, however, does not centre on one family only, it rather revolves around the lives of four Chinese daughters and their mothers of a Chinese diasporic community. Every daughter and mother tell their stories in a separate chapter with the only exception of Jing-Mei Woo. Since her mother has died recently, Jing-Mei replaces her in a weekly meeting where Chinese mothers play mah jong. The stories occur either in China or in United States.

The literary focus of both authors could have its source in their own life and family background. Since her childhood, Lahiri spoke Bengali language at home and in her youth she was also recurrently visiting Calcutta (Huang 126). Mishra sees Lahiri’s upbringing as the reason she is able to make sense of the immigrant experience. Lahiri does not look at the episodes in the life of immigrants “through the prism of set traditions [but they are] projected in a lifelike manner” (Mishra 68). Lahiri’s ability to understand the immigrant experience may stem from the fact that she depicts the general experience of loneliness and abandonment. In the first chapter, when Ashima is lonely and feels alienated, Lahiri does not portray the differences through ethnic or religious rituals but through Ashima’s inner life. Lahiri, however, depicts also Indian traditions, but those are the customs which she experienced. Her ethnic representation varies from Bengali traditions of naming to the descriptions of Indian ethnic dresses and food. One of the novel’s plotlines begins when Gogol’s intended pet name becomes his official name. Lahiri has a direct experience with the Bengali custom of giving a child two names. Officially named Nilanja Sudeshna, Lahiri chose to be known as Jhumpa, a name which was once only her pet name (Dhingra and Cheung xi). Tan, too, has a different official name. Born as An-mei Ruth Tan, she became known as Amy. Her parent’s story is however more troubling than of Jhumpa Lahiri’s family. Tan’s mother could not emigrate to U.S. at first because of her abusive husband. While still married to her first husband, she met Du Ching Tan and wanted to flee with him. Despite being put to a jail for adultery, she later succeeded in her route to United States (Rosinsky 15-16). Her grandmother’s life was even more tragic since she was, after the death of her husband, forced into concubinage. After her son was taken from her, she committed suicide (Dong 3). Tan’s family experienced a further misfortune when her father and brother died from brain tumour only a few months apart (Dong 4). Such outcome caused Tan to see “the world as a violent, dangerous place”, but at the same time the sense of danger helped her write (Jaggi n. pag.). As is the case with Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan can speak her parent’s language. Contrary to Lahiri, however, Tan was during her adolescence refusing to speak the language and was planning to alter her Chinese physical features by plastic surgery. She also experienced racial jokes and faced the cruelty of teenagers against those who are different (Jagii n. pag.). The source of inspiration is therefore for both authors slightly different. While Jhumpa Lahiri was influenced by Indian culture and was growing up in harmony with it, Tan was affected by her grandmother’s and mother’s tragic life stories. Moreover, Tan’s mother’s “eccentric beliefs and dramatic behaviours” strengthened Tan’s sense of alienation even more (Dong 8). As a result, she understands Chinese culture as conflicting with her American background. Because of her different appearance and her Chinese origin, she felt estranged even in America because she experienced how intolerant people can be towards different ethnic groups.

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