The Space Between
by Maymay Liu
Perhaps Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club does not immediately spring to mind as the perfect counterpart to Hilton Als’ White Girls. Written nearly twenty-five years apart (The Joy Luck Club was first published in 1989, White Girls just last year), the two works are also highly differentiated by subject matter and author background. The Joy Luck Club is a fiction novel about mother and daughter relationships in the Chinese-American community of San Francisco, circa 1950; White Girls is a collection of essays that examine black and white relationships through a study of the lives of various celebrities (Richard Pryor, Louise Brooks, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and the like). Amy Tan is a Chinese woman who was born in Oakland California, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a homemaker, while African-American writer Hilton Als is New York born and bred.
Tan and Als write from the opposite sides of almost every possible spectrum, so it does seem hard to believe that their works might intersect in any way. But the differences between Amy Tan and Hilton Als are precisely what make it so wonderful to compare their writing; race and culture, in particular, only have meaning when juxtaposed against other races and cultures. Without a system of constant redefinition, social constructs like race and culture couldn’t exist. Both The Joy Luck Club and White Girls are about the people who get caught up in this process of redefinition and subsequently fall into the cracks between the tectonic plates of the racial landscape; when juxtaposed, it is evident that Tan and Als have insights about the relationship between identity and race that diverge and converge in startling ways.
The line between fiction and non-fiction generally feels clear-cut for me, but when it comes to cultural narratives, the division wavers. Works of writing that incorporate cultural narratives try to enfold personal experiences into greater, inherently nebulous bodies of work about an entire group of people. Cultural and racial realities are subjective — everything is about relative experience, so it is void to say that one person’s perspective is correct and another’s is wrong. In that sense, I feel like it doesn’t quite matter if the story’s narrator is a fictional character or a real person, since there is no such thing as taking a ‘realistic’ view of a culture to begin with.
Literature about culture reveals something of culture, no matter if the players who act out the story are fictional or real; the labels ‘non-fiction’ and ‘fiction’ cannot make White Girls more ‘real’ than The Joy Luck Club. Besides, White Girls is so unique that it almost defies categorization by genre, and I simply could not think of any work that does the same thing for Chinese culture that Als’ book does for African-American culture and homosexuality in the US. I picked The Joy Luck Club as a comparison for White Girls because it was the first book I had ever read about Chinese-Americans in the US, written by a Chinese-American. I remember having an amazingly visceral reaction to it — an electric mixture of joy and shame wrapped up in disbelief at seeing my own story in print. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t feel that way again about any book until almost 10 years later, when I picked up White Girls.
Of course, there’s also the fact that The Joy Luck Club is autobiographical as well. Just as the character Jing-Mei Woo discovers from her father that her late mother had two other daughters in China who now want to meet her, Amy Tan herself made a journey back to the mainland to meet her three half-sisters for the first time in 1987, at the age of 27 — just about Jing-Mei’s age. Hence, we can argue that Amy Tan dreamed the women of The Joy Luck Club in the same way that Hilton Als dreamed himself as Richard Pryor’s sister or Louise Brooks — a creative process fueled by reality and fantasy in equal parts. (Besides, what part of Als’ haunting, beautiful, tragic 30-year relationship with Sir or Lady seems ‘real’ to anyone but Hilton Als himself?) As Als puts it:
It’s something I’ve always done; SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it. I wrote about my first kiss more fully than I lived it. I wouldn’t know what I looked like in relation to SL, my twin, if I didn’t describe it on the page.
It follows then, that whenever you analyze a piece of writing based on race, you inevitably apply a frame of reference that is unique to yourself, based on your own experience of that race or culture. However, when testing that theory out with these two books, I immediately ran into complications; despite the fact that I know The Joy Luck Club is partly autobiographical, I have a harder time buying into the reality of The Joy Luck Club than that of White Girls, which is completely inverted, because, as a Chinese woman, I should relate to Tan’s work better than to Als’.
But we’re forgetting about how Als makes it so incredibly easy to fall for him. The first thing he dissects in White Girls is himself. He opens the book with a 90-page essay on his relationship with a man he calls Sir or Lady (SL) — and I trusted him implicitly from the first sentence: “Sir or Lady, (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love.” How could I not trust someone so willing to expose not only himself but also this most treasured person, SL, in front of his readers? Tan chose to tell her story masked by fictional characters, but Als has given us his truth naked. He ruminates:
In SL’s house there are many mirrors. We don’t get in their way. What would be the point? Our eyes are monstrous, reflective, and loving enough. “My mind forgets / the persons I have been along the way.” And yet SL wants to know each and every one of those persons who had gone into the making of my me. How dare he stand there waiting for my I of selves? No one can have them, or me. But he counters with: How can we be a we, if I don’t know your I?
What Als doesn’t say is even more intriguing; why does SL have so many mirrors? If they’re not to be looked into, what purpose do they serve? Als implies that the mirrors are defunct because he and SL are themselves mirrors, but as mirrors, Als and SL are not even as useful as the unused mirrors on SL’s walls. Trying to use their own bodies and minds as reflective surfaces, they still fail to find what they are looking for in each other: “How can we be a we, if I don’t know your I?” White Girls is filled with the echoes of this question, which reverberates through every character Als dissects. It is in “White Noise,” when Als scrutinizes Eminem and sees how the rapper’s shadow is mother-shaped and sometimes swells to overwhelm him (the excess spills over into his lyrics); it is in “Michael,” when Als takes Michael Jackson’s disintegrating health as sweet relief from a suffocating life.
The mothers of The Joy Luck Club reflect this tragic interpretation of ‘we-ness’. They try to figure out how an ‘I’ can give birth, literally, to another ‘I’ that is entirely distinct from the first; how daughters can forget that mothers are part of their “I of selves.” Tan expresses motherhood as a forlorn state of perpetual surprise that daughters exist beyond their mothers’ bodies in this way:
She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore.
An-Mei Hsu says this of her daughter, Rose Hsu Jordan, but the notion applies to all the mothers in The Joy Luck Club; such thoughts eat constantly at their mind like teeth. Both Als and Tan speak of an amorphous continuum between physical bodies and the mind that we traverse by trying to make connections with other people; indeed, Als embodies this spectrum throughout the rest of White Girls by taking on the personas of various celebrities. It’s true that his jerky leaping from perspective to perspective can be confusing — immediately after “Tristes Tropiques,” that dazzling, heartbreaking first essay of personal loss and love, he switches to an essay that is a contemplation of Truman Capote. Als claims Capote was a woman writer who “sought to limit or cock block other women writers in their quest to be popular, admired, celebrated.” While the opening of this essay is certainly beguiling as well, the sudden switch induces a sense of lost equilibrium; we’ve lost the ‘I’ from “Tristes Tropiques,” the ‘I’ we have so come to love. But in a wonderfully bizarre way, it is precisely because I know nothing of Als’ world, and thus get so easily lost in it, that I am so easily seduced by his book. By not being a black, gay man at all, I am able to conceptualize a black, gay man in exactly the way that Hilton Als wants me to; I become Hilton Als when I read White Girls; I am the perfect audience.
Amy Tan cannot have this easy compliance with me as her reader; as a Chinese person, I am prickly when it comes to writing about Chinese culture and Chinese relationships. But even with my defensive reading style, I loved The Joy Luck Club. Tan makes sense of the senseless and turns numb tragedies into structured poignancy by binding them to the swelling rise and fall of words on a page. The Joy Luck Club is almost the polar opposite of White Girls in terms of structure. There is a symmetry to the book — four sections with four stories each — that is broken in a tragically beautiful way with the presence of only seven voices instead of the complete set of eight. The eighth voice, belonging to Suyuan Woo, has already been silenced by death in the form of a cerebral aneurysm at the opening of the novel — we hear her story through her daughter’s words. Tan uses the same tone and diction for each character, so at any point in the novel, you may be unsure whose story you are reading; is this Waverly Jong, the young chess prodigy? Ying-Ying St. Clair, talking about the tiger in her eyes that her daughter can’t see? Who just lost a baby brother?
And yet, even within this tight structure and Tan’s careful melding of narrative styles, the stories still feel segregated somehow. The various speakers rarely touch their stories to each other’s; even when mothers and daughters talk directly about each other, there are so many misunderstandings about motive and character that it hardly feels like anyone is even remotely related. The first and last sections contain the mothers’ stories, so that the mothers’ words wrap around those of the daughters in a sort of protective outer layer — it seems that the harder the mothers try to move inward and connect with their daughters, they more they feel their efforts are useless. But the mothers, confined to the pages of their own stories, can’t see how the language their daughters use is so deeply rooted in theirs; they all seem to speak using idioms influenced by Chinese adages and proverbs. Here is a passage from the chapter “Rules of the Game,” which is about Waverly Jong (a daughter) and her childhood years as a chess champion. Whenever Waverly plays, she imagines that the wind is telling her what moves to execute:
It whispered secrets only I could hear.
“Blow from the South,” it murmured. “The wind leaves no trail.” I saw a clear path, the traps to avoid. The crowd rustled. “Shhh! Shhh!” said the corners of the room. The wind blew stronger. “Throw sand from the East to distract him.” The knight came forward ready for the sacrifice. The wind hissed, louder and louder. “Blow, blow, blow. He cannot see. He is blind now. Make him lean away from the wind so he is easier to knock down.
“Check,” I said, as the wind roared with laughter. The wind died down to little puffs, my own breath.
The wind that Waverly Jong imagines — the wind that inspires her strategic brilliance — speaks with her mother’s speech patterns, favoring the monosyllables that many non-native English speakers favor. Even more significantly, Waverly sees the wind as part of herself: it is her “own breath.” It pains me to think that the mothers cannot see how the architecture of their daughters’ thinking is shaped by their culture while I, only a bystander, can so clearly trace the same arches, curved roofs, and towering columns that rise from the pages of the mothers’ stories as well as the daughters’ stories. The magic of The Joy Luck Club comes from how Amy Tan gives us power as readers by allowing us to see the myriad of ways that these mother and daughter pairs are actually connected, but also from how she leaves us utterly powerless. Despite our omniscience, we cannot interact with these fictional characters to tell them what we know; we cannot correct their misunderstandings; ultimately, Tan has left strings hanging loose, and we have no way of weaving these narratives together.
Despite Tan’s success at exploring cross-generational relationships through the very structure of language, we must acknowledge that language itself is a significant burden that Tan is weighed down by and that Als avoids entirely. Als writes in English for the sake of English, but Tan must, at times, write in English for the sake of translating Chinese, which makes reading The Joy Luck Club a distinctly unique experience. For example, half of the stories in The Joy Luck Club are told from the perspectives of the mothers during their separate childhoods in China — most of them grew up very wealthy. The chapter entitled “The Moon Lady” is about Ying Ying St. Clair (she acquired that non-Chinese last name when she married an American man) and how she once fell into a river as a little girl while attending a Mid-Autumn Festival party. Tan depicts a scene of the family’s matriarchs taking a break during the pre-party preparations:
Mama was telling my aunt and the old ladies how to mix various herbs and insects to produce a balm: “This you rub here, between these two spots. Rub it vigorously until your skin heats and the achiness is burned out.”
“Ai! But how can I rub a swollen foot?” lamented the old lady. “Both inside and outside have a sour painful feeling. Too tender to even touch!”
“It is the heat,” complained another old auntie. “Cooking all your flesh dry and brittle.”
Taken out of context, you might mistake this for, say, any group of old Chinese women sitting on little wooden stools in the windblown yard of an apartment complex in San Francisco — but that’s not the case at all. These are the wives of prosperous Chinese land-owners and scholars, wealthy enough to rent out an entire ten-floor restaurant for family dinners on a weekly basis. It’s true that the Chinese language does not have the equivalent of a definite article, so it’s accurate for Amy Tan to write “both inside and outside” instead of “both the inside and the outside” — but the result is still that we’re reading broken English, so that we see these characters in a way that diverges from how they should be seen, as the upper-class women that they are.
If The Joy Luck Club has a fault, it lies here, in a lack of clever, purposeful humor; Tan does not explore, or even acknowledge, the difficulties of writing about a language that defies translation into English. The comedic aspects of The Joy Luck Club are derived entirely from the broken English the mothers speak, which uncomfortably brings to mind hideous cultural stereotypes of the ‘ching chong ling long’variant.
While Als is not confronted by the challenge of language in the same way that Tan is, he does not allow the reader to derive humor from an accent, or from anything about a person that they cannot change because of their cultural background. For example, look at the essay “You and Whose Army?” Als folds his mind into impersonating Richard Pryor’s sister. She is being interviewed by a reporter on her famous comedian brother, but instead of answering the reporter’s questions about him, she elaborates on her own career as a voice actress for pornographic movies. At one point, she discusses the Cambria List (of rules), which was implemented in the porn industry in an effort to “help the [industry] stay out of trouble during the Bush administration.” One item on the list specifies that no “degrading dialogue” should be used during production. She evaluates that rule:
Notice that nowhere on the list is there an edict against the voice — that is, there are no directives against the way the voice can and should be used. Of course, there’s that reference to so-called “degrading dialogue” — e.g., “Suck this cock, bitch” — but when isn't need degrading? In any case, I get around that particular mandate by making it sound more like a question — “Suck this cock, bitch?” — or punk-ass pleading, and therefore more like love.
Als’ conception of Pryor’s sister as a voice actress allows him to express complex thoughts about the relationship between form and content in terms of this woman’s body and the pornographic movies she participates in. At the same time, his nuanced manipulation of language here (the shift from “Suck this cock, bitch” to “Suck this cock, bitch?”) also allows for a moment of enormous hilarity that softens the sentence’s damning conclusion, which likens love to “punk-ass pleading.” The Joy Luck Club is missing this element of spontaneous, intelligent humor.
But perhaps The Joy Luck Club isn’t humorous because it isn’t supposed to be humorous. I love Als because even with old grief sitting on his chest like an imp, he finds the perfect places to laugh; the absence of Tan’s laughter, though, does not mean she doesn’t care. Tan knows pain, and her characters respond to it with a determined stoicism that is no less touching than Als’ joviality. At the end of the book, Jing-Mei’s father reveals that her mother had to abandon her babies — the half-sisters Jing-Mei is flying to meet in China — because the Japanese had invaded her town. After walking for days without food and drink, she put the babies down on the road momentarily to seek help elsewhere. When she fainted in a ditch, a group of well-meaning farmers took her to the hospital, and left her babies behind. Jing-Mei’s father tells of her mother’s first waking moments at the hospital:
“Look at this face,” she said, and I saw her dusty face and hollow cheeks, her eyes shining back. “Do you see my foolish hope?”
“I thought I had lost everything, except those two things,” she murmured. “And I wondered which I would lose next. Clothes or hope? Hope or clothes?”
“But now, see here, look what is happening,” she said, as if all her prayers had been answered. And she was pulling hair out of her head as easily as one lifts new wheat from wet soil.
The magic of Tan and Als lies in how they handle things that divide our lives into before and after, whether these things are isolated moments in time, or people, or objects invented, or concepts and ideas that grew into revolutions — things that are not interrupted by race and culture, but enhanced by them. In the end, their books are really about how blood is blood and Fate always sings her siren song; since there’s nothing you can do about it, then it must be okay (and you might as well dance to that tune).