Countless critics have tried to theorize the reason behind the popularity of Amy Tan's books. Critical companions have been created so that readers can fully understand the depths of Tan's works, yet the question remains: what is the definitive reason behind the success of Tan's THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE? By examining various texts, one can understand the reason, or reasons, for the popularity of this book. Several attributes lead to the success of THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE: the author's use of familial histories, the universality of the book's central themes, and historical background are the formulaic ingredients that create the bestseller.
Amy Tan writes what she knows. Tan's main character in the book, Minnie, is based on the life of Tan's mother (Bloom, p.94). Readers and critics alike relate and appreciate the realistic and factual foundation that Tan creates in her works. E.D. Huntley, author of AMY TAN: A CRITICAL COMPANION writes that
"Amy Tan allows the main characters in THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE to speak in their own voices, to recount the significant events of their lives as they remember them, and to structure their life stories according to the requirements of their personal situations and their reasons for narrating the stories."
By Tan allowing the characters, namely Winnie, to use their own voices, she gives legitimacy to their stories, thus allowing the reader to truly become encapsulated in the story. The dimensionality of Tan's characters, as well as the knowledge that she uses true stories to create her novels, are some of the leading reasons behind this book's success. Tan, on the other hand, received backlash from relatives after the release of the novel, as she told an interviewer in 1995,
"One relative felt that the story of my mother should not have been revealed. My mother was the woman who had been raped, forced to be a concubine......my mother, though, got equally angry with the relative and said, "For so many years, I have carried this shame on my back, and suffered, because I couldn't say anything to anybody. It's not too late; tell the world, tell the world what happened to me." And I take her mandate to be the one that is in my heart, the one that I should follow" (Bloom, 94).
Regardless of what Tan's relatives, or the minority of public readers think, the true-life story sells to the critical and popular masses.
Tan's ethnicity comes into play in several, if not all, of her critical analyses. Emmanuel S. Nelson, in his book oddly enough entitled ASIAN AMERICAN NOVELISTS: A BIO-BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICAL SOURCEBOOK mentions the lack of critical attention given to Tan as a writer.
"Although Amy Tan is widely taught in the classrooms of literary, ethnic, and historical studies, she has yet to receive the kind of critical attention she deserves. Most people read Amy Tan's stories about the Chinese mothers straight as testimonies of the brutal patriarchal world of old China, comforted by the impression that these women lived miserable lives in China and now are safe from harm in America, if not happy. Hopefully, Amy Tan's work will receive more and richer critical attention in the near future."
Tan agrees that her work is sometimes undermined by the fact that several critics label her as a role model for other Asian Americans:
"Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they're writing a very specific story. There's also a danger in balkanizing literature, as if it should be read as sociology, or politics, as opposed to treating it as literature-as a story, language, memory" (Bloom, 94).
The controversy surrounding Tan's critical acclaim leads to inquisitive readers. The interest taken in Tan's work stems from the unanswered question of Tan's ability as a writer, not as a token Asian-American writer, but as a creative, talented artist. The interest surrounding Tan's ability as a writer has sparked readers' initiative to see for themselves. Regardless of how critics, and even Tan herself, view her work as a subcategory of Asian-American literature, the popularity still remains.
THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE has been translated into numerous languages and published in places as from Barcelona to Tokyo. Tan may feel constricted as a writer by the ethnic lines, but her works are also distributed throughout many different ethnicities, allowing several different nationalities a chance to read THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE. A theme that transcends language and ethnicity must therefore be present in her work. The relationship between a mother and a daughter, and family as a whole, is found within the KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE. The bestseller reaches women of any nationality by having characters portray realistic situations. For example, in THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE, the main character, Minnie is an overbearing, argumentative mother to her distant and secretive daughter Pearl. The women have trouble communicating with each other. The critical literature on matrilineage in women's writings has already achieved the status of a rich and evolving canon (Bloom, 25). THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE is popular because the prevalent problem with mother/daughter pairs is something readers everywhere can relate to.
Another important element to Tan's book is the historical relevance of her stories. Tan's novel hits home with numerous readers because of her detailed descriptions of World War II. The immigration of many people during the middle 20th century is a concept several readers and critics appreciate. As Rose Marciano Lucey wrote in the National Catholic Review, "Tan wrote a heartrending reading of the position of women in China as well as a heartwarming reading of courage and determination." Tan described many of the male characters in her novel as cruel and dangerous; yet several were strong and brave soldiers; American and Chinese alike. The universality of the characters allows women and men to appreciate the message portrayed in THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE.
Regardless of the stigma surrounding Tan and her influence as an Asian-American writer, the fact remains that her work has succeeded, popularly and critically. The reasons behind the success of THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE are the appeal to diverse readers, the focus on family and the truth behind its history, and the presence of historical information. All of these ingredients help to make THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE one of the most popular books of the 20th century.
Bloom, Harold. AMY TAN. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Huntley, E.D. AMY TAN: A CRITICAL COMPANION. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Lucey, Rose Marciano. "Amy Tan." National Catholic Reporter 19 Nov. 1993.
Nelson, Emmanuel S. ASIAN AMERICAN NOVELISTS: A BIO-BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICAL SOURCEBOOK. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.