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Socio-Cultural Responsibility in Contemporary Literature and Art

Austin Gerth

The essay "Joy Luck and Hollywood," from Amy Tan's The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, tells the story of adapting her nov­el The Joy Luck Club for film, and it indicts the cultural dilettantism that pervades discussions of artistic works by ethnic minorities. Though the essay gives the reader a behind­ the-scenes look at the mind behind a popular book and film, it also brings up an interesting question: is it possible for writers and artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds to produce work that doesn't include issues of racial, ethnic, or cultural identity as the main focus without facing disdain or misunderstanding from critics, readers, and peers?


In the essay, Tan tells of how, upon publication, The Joy Luck Club became a surprise bestseller, and movie offers quickly began to roll in. Tan worried that her book might be mishandled, so she re­fused all of these initial offers. She changed her mind only after meeting director Wayne Wang and screenwriter Ron Bass, with whom she shared an immediate artistic affinity. Though Tan, Bass, and Wang were initially unable to sell the movie idea to any major studios, they eventually agreed to develop a script. Once finished, the trio sold their script to Disney's Hollywood Pictures. Tan's essay then details her gradual adjustment to the tropes of screenwriting life and gives an insight to the way she and her collaborators worked together on the script and its various drafts.

Tan's writing throughout the piece, which began life as a series of answers to emailed questions from the Los Angeles Times, is breezy and light, marbled with wry humor. She makes the movie-making process sound surprisingly easy and care­free, though she is forthright about her worries regarding the com­mercial prospects of a film about a group of Asian women with no big ­name stars. Tan never forgets to em­phasize the input of her

co-writers, Bass and Wang, and makes a point of not disparaging Disney's han­dling of the project in any way. Tan does write of occasional disagree­ments during the writing process and of difficulties during the filming in China, but even these anecdotes are largely humorous.


The biggest issue Tan addresses (albeit briefly) in her essay is the biased way the media views the art and literature created by ethnic mi­norities. She writes: 

    I know from reactions to my fic­tion that there are people who believe that the raison

    d'être of any story with an ethnic an­gle is to provide an education­al lesson on culture.

    I find that attitude restrictive, as though an Asian-American artist has license to

    create only some­thing that specifically addresses a cultural hot point, and not a work

    about human nature that happens to depict that through Asian-Americans. (191) 

Tan believes critics and readers (when reading a work by, say, an Asian-American or Native Amer­ican author) may not accept work that doesn't simply reinforce a po­litically correct view of the ethnic­ity of the author, or agitate for the advancement of said ethnicity-the story being told al ways seems to be subordinate to the cultural narrative. It would be very difficult for 
an author from a non-Caucasian background to write a book that focused on characters of similar ethnicity without overtly comment­ing on the challenges faced by that ethnicity. Also, it would be difficult if he or she simply didn't bother with ethnicity at all (by simply fo­cusing on the story at hand). These instances could cause the author to run into some sort of backlash or bewilderment at the hands of critics or from readers. 

When one considers that a ma­jority of the people holding the au­thority to decide what is and what isn't classic literature are probably white, it begs the question of wheth­er or not there is a bias toward one's own culture when reading books that deal with in-depth character study or metaphysical introspection, rather than some broader, more politically charged subject matter. There is a (subconscious) response to literature of cultures other than our own, one similar in nature to he response of an American tourist in a new, subjectively exotic locale: the writing comes across more like an anthropology project than art. It becomes difficult, while reading, to move beyond the novelty of a different ethnic or cultural group's traditions to get at whatever great­er implications the story may have for people as a whole. Since a good deal of the literature in question is intended to address the same totality of life as the work of more mainstream authors, this poses a problem; a wall of un-relatability goes up between the reader and a literary work that looks at the world from a dif­ferent vantage point, and this wall becomes highly prob­lematic when evalu­ating the work of a diverse array of authors. An over­whelming majority of the literary works regarded as classics are/were written by white authors, and the only cultural minority works that earn the distinction often seem to be the ones that do the best job of tackling race issues.


Another example of a writ­er dealing with such a situation is Louise Erdrich and her second novel, The Beet Queen, from 1986. Erdrich, a Native American author, had earned a significant amount of acclaim from her 1984 debut nov­el, Love Medicine, which used mul­tiple narrators and a good deal of jumping back and forth in time to tell .the story of an extended fami­ly on a North Dakota Indian Res­ervation from the l 930s-80s: The Beet Queen, though located in the same area, focused mostly on the non-Native American people of a town near the reservation, which prompted another notable Native American author to accuse Erdrich of abandoning her heritage in favor of postmodern literary frippery. The author, Leslie Marmon Silko, wrote a fairly negative review of The Beet Queen when it came out, in which she criticized the lack of realistic racism in the portrayal of North Dakotan life on and around an Indian Reservation in the '30s. Such criti­cism assumes that Erdrich intended to comment on racism in the '30s rather than write about the interac­tions between characters. Tan faced the same problem when making The Joy Luck Club into a film (Kroeber).


Tan, at an earlier point in the essay, mentions her nervousness at how a movie about a group of non-Caucasian women would fare in the American film environment of the day. She worried, while writ­ing and shopping the script around, about the possibility of studio lack­eys trying to change the characters or otherwise tweak the story, de­parting from the vision of her nov­el in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Ironically, this situation reflects a sub-plot in the film of the Joy Luck Club where one of the prin­cipal characters, rebounding from a recent divorce, begins dating a kindly American buffoon and wor­ries incessantly about her mother's approval. In this scenario, Tan is the divorcee and the American film industry is the buffoon, with the American movie-going public play­ing the role of the divorcee's (Tan's) mother. Tan worried both about the way a film starring non-Cauca­sian women would be received by a largely Caucasian public and about what would be­come of her if her movie were to inadvertently portray Chinese Americans in a negative light. Additionally, because Joy Luck Club was being financed by a major studio, rather than on independent dollar, it might be seen as a referendum on the viability of other films of its kind (Tan 190).


What is left is a question of the artist's responsibility to his or her cultural roots. The work of

Asian-Ameri­can writer Amy Tan connects to a broader question of whether or not writers and artists from diverse cultures have any kind of responsibility to their ethnicity in their writing/art. Ultimately, they don't: art is art, and making rules about what writers or people in general should or shouldn't produce will only lead to creative stagnation. The Joy Luck Club refuses either to blatant­ly exploit negative Asian-American stereotypes or to merely give an innocuous lesson on Chinese tradition. The film's strength is that its characters are flawed hu­man beings first and flawed

Asian-Americans second, and these characters and their flaws remain the focus at all times. Everything is subordinate to the storytelling. 


The Joy Luck Club. Dir. Wayne Wang. Prod. Wayne Wang,Amy Tan, and Ronald Bass. By Amy Tan and Ronald Bass. Perf. Chin Tsai, Chinh Kieu, Lisa Lu, and France Nuyen. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., 1993. DVD. 

Kroeber, Karl. "SAIL Ser.I, 10.4." SAIL Ser.I, 10.4. ASAIL, 1986. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. < SAILns/ 104 .html>. 

Quennet, Fabienne C. Where "Indians" Fear to Tread?: A Post­modern Reading of Louise Erdrich's North Dakota Quartet. Munster: LIT Verlag, 2001.7-9. eBook. 

Tan, Amy. "Joy luck and Hollywood." The Opposite of Fate: Memo­ries of a Writing Life. New York: Penguin, 2004. 176-204. Print. 

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