Tag Archives: The American Dream

Between Two Cultures: Finding Meaning in Amy Tan’s Use of Superstitions (Published)

The practices or beliefs subsumed under the heading of ‘Superstition’ are often rejected in modern times as irrational thinking or laying beyond rational explanation. The use of the Superstition in Amy Tan’s work is generally well-known though not widely discussed. The purpose of the current paper is to discuss the development of this theme in the fiction works of the female Chinese-American writer emphasizing how irrational expressions can sometimes imply an underlying rational thought, especially in its relation to “Chinese American” identity. Tan concentrates on rationalizing the ghost or visions, even if they are not real. This irrational rational quality is presented by Amy Tan through her illustration of the language barriers and her use of oral storytelling tradition, in a structure of a frame (whole) narrative that comprises individual interrelated narratives. Therefore, this paper aims to approach this issue and deal with the concept of the Superstition, its use and application in three selected novels by Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Tan masterfully uses various forms and manifestations of the superstition. Each novel has certain elements that have considerable effect on those characters who practise them, either spiritually, psychologically or in making their decisions. This makes it possible to detect and analyze the actual relevance of the superstition features as narrative devices rather than mere references reflecting the popular beliefs of the Chinese culture. To further unveil the strategies for rationalizing the irrational and to analyze Amy Tan’s use of superstition in her fiction, I will refer to superstitions in the traditional sense as well as in terms of Collin Campbell’s theory of modern superstition, applying his conception of the “half-belief”. The aim of this paper is threefold (1) to answer: Can there be a space for the irrational within a well-structured and ordered space in modern thought? (2) to discuss: Why Amy Tan chose to use so many superstitions in her fiction? And (3) to develop: In addressing many women, mothers and grown up daughters, and in examining the persistent tensions and powerful bonds between generations and cultures, how the element of the superstition can help the mothers and daughters, generations and cultures connect? Prior to the actual analyses, I will introduce the relevant backgrounds necessary for a thorough discussion of the achievement of the above set objective. The first section is an Introduction exploring how superstitions originate from a cultural background, in reference to the various definitions of superstition and its associations with culture, religion, science, rituals and magic. Firstly, this section will be relevant for the main analytical part that will develop later in the paper. Secondly, the topic will be treated from psychological and sociological perspectives. I will discuss Freud’s theory on the need for control as the basis for the psychological approach. The sociological perspective will include cultural and ethnic identity formation to assess the impact of superstitious beliefs and behavior on modern society, in relation to the American “dream”, or rather “nightmare”. The core part of the second section will be the analysis discussing the popular traditions and relevant concepts with regard to the superstitions detected in the respective novels. Ghosts, spirits, dreams, the supernatural element, mediators or spiritual translators, rituals, ceremonies, fate, death, the afterlife and myths can be explored by placing this tendency primarily in the mothers, who remain tied to their Chinese cultural heritage much more than their daughters. However, Tan’s use of the element of the Superstition adds meaning to the overall context of the plot and can make it rational. Therefore, the use of a ghost in one novel may bring about quite different implications than the use of the same feature in another novel. The present paper will be concluded by a summary that also considers the general pattern on Amy Tan’s use of the superstitions.

Keywords: Chinese myths, Chinese-American literature, Ghosts, Identity formation, Superstition, The American Dream, the art of braiding stories