I read Margaret Atwood’s 1976 novel Lady Oracle first as a seventeen-year-old, then as an earnest literature undergraduate.
In this feminist satire, acclaimed Canadian poetess Joan Foster fakes her own death and flees to Italy in disguise when her multiple identities collide. Not only is Joan a sort of red-headed Enya of the literary world, she’s also the writer of numerous Gothic governess romances and (in her mind this is the worst crime) a former fat kid.
The book is told in first person, interspersing flashbacks to an unhappy youth and marriage with excerpts of the “Costume Gothics” that Joan writes. Joan grows up with an angrily controlling mother who tries to get her obese teenage daughter to lose weight. A legacy from a beloved aunt allows her to flee to London, where she first meets a Polish count who churns out Betty Neels-type nurse-doctor romances and introduces her to a career as a romance novelist. She has a chance meeting with Arthur, a drippy young Socialist, who becomes her husband. The pair end up back in Canada, where Arthur adjuncts, agitates, and doles out contempt for his wife while she supports him with her secret writing.
Then, while hashing out a paranormal storyline, Joan tries Automatic Writing. (This involves staring into a candle and letting the spirit take her pen.) After several sessions, she finds that she has written a strange manuscript which Joan’s new literary publishers gleefully sell. Correction: they sell Joan as a tragic-feminist-spiritualist-redheaded poetess.
Joan’s husband becomes unhappy with her success (and the fact that the book seems to be about a stifling marriage). She stumbles into an affair with a performance artist who styles himself as “The Royal Porcupine.” The Royal Porcupine wears spats and a cape and hooks Joan by negging her. (The dystopian fantasy A Handmaid’s Tale is regarded as Atwood’s most prescient novel, but props to Lady Oracle for identifying proto-pickup artists.) But the pressure from juggling her secret lives comes to a head when a hanger-on of the arts scene threatens to blackmail her, threatening to spill about her affair, her secret life as a romance novelist, and her former heft.
I am having a hard time piecing together what I felt about Lady Oracle as a youth under the weight of what I think of it now.
I should note that, like Joan, I have at least two names: I’ve had one literary novel and two romance novels published, but I’m open about my identities (and—erm—am not successful under either of them). There is no danger that I’ll flee North America only to turn up at an Italian pensione with my luxuriant tresses chopped off.
When I was younger, though, and still struggling with one identity, I think I found Lady Oracle funny? Zany? I especially enjoyed the parody of Joan’s so-called Costume Gothics. It didn’t have anything to do with my life, I thought. And yet, shortly after reading Lady Oracle as a seventeen-year-old, I sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to Harlequin for their guidelines on writing romance novels.
My working title was “Worlds Apart.” The heroine, Lancie, was a food critic who was planning to attend cooking school in Italy. The hero—I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jim—was an architect who was moving to China. They met, in the first chapter, at the travel agency run by Lancie’s sister.
Lancie had black hair and brown eyes. I never said explicitly that she was of Asian descent—probably because I didn’t admit it in my mind, either. The novel ended with Jim rushing to Tuscany, having sacrificed his plans to create a Beijing subdivision—having sacrificed for love. I suppose this was my version of a feminist ending.
I told people that I was writing a romance novel for money, although why I told people anything at all, I don’t know. Like Joan, I was secretive. I got maybe 20,000 words in before my dad sold our secondhand Mac (honestly, the real love story was between me and that cheery little computer) and switched us to PC.
“Worlds Apart” wasn’t the first book I’d tried to write. The idea of money attracted me, but that wasn’t really why I needed to do it. But it was the first attempt where my real motives for writing seemed hidden even from me.
Lady Oracle is not kind. It is not kind to people, to genre fiction. Nor is it kind to high literary work.
It skewers romance, of course, trotting out the usual stuff: the audience is made up of sexually unsatisfied (white) women. Joan reads romance novels but calls them “trashy books.” The writers and publishers feel contempt for their readers. Joan says, “I made the necessary revisions and received my first hundred pounds, with a request for more material. Material, they called it, as if it came by the yard.”
In Joan’s (or Atwood’s) vision, writers of romance novels are prized for the quantity of work they can produce rather than the quality. (There has been speculation that Atwood herself has written romance novels.) At the same time, however, the quality of literary publishing seems to be a myth. When Joan meets with her imprint, Colin Harper, a beleaguered editor, seems less than impressed with the book. Doug Sturgess, the publisher, has dollar signs in his eyes.
“We thought it was—ah—reminiscent—of a mixture of Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen,” said Colin Harper unhappily.
“Oh, I said. “It’s that bad, is it?”
“Bad?” said Sturgess. “Is she saying bad? You know how many copies those guys sell?”
Harper thinks the book is cheesy. Sturgess, with book covers and TV appearances in mind, wants to know if Joan plays the guitar. To her romance publishers, words are material. To her literary publishers, Joan is the material.
Throughout the book, it’s clear that the products of women aren’t valued.
“I have read your [poetry] book,” Count Paul, failed literary writer/author of nurse-doctor romances, tells Joan. “It is promising, I think, for a first book, by a woman.”
The qualifications Count Paul appends to his compliment water down any admiration he might have professed. At every turn, Joan thinks she’s a fraud. But that’s also partly because at every turn there is someone dismissing her accomplishments, telling her she doesn’t deserve love, thoughts, success, her life.
I said I wasn’t honest with myself or with others about why I wanted to write a romance novel at seventeen. By twenty-two, the second time I read Lady Oracle, I’d told myself I didn’t want to write at all.
This was my version of managing expectations—by getting rid of them. I’m not going to say that Lady Oracle made me despair. Life did that—it keeps doing that. Besides, I still apparently wanted to try something new after having read it. And well, obviously, I still write.
But the prevailing feeling I’ve had reading it this time around has been one of recognition. I’ll be honest: rereading Lady Oracle was a mind-fuck, partly because I saw myself in it and partly because I wasn’t even in it at all. If the message for women is that their work can be discounted because it is done by women, then what do we say to women who are not white?
In 2016, forty years after the publication of Lady Oracle, there is a lot more talk—in the world, in publishing—about the need for writers, editors, agents, reviewers, who are not heterosexual cis white men.
I am grateful for the work I’m getting this year. (Seriously BMP, thank you!) But while I am delighted that I get to write, there is always someone—from within, from without—trying to keep me in a confined space.
Writing about diversity—God, how I’ve come to hate this term!—in Kirkus last month, romance reviewer Bobbi Dumas exhorted, “I hope you’ll consider reading outside of your own comfort zone.”
Your own comfort zone.
A lot has already been made across the Internet about this piece and Tweets by a prominent white literary agent about getting that diversity in—as if it’s an onerous duty, as if all audiences are white, as if diverse stories are bitter, medicinal, and fundamentally unappealing to white sensibilities. (For one rebuttal, check Courtney Milan’s response in the comments to Ms. Dumas’s piece.)
Women’s writing is already seen as insubstantial because it’s by women—but work by POC will also taste bad going down? I don’t want to be a nonwhite writer who is given a berth so that white audiences may absolve their guilt and then move on to the “real” reading. I prefer not to think that my writing—or the writing of any WOC—is a pill for anyone to choke on. But so often the writing of WOC is framed this way. Even the praise is qualified. It’s as if Count Paul is there saying, You are promising, I think, for a new writer, who’s a minority hire.
Rather than wallow, this is how finally I have chosen to see Lady Oracle, a satire that veers close to and diverges from my life in many ways.
Joan thinks she’s a fraud. But while Joan says she’s an impostor, she’s an unreliable narrator in another completely different way: while she’s busy telling us that she deserves nothing—that she is so buffeted by circumstance that her own poetry book was penned by invisible spirits—she discounts what she has accomplished. Despite her apparent powerlessness, she’s a woman who escapes her terrible family, invents and reinvents herself, writes seventeen books, supports her husband and his hangers-on, and—even after life starts falling down around her—harbors hope for the future.
What does it say that in the end, the thing that she’s most frantic to hide is not that she’s a successful writer of Costume Gothics? She’s not most intent on preserving her literary reputation or her marriage. The thing she’s most eager to hide is the fact that she was once big. She still has heft—she is substantial. The thing she wants to hide is that she is bigger than all who surround her.
Before Harry Potter sorting hats, before Sex in the City, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club provided readers with a quartet of women with which to classify themselves.
a Waverly, the ambitious former chess-champ overachiever?
a Lena, the half-Chinese, half-Irish-American girl who became a passive spectator of her own life?
a Rose, the Asian Juliet who’s married her white Romeo only to never feel quite good enough for her posh in-laws—or for him?
or a June (Jing-mei), failed pianist, failed copywriter, failed everything who never seemed to live up to her mother’s grand expectations?
I thought I was a June when I first read it in university.
Okay, so the book provided me with a way to sort myself—me, and maybe other second-generation readers of Chinese descent. But it must have struck a nerve with a wider population, because Tan’s 1989 novel was wildly successful. The book appeared on public school curricula, and excerpts were used in the SAT. It spawned a movie, for which Tan cowrote the screenplay. There were roles for AT LEAST eight Asian women. Ming Na was June! Rosalind Chao was Rose! In a genius casting move, Andrew McCarthy was Rose’s ex, with echoes of Bland—I mean Blaine, the rich, white milquetoast he played in Pretty In Pink.
People talked about Joy Luck—people talked about it with me. But of course, the book’s popularity was a trap as much as it was a gift, because it meant other people—white people—would classify me along those lines.
They probably thought I was a Waverly.
The book is told in alternating first-person voices. After the death of her mother, Suyuan, June is asked to take her place at the Mah Jong board. June’s “aunties”—the mothers of Waverly, Lena, and Rose—reveal that they have found the twin daughters from Suyuan’s first marriage, who she left behind in China while trying to escape Mao Zedong’s forces. The aunties want June to reconnect with the twins in her mother’s place.
Each mother then begins to recount the things she left behind, and the daughters tell stories of their childhoods and the baggage these mothers brought with them—the psychic weight of each personal history.
It’s funny that I began by focusing on the daughters, because the mothers are equally important in this story. In fact, theirs are the details—theirs is the suffering—that many readers remember. An-mei’s disgraced mother cuts off a piece of her arm to make a soup to feed her own ailing parent. A teenaged Lindo is wedded to a confused and childish groom and abused by a mother-in-law desperate for a grandson. Ying-ying marries a cruel and brutal philanderer and aborts fetus after fetus to avoid ties to the man. Her second husband is a white American man who changes her name to Betty, alters the birth year on her papers, welcomes her passivity, and overlooks her severe depression. And Suyuan, the only one who is not alive to tell her own story, is haunted by her failure to save her twin daughters.
Patriarchy—in case you were wondering—is pretty terrible.
I remember June, Lena, Rose, and Waverly’s stories because those are the ones that had the texture of mine. Like June, I was the kid who fell apart during piano recitals.
I kept thinking my fingers would adjust themselves back, like a train switching to the right track. I played this strange humble through two repeats, the sour notes staying with me all the way to the end.
I’m told that most people have naked-at-the-exam dreams. My nightmares involve a piano.
Or, like Lena St. Clair, I was the kid who heard my mom’s tales. I was overwhelmed by her anxiety and depression.
…I began to see terrible things. I saw these things with my Chinese eyes, the part of me that I got from my mother. I saw devils dancing feverishly beneath a hole I had dug in the sandbox. I saw that lightning had eyes and searched to strike down little children… And when I became older, I could see things that Caucasian girls at school did not.
Like Lena, I felt like I had Chinese eyes—and while I didn’t see devils, I always felt my parents’ fear, the consequences of things that had happened to them. But it was hard to explain the weight of such a different history to the white kids, teachers, and neighbors who surrounded me. For a long time, I didn’t. Because here’s the thing: when there aren’t a lot of stories about people like you, you don’t have a vocabulary to explain it. You don’t have a way to tell people why your mom boils the water before you are allowed to drink it. Why she screams at you when you don’t eat an apple down to the very core before throwing it away, when you use too much paper. The consequences of worry and privation—of large events from distant countries—make it into your daily life. The water in your part of Canada is safe to drink. You are not starving. There is no visible reason for your mother’s behavior. The reason is in a past that your classmates don’t know, that their parents never experienced, that doesn’t seem to figure in books, TV, movies, or conversation, that doesn’t seem to exist.
Maybe part of you doesn’t exist. So why is it so loud?
First reading The Joy Luck Club was a relief—such a fucking relief.
It wasn’t just about wanting to find stories about people who looked like me. It was about making it easier for me to say more about myself and to be myself. It wasn’t so lonely to be that—to be me—if some of me seemed to be in a book. Never mind that Amy Tan was at least a generation older than me, that my parents were from Taiwan, not China, and I lived in Canada, not the United States.
Joy Luck was not the first or last work to tackle East Asian immigrant experiences, but because people knew what it was—white people knew what it was—it was an easy, popular reference point. Joy Luck was what I could use when I needed an illustration of what is had been like to grow up with grandparents who didn’t have twinkling blue eyes and plates of gingerbread on their tables.
But it was just one book. Sometimes that was limiting.
Was I a Waverly, a June, a Lena, or a Rose?
Sometimes, it was just easiest to choose from what I was given. Was I ungrateful if it wasn’t enough?
“It didn’t reflect my experience,” my friend Desirée, also second-generation Asian, told me.
Desiree’s family was Filipino Chinese. Mine was from Taiwan. Our families were two tendrils on the mass of ivy that was Chinese diaspora.
I remember a few things about that moment. I remember thinking, If you don’t identify with this book, then what else is there?
What else is there?
I remember her pursed lips as she contemplated my paperback copy.
Desiree was such a Waverly, I thought. So particular. So smart.
So—as it turns out—right.
Because now that I know more—now that I’m the age of the daughters in Joy Luck—I realize it wasn’t always my experience either.
In my earnest, youthful enthusiasm, I told my mom to read the book. My mom was barely keeping it together at that point. I think she may have glared at me before going back to the endless cycle of cleaning, worrying about money, working, and anxiety that characterized her life then.
I’m glad now that she didn’t take me up on it.
There’s a small mention of Suyuan’s mysterious first husband right near the beginning. June is recalling the story her mother tells her about how she ended up on a road, how she had to abandon her twin daughters:
The man who was my husband brought me to Kweilin because he thought we would be safe. He was an officer with the Kuomintang and after he put us down in a small room in a two-story house, he went off to the northwest, to Chungking.
Many, many years after I’d read The Joy Luck Club—read it over and over—I came across that sentence again. “He was an officer with the Kuomintang.”
It’s a throwaway, really. But that is where I got an inkling that this story—the story I’d told myself was mine—was not.
In Tan’s book, the then-ruling political party of China, the Kuomintang, flee Mao. But my family fled the Kuomintang.
I’ve used “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” like they’re interchangeable, but in many ways, they’re not. Both sides of my family had been in Taiwan for hundreds of years. But in 1949, the mainland Chinese Kuomintang fled China and ended up governing the island of Taiwan. The Kuomintang would bring martial law to the country. My parents, native Taiwanese, would see some of their family members imprisoned, their goods confiscated, their rights taken away.
I note this not to dredge up old wounds. My mom doesn’t recoil at the mention of the KMT. She is friends with people a lot like Suyuan. Being an immigrant in North America often forges ties among people who might have been at loggerheads in other countries, while in Taiwan itself, the various parties coexist, intermarry, intermingle. But still, the differences in time, in context, made a difference in my family’s history, in what we were and are.
I erased some of those differences when I didn’t look further than Joy Luck—I erased a part of myself. I can still identify with Rose, Lena, Waverly, June, and with Suyuan, Lindo, An-mei, and Ying-ying. But now I know more. I’ve read more, and I want more.
It’s not a desire to just see myself, or to see that I exist, that makes me seek out books by authors of many races and backgrounds now. I want to reach out, and I want to be reached. Yes, young me could have used more books, more different kinds of books, more characters of my own and other races, more children and rebellious teenagers and adults kissing, or solving mysteries or navigating the lunchroom, or fighting dragons. My friends could have used more stories that helped them talk to me and me talk to them.
My mom could have used books. Because there was so much she couldn’t voice—so much more to her than anxiety, and anger, and depression, and mothering—and I know she felt alone.
My parents visited me recently. It was, for a number of reasons, tense.
They heard me reading Dumpling Days by Grace Lin to my daughter. It’s a wry and insightful semi-autobiographical novel (aimed at middle grades) about a Taiwanese-American girl’s mixed experiences during a visit to her parents’ homeland. My daughter loves it and wants to read from it almost every night.
My mom snagged it—sometimes, she and my daughter pulled it from the others’ hands—and sped through it in a matter of days.
When she was done, she came to me with a sad smile on her face. “When you went to Taiwan, did you feel this way?” she asked hesitantly.
There was more to the question. Did you hate it? Or perhaps, Did you hate this part of me?
“I was older, and I knew the language,” I told her, “so it was different for me.”
But I told her that the book filled in gaps. It told me a stories that I didn’t know and gave me answers for questions I didn’t know to ask.
My mom nodded. We didn’t really talk about it again.
But when I read more to my daughter, my mom was listening, sometimes correcting my pronunciation, laughing, sometimes just standing still. And the story, for that brief moment, held all three of us together.