As a companion to last week’s theme of boyhood, this week we turn to narratives of girlhood in the stories “Death By Landscape” by Margaret Atwood and “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan. Just as last week’s settings in Dublin Ireland and rural Mississippi were integral to reading Faulkner’s and Joyce’s stories, so too are the settings of Atwood’s and Tan’s stories important to understand as you analyze their narratives. Atwood’s “Death By Landscape takes us into the Canadian wilderness, set in a summer camp for young girls. Tan’s “Two Kinds” is a personal narrative set in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco.
In both narratives, the main character’s life is shaped by the unique challenges presented by the setting of the story. Lois’ life is forever changed by the dangers of the seemingly tranquil and beautiful outdoors while the social politics of living in an immigrant community causes the young Amy Tan to rebel against her culture’s attitudes toward young women. As you read both works of fiction, I want you to deeply consider how each author uses the setting to advance the plot of the story and communicate ideas about the experience of growing up as a young woman in these circumstances.
Tips for Reading Margaret Atwood’s “Death By Landscape”
Margaret Atwood (1939-) is one of Canada’s most celebrated living writers of fiction and poetry. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a work of science fiction set in a dystopian future in which a theocracy (rule by a religion) has over taken America and severely curtailed the rights of its citizens, especially those of women. Women have become the property of men divided into groups of slave-like laborers, including the titular Handmaids who function is solely to birth children. In this novel, Atwood highlights one of her main thematic concerns common to most of her writing; the rights of women over their own lives and bodies.
(Atwood on her creative process)
Gender and the rights of women are also key themes in “Death By Landscape.” Consider how the story develops over the course of several summers spent at the camp. How do Lois and Lucy gradually develop into young women? How do their characteristics change and how does this impact their friendship? Think about how Lucy talks about rebelling against her parents (including dating an older boy). How might this fit into Atwood’s history of exploring women attempting to or being forbidden from taking control over their own bodies?
This image of Atwood and one of her famous quotes has made the rounds on Facebook lately in connection to issues of domestic violence:
Contemplate the role of nature in this story. Atwood herself came of age immersed in the wilderness as the daughter of a forest entomologist (a scientist that studies insects) who raised his family in the forests of Ontario, Canada. How does Atwood describe the forest and the girls’ feelings about the wilderness and the camp? What role do the camp and its natural setting play in how the girls develop into young women? Would this story have been the same if it were set in an urban city rather than a forest?
Art also plays a big role in this story as well. Notice how the title is “Death By Landscape” and not “Death By Falling off a Cliff”. Why do you think Atwood includes the picture in the title of the story and not the actual setting itself? In the beginning, Atwood sets up the narrative by illustrating how the adult Lois collects art that depicts landscapes, many similar to the forest in which she went to camp. Why do you think Lois purposefully surrounds herself in her home with these pictures even though it reminds her of the tragic loss of her friend?
This leads to another important theme; memory and trauma. This is not just a story about a tragic childhood accident, but it is also about how an older woman reflects upon this accident and how it has impacted her life. Consider why Atwood chooses this moment in Lois’ life, after the death of her husband, to reflect back upon the traumatic memory of Lucy’s death.
Once you finish reading “Death By Landscape”, you will be prepared for the first quiz for Tuesday.
Tips for Reading Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”
Amy Tan is best known for her novel the Joy Luck Club (1989), which chronicles the relationships between Chinese immigrant women and their daughters. It was turned into a popular film in 1993 and the short story “Two Kinds” was adapted from the book.
The relationship between the Chinese immigrant mother who escaped a brutal life in China and her American-born daughter is the central theme of this story. Consider the complexity of this relationship. The mother speaks limited broken English and retains much of the attitudes and beliefs of her native China while the daughter is an American citizen, and just like any American kid, she’d rather lie around and watch TV than work hard. Put yourself in her place. Imagine what your relationship with your parents would be like if they came from a different culture than the one you were born in, spoke a different language, and retained values far different than the one’s of the families that you grew up with in school. How might that cause tension in the parent/child relationship?
Check out this YouTube clip of a short interview with Amy Tan. Pay particular attention to how the legacy of her mother’s and her grandmother’s lives influences how she writes.
In her essay “Mother Tongue” Tan talks about her own personal experience growing up speaking “perfect” English while her mother spoke broken English:
Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as ‘broken” or “fractured” English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than “broken,” as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve heard other terms used, “limited English,” for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker.
I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother’s “limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.
My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New York. She had cashed out her small portfolio and it just so happened we were going to go to New York the next week, our very first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice that was not very convincing, “This is Mrs. Tan.” (Harvard)
Think about how Tan realizes as an adult how she felt ashamed of her mother’s broken English and that now as an adult, she has great sympathy for her and the discrimination she faced for it. How does this same sense of understanding and sympathy play a role in “Two Kinds” at the end of the story when she is gifted the piano at the age of 30?
One of the questions Tan leaves somewhat open ended in this story is “why does her mother want to raise a child prodigy?” What motivates the mother to be so hard on her daughter and why does she want a child that is not simply good enough, but a genius? How might being an immigrant impact this desire? For those of you who have never seen her, below is a clip of the mother’s first vision of a child prodigy, Shirley Temple.
Why is it impossible for the young Jing-Mei to become the next Shirley Temple and why do you think Tan uses her as an example, including the sad bit about her unsuccessful attempt to curl her hair like Temple?
The phenomena of the demanding Chinese mother gained national attention last year via an essay about “Tiger Mothers” by Amy Chua, a Yale professor who argued in favor of strictly forcing children to spend all their time in extracurricular activities and academic studying. You will be reading this article for one of your responses, so for now, think about how the mother fits the “Tiger Mother” model and consider what Amy Tan might think about it.
As a reward for reading all the way through this week’s book, here’s a clip of Amy Tan singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” with “The Rock Bottom Remainders”, a band made up of famous writers (including Stephen King!) I’m not exactly sure this is what her mom had in mind when she pushed her to learn music.