A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read and, I hope, how good writers write.
Three signs of a good short story discussion:
—half the readers dislike the story
—there are no complaints about my coffee
—no one wants to leave afterward.
Today, we discussed “Two Kinds,” which is one of the chapters in the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
June, the American-born child of a Chinese mother, remembers her mother’s determination to make her daughter into a famous prodigy. At first June is excited about being as successful as Shirley Temple or her chess-champ cousin, but the unrelenting trials to discover what kind of genius she might be and the constant failures to live up to her mother’s expectations finally causes her to rebel. Her mother tries one more time and, deciding that June is a piano prodigy, buys her a used piano and finds her a teacher. June discovers that the teacher is deaf and stops practicing, though her mother doesn’t notice and continues to brag about her daughter’s talent. Things come to a head at the talent show, when June’s revenge against her mother’s pride backfires in front of a roomful of people. Afterwards, mother and daughter have a screaming showdown, and her mother says nothing more about the piano until June is an adult, when she offers it to her in what June sees as a gesture of forgiveness. But it isn’t until after her mother’s death that June sits down at the instrument, and realizes that she can play both her recital piece, “Pleading Child” and the next one, “Perfectly Contented”—and sees that that they are two halves of one song.
I learned a lot from our discussion, not the least of which is that childhood memories of music lessons can linger for decades.
Sympathies are subjective.
The people who didn’t like this story were firmly on the side of the mother. To them, she worked very hard to help her daughter realize her potential—what mother doesn’t want the best for her daughter? In their opinion, June was a complete brat—ungrateful, selfish, and lazy. One reader felt that she was too young to be that disrespectful. Another suspected that June waited until after her mother’s death to play in order to make a point: “She doesn’t give an inch.”
About half of the people who liked the story were firmly on Team June. The mother, they thought, was completely unrealistic and undermines her daughter’s self-esteem at every turn for the sake of her pride. June accepted herself as she was, which one reader thought was a remarkably healthy thing to do. “Difficult, but far healthier in the long run.”
The rest were sympathetic to both. They mentioned the cultural differences, and felt that the battle of wills between mother and daughter was perfectly normal, if heart-breaking. The mother wanted everyone to know how special June was, and June felt that she could never live up to her mother’s ideals. And both were superlatively stubborn: “They’re exactly alike,” said one reader. “But they love each other. You don’t feel this strongly about someone if you don’t love them.”
At the end of the discussion, I asked, out of curiosity, which readers had children—not one person who disliked June raised their hand. I’m not sure what this means, if anything . . . except they hadn’t experienced both sides of the battle.
The author’s history can influence the readers’ sympathies, and first person narration can confuse the issue.
Most of the authors this year borrowed heavily from their own lives to write their stories, and it’s well known that Amy Tan is no exception—there was a biography provided at the beginning of this story that also provided some information about her mother. This confused the readers like no other story since we read Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Conductor.”
One of the reasons Team June resented the mother was that she didn’t value June’s real genius for writing—even though in this particular story there is no mention of June writing anything and the person who initially commented on this hasn’t read the whole book.
But Team Mom felt that the mother had suffered so much from leaving her children behind in China—in the story, June says they are dead—that she should be forgiven for pressuring June. “Besides,” one reader said, in all seriousness, “she didn’t know June was going to be Amy Tan.”
One lone reader said that she hadn’t read the bio before reading the story: “I thought it was really funny,” she said.
There was a silence . . . and then several nods around the circle. We agreed that the bio buried the funny—and that from now on, we’d try the stories without knowing so much about the authors, until right before we met.*
Some themes resonate.
I have never been part of a short story discussion where so many readers shared their own personal experiences about childhood, motherhood, grandmotherhood, and, above all, piano lessons.
Whether the readers were Team Mom, Team June, or Team Story, they all felt compelled to bring up examples from their own lives. They may not have liked this story, but they felt it—they disliked it, in part, because it was too real and they considered the mother to be a real person, not a written character.
Of course, all of us—since our lone gentleman was absent, possibly with good reason—were daughters and many of us had daughters or granddaughters. We could place ourselvesvery easily into the story. We did wonder whether this story would have worked as well, or in the same way, with father-son characters—and how a man would interpret the mother-daughter relationship.**
We decided that the mother-daughter struggle was almost universal—and the parent (or parental figure)-child struggle was.
And that the best stories bring out our own.
I really mean it about the piano lessons.
Most of us had taken piano as children, or had
forced encouraged our children to do so, and we all had stories about it—but one of us was a retired piano teacher, and she storied us right back.***
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to guide the discussion back to a story—but it was the first time I had to stand up to do it!
So, when it comes right down to it, there were two sides to this story on many different levels—perhaps all of them.
But everyone agreed that Amy Tan can deliver a wallop.
*Should be an interesting experiment—next month’s story is a Hemingway.
**Hey, John? You busy?
***In case you were wondering, she was definitely Team Mom—but admittedly, there wasn’t a Team Unappreciated Deaf Piano Teacher.