First came the Tiger Mom roaring, her memoir giving permission to harried moms to slash their kids’ play dates and foist on them piano lessons. Then came Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin’s unabashed tribute to neglected, forgotten, unappreciated mothers. And is that Mildred Pierce on HBO, the most abused mother of all, James M. Cain’s glorious Glendale mom who turns into a successful restauranteur to win her spoiled daughter’s love?
I’m intrigued by this current trend in publishing because my forthcoming novel too is about a mother–my mother–and I would never have predicted that in a year’s time, mothers–and particularly Asian mothers–would make the cover of Time and appear in the Sunday Book Review section of the NY Times. Multiple books about the war in Iraq? Sure. The 2008 economic meltdown? Yep. All things vampire, paranormal, and dystopian? Check. But mothers? When did mothers become as popular as vampires? 2011, apparently, and I’m not complaining.
I had heard about both Tiger Mom and Please Look After Mom a few months before publication; Tiger Mom Amy Chua’s huge advance made news at the time of its deal, and I was happy to see an Asian American author in the nonfiction column (most Asian American authors seem to be novelists). And then I heard about Shin’s book, with its stunning million-dollar plus sales in South Korea, a country with a tiny population compared to the US. What was going on here?
Why are Asian moms so popular right now? Here’s my guess: In America, we like to write about things in a default hip, ironic mode–we’re postmodernists at heart. But motherhood doesn’t lend itself to irony–motherhood is often characterized by an enormous amount of sacrifice and self-denial. In Asian representations, just to wildly generalize, emotions are dealt with earnestly, without irony, and often with a great deal of sentimentality. (Watch an hour of a Korean soap opera and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) These Asian Moms allow us to talk about motherhood in terms that are almost unimaginable in American pop culture: mothers as saintly figures.
For me, the backlash about the Tiger Mom missed the great appeal of the book: it’s a revenge fantasy, except here the perpetrators are her children. Just as in those female revenge movies where the heroine is mistreated in the first half, and then comes back to whup ass and attack her original aggressors (Girl with Dragon Tattoo, anyone?), Amy Chua is fighting back against her spoiled, selfish kids. It’s the ultimate taboo fantasy, of hitting back at those who’ve stolen one’s sanity and freedom: one’s children.
My own novel is about my mother. All About My Mother, if you will. Let’s say if the kid in the Almodovar movie hadn’t died in the opening scene, but instead grown up and written a book about his mother, it’d probably be THIS BURNS MY HEART. The book is about her marriage and her struggles trying to give her child a good life. In an act of emotional ventrilloquism, it is told entirely from her perspective. She’s certainly not a Tiger Mom, and neither is she the saintly figure in Shin’s beautiful book. She’s somewhere in between, and I think that’s a good place to be.