The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston

My views on the book “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston.

In

‘The Woman Warrior’ Kingston gives voice to the silent in a series of fictive accounts of very real elements of her life and by this means gives voice to herself and creates for herself a community, a history and a mode of understanding her place in a world that exists between China and America, between stories and reality and between expectations of women and the kind of woman she wants to become.

These fantastical myths in which she places herself are bred from her mother’s stories. Writing, finally claiming her mothers

‘talk-story’ as her domain for expression, has empowered the once silent and silenced Maxine who “flunked kindergarten and in first grade had no IQ- a zero IQ” because she could not manage to speak. Through her story telling she attempts to overcome the repressions of a traditional culture that she cannot understand, and give a voice to those forced into a silence similar to her own. Her writing has translated the oral tradition of her community, the ‘talk-story’, into a written one, she is forcing the voiceless into the fore, providing them with a voice and telling their untold stories. She is a woman without a firm cultural identity, seeking, through the stories she has been told by her mother, a way to explain her place in the world to herself; it is in this way that she creates a non-traditional autobiography that fits her own confusion about her world and illustrates the ways in which she has attempted to reach an understanding of all parts of herself.

The children in The Woman Warrior are placed between their parents and America; as they are the ones who understand both languages, they are the intermediaries between their parents and the rest of the world and as such see what is invisible to their parents. When her mother sends Kingston to seek candy from the drug store as a way of deflecting a curse she understands that it is out of sympathy and not apology that the candy is given. While her mother is satisfied that a wrong has been acknowledged the daughter alone understands that it is pity that makes them offer the free candy.

There is resentment on the parts of both Kingston and her parents, they want to believe in a China that no longer exists, they have created a perfect society where they will never grow old or have to work. They want their children to believe in this ideal and resent that the have, by necessity, assimilated into the American world. The children themselves are actually ghost like, they belong nowhere and have no means by which to identify them selves. This is why the stories Kingston tells are so important; they offer her ancestral assistance in discovering her sense of self. The idea of the Chinese fantasy often gives Kingston courage, but ultimately it is not enough, her own whispered protests do not amount to a warrior forcing her point, she is disappointed by her own inability to force change and avenge her family against those who stole their way of life, the task she sets herself is unrealisable and must fail; and so the narratives become incongruous.

It is when she withdraws from this and takes to her bed that she is happy, she has been trying to find parallels between herself and mythical and fantastic figures that she cannot emulate. She retreats into her mothers story which is closer to theirs, her mothers history, as Kingston tells it, is of a woman bravely fighting ghosts and fearlessly becoming something more then a slave or a wife, a woman of standing who is respected in her community.

It is because she is speaking of what should not be said that she is forced to create a new kind of autobiography, one where she can successfully incorporate the fictive, legendary world that is, for her, China, and the reality of her American life which, in comparison to the mythical China, can only be a disappointment.

Kingston is determined not to fall into the same trap that lured her no-name aunt, Moon Orchid, and to some extent, her mother, to renunciation of their power, she needs to be able to link her two worlds successfully in order to form her own resistance against the conventional culture that prevents her, as a female immigrant of oriental background, from claiming some form of cultural identity, and belonging within both her American and Chinese immigrant society

“They thought we were beggars without a home who lived in the back of the laundry. They felt sorry for us” The children should be able to act as the bridge between China and America for their parents, but, because they have been silenced so effectively, the gap remains.”My American life has been such a disappointment.” Straight A’s can never be akin to saving a village and America can never compete with a timeless world where nobody need ever grow old. “Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here… I would still be young if we lived in China.” The mythical China must be translated into American culture and this calls for a rewriting of the stories that Kingston has been told, “Myth… is a language which does not want to die.”, and in order to keep these myths alive for herself, as a second generation immigrant, she must be able to place herself into them, to alter them so that they have the ability to speak to her and relate to her life.’s.

These women need to be included in her autobiography because they comprise the stories she was reared on. Her mother, who will rarely explain clearly her reasons behind her actions, has nonetheless given her a series of stories to

‘grow up on’. It is through these stories that she has been given the basic principles by which she can create a self that will not disappoint. Although her mother uses the same derogatory phrases as the other Chinese when she speaks about girls, “There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese then girls” and, “when you raise girls, you’re raising children for strangers”, she still talked-story to her daughters and by this means taught them that they should grow up to be more then just wives or slaves.

The women Kingston talks about serve as both inspirations and warnings,

I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given to me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up to be a warrior woman.” “With stories about both crazy women and female doctors Kingston suggests the possibility of the protagonist- and every woman- developing in either direction: toward insanity or health, self destruction or self realisation.” The opening story of the book deals with the ‘no name’ woman, an aunt whose story Kingston is told by her mother; as a warning of what could happen to her if she shames her family. From the sparse details offered by her mother Kingston creates two separate stories of how this aunt had arrived at the point of giving birth in the pigsty. In the first she imagines that her aunt was raped by a man she did not know how to refuse, “She obeyed him; she always did what she was told.” In this version she is a terrified innocent whose attacker permeates every part of her life,

This aunt is trapped by her fear; her inability to separate her husband, a man she barely knows or now recognises, from another man who tells her what to do is the cause of her downfall. She is doubly wronged because it is her inability to act against what she has been taught that leads to her pregnancy. She is a victim of her cultural conditioning, a woman who has been successfully silenced by her family and society and, as such, she serves as a warning to Kingston, and every woman, of the dangers of being muted by the terror of what the reprisal will be for speaking out. This version of her aunt is not protected by her silence, her obedience; instead she is punished, fed at an outcast table and frightened to death, forced into a position where her only option is suicide.

In the other story Kingston tells she sees the aunt as her

Kingston is confused about Chinese traditions; her mother will never explain the reasons behind her actions, never explain anything that is important. Even feast days are not announced, though the mother will still be annoyed if they are not remembered and observed. Her parents will not speak to her properly, she is seen as being part ghost because she has been educated and raised in a ghost country.

There is a constant duality about the past, the China her parents talk story about has vanished, there are no valid memories left, and so the stories about China become more real then that country to her mother and to herself. That they have fallen in coming to America is clear and her parents speak constantly of going home again, yet there is no home left to go to. Her mother has two lives, one as the strong, ghost fighting medial student and another as the paranoid mother who cannot understand America or her children.

Kingston is a woman displaced, she is not an American, nor is she Chinese. She speaks of the

Nor can Kingston be comfortable fitting into the Chinese system where, as a girl, she is worth less then her brothers, unless she can become the extraordinary

And she might have separated the rapes from the rest of living if only she did not have to buy her oil fro him or gather wood in the same forest. I want her fear to have lasted just as long as rape lasted so that the fear could have been contained. No drawn-out fear. But women at sex hazarded birth and hence lifetimes. The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere. She told the man, ‘I think I’ pregnant’. He organised the raid against her.” ‘forerunner’, a women who, “For warm eyes or a soft voice or a slow walk- that’s all- a few hairs, a line, a brightness, a sound, a pace, she gave up family.” This version of her aunt is not frightened or raped, nor is she a ‘wild woman’ who “kept rollicking company”, instead she is a beloved daughter, secure in her own beauty, “spoiled and mirror gazing because of the affection the family lavished on her.” In this version she is not silent out of fear of reprisal from a rapist, but rather keeps her lovers name to herself in order to protect him, “To save her inseminators name, she gave silent birth.” It is this version of her aunt that can assist Kingston, “rejecting the conventional wisdom of her mothers talk-story, Kingston explores an alternative reading, remaking the figure of the rebellious aunt into a ‘forerunner’ of her own aspiration towards self-determination; only in this way, she writes, can “I see her life branching into mine.” Yet this aunt is more sinister, a woman who willingly brought disaster on herself and her family because she, “plied her secret comb. And sure enough she cursed the year, the family, the village, and herself.” This aunt is the “spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water.”, and it is this aunt that Kingston fears the most, keeping silent for so long because “I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that ‘aunt’ would do my father mysterious harm.” ‘American-feminine’ and ‘Chinese-feminine’ and of how she, unsuccessfully, attempts to alter herself to fit each of these. She cannot fit into the American system, by modulated her voice to seem American-feminine she becomes silent and resentful of that silence, yet silence is encouraged, “you must not tell anyone’, my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.” Her attempts to break this silence are constant, and often the result is dire. In telling her aunts story she feels that she is breaking an important dictate and that her aunt is not happy with the attention she is paying her, “My aunt haunts me…I alone devote pages of paper to her… I do not think she always means me well…I am telling on her.” However, she fears silence, believing that the silent are closer to insanity. She tries to bully another Chinese girl into speaking, believing that she is helping her, saving her, and yet she is proved wrong by how the girls family support and protect her. When she tries to break this girls silence forcibly, “why won’t you talk?…if you don’t talk you can’t have a personality.”, she is struck by a mysterious illness that removes her from school for eighteen months and after which she has to learn to speak again, “at school I had to figure out again how to talk.” She comes to the realisation that “although it is necessary to speak in order to carry the burden of sanity…one’s voice can only be nurtured by others, it cannot be forced.” ‘warrior woman’ and save her village. She is frightened of a China where she can be married or sold unless she proves herself, “It was important that I do something big and fine, or else my parents would sell me when we made our way back to China. In China there were solutions for what to do with little girls who ate up food and threw tantrums.” Yet she cannot see how she can become the warrior woman she needs to be, her attempts to stand up to her American bosses are ineffectual, she is too easily ignored and she cannot perpetrate the acts that she believes she needs to perform in order to make them pay attention to her. “If I took the sword, which my hate must surely have forged out of the air, and gutted him, I would put colour and wrinkles into his shirt.” Yet she can see that, while she will never have the unrestrained violent power that she affords herself in stories, she is not entirely dissimilar from the warrior woman she describes. She has power in her ability to communicate, to report on those who have wronged her family and herself. “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families’. The reporting is the vengeance – not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words – ‘chink’ words and ‘gook’ words too – that they do not fit on my skin.” Yet this is a new realisation, she is an adult and a ‘story-talker’ herself before she realises this power in talking-story, “At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking story.” In the text she attempts to recreate this power.

In breaking oral tradition Kingston is turning the stories her mother told her into something solid that will not change with every telling. She is solidifying them, drawing them out in much the same way her mother draws out the

Kingston

‘sitting ghost’; turning them into something solid so that they can then be destroyed, “When the smoke cleared, I think my mother said that under the foot of the bed the students found a piece of wood dripping with blood. They burned it in one of the pots, and the stench was like a corpse exhumed for it’s bones to soon. They laughed at the smell.”, and in this way she is beginning to free herself from their ghosts. She is attempting to bridge the gaps, between herself and her mother, China and America and the spirit world and the real world. In fighting ghosts in much the same way as her mother did, she is telling her history through them, telling on them. There is a power in being the one who reports on her world and yet there is a tension between the telling and not wanting to tell.’s book should be defined as an autobiography, she is using fictive elements to bring her self into alignment. These stories are such a huge part of her childhood experiences that she has to include them. Her very impulse to write has been bred from her mothers talking story and the power she realises exits in this act, which she can claim for herself. Her identity has been formed through her interaction with these mythic figures; by allowing herself to inhabit them in her fictions she is able to find the parts of her self that mirror them. The stories she tells are echoing the intimacy she has shared with her mother when she talked story, but while the Kingston we see at the start of the book is silent, by the close she is talking story with her mother, the mother may begin the tale but the ending she claims as her own.

This is a new kind of autobiography, a template for the autobiographies of immigrants, who need to search for a voice of their own, a place within their American society that still recognises their cultural identities. In writing this immigrant autobiography Kingston has to translate Chinese culture, she is retelling and reinventing stories, not just to bring them into another language but in order for them to be relevant to her life as a Chinese American.

At the end of The Woman Warrior, Kingston finishes her story with the necessary return to her maternal influences. The reconnection between herself and her mother is mediated through talk-story, with both parties taking the role of story-teller. The daughter is now in the position to finish the story that her mother has started “The beginning is hers, the ending, mine” This important story is about T’sai Yen, a poet who had been abducted by a nomadic tribe, and later ransomed back to China. T’sai Yen brought her song, Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, back with her and made it fit in her new life and, like the author hopes for the text of The woman Warrior, “It translated well.”

Kingston, as ‘an outlaw knot-maker’, has successfully weaved together the past and the present creating a complex pattern in writing her book. By embracing the talk story that her mother taught her and bringing to it her own identity, formed as it is by her Chinese and American influences, she successfully builds a new type of personal, yet rooted, voice for herself. She is no longer silent, and now has no reason to fear speaking. She has created “a song the Chinese sing to their own instruments” As well as a song for the displaced Chinese-American immigrant.

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