The Woman Warrior is structured around the narrator-protagonist’s struggle to overcome the injunction “don’t tell”, a warning voiced by her mother but also communicated indirectly by the mainstream American society surrounding her beleaguered ethnic community. (That society assigns young Maxine a “zero” IQ because she does not speak English when she enters school; its immigration officials reflexively reckon Maxine’s parents, a classical Chinese scholar and a trained midwife-doctor, as illiterate.)
When Kingston as author takes up the charge of telling the mother’s stories and imagining the untold story behind her father’s cursing in the laundry, she writes of a struggle both specific to her family and community and deeply American – a struggle in which speech and authorship are both symbolic of and instrumental to survival and the search for fullness of being. All of the stories in The Woman Warrior, from that of the legendary swordswoman Fa Mu Lan to the story of Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, herself, converge upon the reconstruction of this gendered temporal economy.
Frequently Brave Orchid’s talk-story involves an equation of Chinese girls to slaves, or livestock to be sold off or killed at birth. If girls do not shoulder the burden of tradition, they are treated as consumables. Where they do not embody the ideal of domesticity, they become a symbol of waste. In this extraordinarily stark way, the thin line between daughterly obedience and the threat of erasure is constantly being re-sketched. In The Woman Warrior, Maxine evolves from a quiet listener to a talker of stories.
Having transformed the military warrior into a verbal fighter, she recognizes that she herself is a powerful spinner of yarns and not just a receptacle for her mother’s tales. Although many chapters of her autobiography are in a sense collaborations between mother and daughter, the daughter becomes increasingly aware of her own contribution, especially in the last section of the book: “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk-story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine” (240).
It is toward the end of this story that the tone noticeably softens. Unlike Brave Orchid, the mother who would “funnel,” “pry,” “cram,” “jam pack” the daughter with unabated torrents of words, and unlike young Maxine, who has “splinters in [her] voice, bones jagged against one another” (196), adult Maxine modulates her notes to the music of her second tongue, in the manner of Ts’ai Yen, the heroine of her final tale. Kingston reinterprets the legend of Ts’ai Yen—a poet amid barbarians— and, as she has done with the stories about the no-name aunt and the woman warrior, subverts its original moral.
The Chinese version highlights the poet’s eventual return to her own people, a return that reinforces certain traditional and ethnocentric Chinese notions. Ts’ai Yen, Maxine’s last tutelary genius, resembles but transcends the various other influential female figures in her life. Like Fa Mu Lan, Ts’ai Yen has fought in battle, but as a captive soldier. She engages in another art hitherto dominated by men – writing – yet she does not disguise her sex, thus implicitly denying that authorship is a male prerogative. Like the no-name aunt, Ts’ai Yen is ravished and impregnated; both give birth on sand.
But instead of being nameless and ostracized, Ts’ai Yen achieves immortal fame by singing about her exile. Like Brave Orchid, she talks in Chinese to her uncomprehending children, who speak a barbarian tongue, but she learns to appreciate the barbarian music. The refrain of this finale is reconciliation – between parents and children, between men and women, and between different cultures. The narrative strategies of Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston push the exploration of time and memory in a different direction.
Her approach emerges out of the creative tension between two extremely powerful cultural traditions. Kingston deploys this ‘inter-cultural’ positioning extremely effectively in her work. From a different direction, her status as a serious (auto)biographer has been challenged by English and American biographical scholars who would like to classify her work as (mere) fiction by comparison with their allegedly more rigorous and serious trade. This two-pronged attack has not, however, prevented Maxine Hong Kingston from becoming the most anthologized living writer in the United States.
In the American college curriculum The Woman Warrior has deservedly come to be regarded as a modern classic. The Woman Warrior, however, is not without flaws: much of the exquisite fantasy material comes too early in the book, before we’re properly grounded in the author’s own “reality,” and we can appreciate its full impact only in retrospect. There’s often a staccato, jarring quality in transition from one scene to another, and we have to work hard placing ourselves in time and event. Prospective readers should not be discouraged by these minor problems.
What is in store for those who read on is not only the essence of the immigrant experience – here Chinese, and uniquely fascinating for that – but a marvelous glimpse into the real life of women in the family, a perception-expanding report for the archives of human experience. Nineteen-seventy-six saw the phenomenal publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a book that changed forever the face and status of contemporary Asian American literature.
Although it could not claim chronological precedence in the post-1965 Asian American corpus, The Woman Warrior remained the first text to both enter the arena of national culture and arrest American public imagination. The Woman Warrior’s historic entry into public culture gave Asian America such an official literary visibility that it is small wonder its reception became controversial. The interpretive differences over the book’s meaning, as a matter of fact, became an instant power contestation between the dominant culture and the ethnic community for both the authority and agency of Asian American articulation.
Who is qualified to speak about and for Asian America? What is the appropriate language of ethnic artistic representation? How should a minority writer published in a mainstream press negotiate her double audience, and to whom does she owe allegiance? These and related questions that greeted The Woman Warrior reveal the representational duress that this single text has had to endure, and their answers also inevitably betray the divergent conceptualizations of an emergent Asian American culture.
Central to the debate about The Woman Warrior is the definitional struggle, especially between the emergent cadre of ethnic nationalists and mainstream feminist and formalist critics, for the significance of “Asian America. ”
Kingston, Maxine Hong. (1976). The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage. Kubota, Gary. (1998). ‘Interview with Gary Kubota’ in Skenazy and Martin, eds (1998), pp. 1-4.