Thursday, December 31, 2009
Maxine Hong Kingston/THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMORIES OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS
I had approached reading The Woman Warrior more as an anthropological project than as a book to enjoy. I would be seeing what one of the original breakthrough female Asian American writers produced to shake up the literary world, but I would know that in the same period between its publication and today, both Amy Tan and Bruce Lee had gone from heroes (they've got everyone talking about China! look how cool they are!) to antiheroes, wall-builders of cultural misunderstanding who have inadvertently forced any Asian and Asian American writers/actors/etc after them into proscribed, limited, and ethnically stereotyped modes of expression. (Poor Amy, poor Bruce; both are heroes to me.) How would Maxine Hong Kingston's work fit into this scheme? Surely The Woman Warrior, which was first published in 1975, would prove part of this happy-to-unhappy trajectory.
Part of the fun of approaching a book with preconceived notions is watching them break down in your pleasant surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short but lavish book, and Kingston's prose is compelling and clever. Her composition and language are both innovative, and make the text brain-perking regardless of whatever content you're looking for. And although many of the themes within may have since become associated with that Amy Tanism, it is happy to remember that Kingston really was the forerunner of the genre.
The book is divided into five long chapters, or sort novellas. The first, "No Name Woman," reimagines the forbidden story of an aunt back in China who bore a child out of wedlock. "White Tigers" is a fantasy metaphor of Kingston's childhood, and describes the origin of the "Woman Warrior" in the title--loosely based on the tale of Fa Mu Lan, the woman who went to war disguised as a man to save her family and her village, it establishes Kingston as a girl child fighting both for and against her family and origins. "Shaman," the third section, is a narrative of her mother's time at medical school in China. "At the Western Palace," the fourth, is the story of her mother's sister who came to America at age 68, after thirty years of estrangement from her husband, who had moved to America and married a new wife. The last, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is about Kingston's bilingual childhood, struggles in school and in reconciling the person her Chinese "village" wanted her to be with her American home.
The theme of "ghosts" manifests itself in different ways. There are literal ghosts throughout, evil Sitting Ghosts and Wall Ghosts of her mother's local superstitions, all crafting nefarious means of causing harm to the living. There are the "white ghosts" of Kingston's American childhood--in other words, all the white Americans around them in their California home. And there are the ghosts of the ancestors whose narratives her mother "talks-story," the poets, warriors, and myths that shape her conception of Chineseness.
I read this because it was on my fill-in-the-gaps list--an important book I had trouble imagining getting around to--but I ended up enjoying it. Plus it made me think. Win-win-win, as Michael Scott would say.