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.

7 comments:

dawt said...

Your description of "At the Western Palace" alone makes me want to read this book. Thanks for getting my 2010 reading list started!

dawt said...
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Holloway McCandless said...

I like the way you put MHK in context, plus I think you need to make a new ratings label: "brain-perking." Always on the lookout for brain-perking myself.

karen wester newton said...

I read it a while ago and liked it. You might also enjoy the novel Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord, which is set in China before and during their latest revolution.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in knowing that "The Woman Warrior" was not the title Kingston herself wanted. It was too violent. (To my knowledge, also had planned to publish this book with the male counterpart, China Man, in one volume.)Would that have changed your reading of it?

MHK's interest, as you said, has certainly had a roller coaster--she's loved, hated, revered, ignored,....

I found the book to be deceptively complex. For example, in one section she describes all the oddities her family ate. It's easy to read it with the typical fascination/disgust--"I can't believe she would eat THAT!" Yet in different passage, just a different chapter, she will tell a story of a grandma who could eat anything, consume anything. Food becomes a form of strength, not desperation. That's the type of Kingston subtlety, IMHO.

moonrat said...

Anon--I agree re: the half-hidden complexities. Sometimes I wonder if I'm reading too much into it, or if she buried stuff throughout for the thoughtful reader. I'm inclined to believe that the author probably planned everything (because even if an author didn't intend to make you think a certain thing, they succeeded in making you think it, which means they deserve credit).

Anyway. More specifically. In the second vignette, White Tiger, her mythical alter-ego goes home so her parents can scar their address and wishes on her back with ink and knife. She is happy to be scarred this way--sort of. It hurts a lot. But she's proud of herself. My first thought reading it was, eww! How could she accuse her parents of wanting to scar their children?! Then I re-thought it out, and decided it was a metaphor for the ways our parents damage us (for better or for worse) with their own origins, histories, and hopes. And those scars really do make us into who we are.

Re: the title: the reason I'd put off reading it until now was because the title seemed trashy/3rd wave to me. Glad I finally got past that! But I wonder how many others have been turned off for the same reason. I also wonder what MHK would have wanted it called?

Beth said...

I read WW as a high school assignment, and loved it. 30+ years later, I don't remember complexities or writing style, but I do remember the dose of different culture and the dreams (through American eyes) that you can be anything, even if you're a girl.