Response to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

Before you start reading, this post seems to be perpetually popular in my traffic statistics. The question this brings up for me is whether this is one of the few commentaries on these specific texts / films, or if there is another reason. I would appreciate insight, if you care to leave a comment. If not, you should probably read my statement on plagiarism. Thanks! On to the reason you’re here:

.

Any person living in the space between two cultures faces risks and rewards for abandoning his or her native culture for the culture of the adopted state. Additionally, that individual faces other risks in the attempt to straddle that liminal space. These risks become clarified in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, in which she writes from the perspective of a second-generation immigrant, clearly straddling the cultural divide between China and the United States. One of the primary issues Kingston interrogates is the risk of assimilation, most clearly questioned when she writes, “How can Chinese keep any traditions at all…slipping in a ceremony and clearing the table before the children notice specialness[?]” (185). This interrogation points out the danger of losing custom and culture through the assimilation process.

One of the critiques discussed in class was an accusation about Kingston’s lack of authenticity in her “talking-story,” which ends in a question about whether The Woman Warriorbelongs in the Fiction or Non-Fiction section of a library. However, an important realization for these critics needs to be that of authenticity to experience. In Kingston’s case, living in a home full of Chinese language, unexplained rites, and indistinguished stories (202), while also occupying external spaces in which the dominant culture is American can cause confusion and conflation in a young child. This situation complicates cultural experiences for second-generation immigrants, which results in a complication of “authentic” understanding of the origin culture (in Kingston’s case, Chinese culture). As a result, Kingston’s references to Chinese cultural anchors may be skewed in relation to “authentic” translations of these myths, leading to the mentioned criticism. What Kingston’s memoir is authentic to, however, is the liminal experience and comprehension of the second-generation immigrant.

This is also the case with family stories Kingston references. One example is the first section of the book, “No Name Woman,” in which the narrator relays a family story to the reader. Although the actual story told to her is very brief, Kingston delves into it, imagining the series of events that led to her Aunt’s suicide. The level of detail with which Kingston explores these divergent paths do not always fit into the expected mold of behavior for Chinese women at the time, and can be read as an attempt to understand from the perspective of someone not raised with those same cultural expectations. In this attempt to relate to the story, the narrator exhibits, as opposed to discusses, the cultural disassociation or dislocation from the origin culture. This evidence of liminal cultural experience – existing in, yet neither fully understanding nor belonging in either culture – is evident in each section throughout Kingston’s book.

Other “woman warriors” come into play through Kingston’s book as well. In “White Tigers,” for instance, she conveys the story of Fa Mu Lan. Important here is that the narrator transitions from contemporary narration to telling Fa Mu Lan’s story in first person without a clear break between the two. The conflation here between the narrator and Fa Mu Lan again exhibits this liminal quality of growing up a second-generation immigrant, as well as serving to point toward the climax of the narrator’s experience in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” When the narrator confronts her mother in this section (201-2), she too becomes a warrior in a way, which is foreshadowed in the beginning of “White Tigers.” When, at the end of “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” and The Warrior Woman, Kingston transitions into the story of another woman warrior, it is with clear delineation between the narrator, her mother’s story, and her imaginings. “The beginning is hers, the ending, mine” (206), she writes, separating what had earlier been conflated. This clear demarking of stories indicates that the narrator has assumed a place in the world, which while still liminal, is at least defined. Ending the book on this level of clarity displays – again as opposed to describes – that experience of finding a place, which may take longer for a second-generation immigrant than for a cultural native.


Works Cited

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1976. Print.

Advertisements