“Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood (…), your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition, and what are the movies?” (Kingston, 1976, p.6). Born as a second-generation Chinese American, Kingston gazes at her childhood, transcending a cultural conflict between her Chinese parents and her surrounding American culture. In doing so, she merges Chinese tell-tales with the autobiographical novel form. The novel portrays a child who tries to wash off the Chinese culture within her. Depicting it as her childhood battle, a battle between her Chinese roots and her American Dream. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) has been criticized by scholars for its judgmental approach to Chinese culture since the novel does not celebrate Chinese American hybridity nor criticize racial segregation deeply rooted in American culture. The criticism Kingston receives is mainly from a perception that endorses multiculturalism and diversity. However, the multiculturalist perception that criticized her back in the 1980s avoided the existential deterioration that underlies multicultural identity and bilingualism. To young Kingston, becoming more American may have appeared as a solution to her existential dread. This essay will analyze The Woman Warrior’s (1976) first part, “No-Name-Woman,” in the light of this argument, claiming that the narrator, Kingston, tells and reimagines her Chinese aunt's secretly kept suicide and extramarital pregnancy as an act of reinstating her Americanness. This essay aims to frame Kingston's storytelling and reinstating of events as a particularist act of re-writing a multicultural version of history.
In Writing Outside the Nation, Azade Seyhan (2001) introduces “ethnic literature” as the "linguistic and cultural heritage that is articulated through acts of the individual and collective memory of the multicultural, the deterritorialized subject” (Seyhan, 2001, p.12). She then claims that for second-generation and third-generation ethnic subjects’ hybridity and bilingualism are the primary catalyzers of their existence (Seyhan. 2001, p.6). The Woman Warrior’s (1976) totality, meaning the narrative style, language, and cultural references, is constituted by Chinese-Americanness. As a semi-autobiographical novel, the tales told in the Woman Warrior (1976) bares similarities with Kingston's life, and the protagonist of the story is called Kingston. The novel is split into five sections, each focusing on a different facet of Kingston's life. The first section, "No Name Woman," tells the story of Kingston's Aunt, who is ostracized by her village after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The second section, "White Tigers," focuses on Kingston's Mother and her journey to America. In the third section, "Shaman," Kingston looks at the role of women in Chinese society and how they are often regarded as powerless. The fourth section, "At Sea" sees Kingston as a young adult struggling to find her place in America as she tries to balance her Chinese and American identities. The theme of growing up with two nationalities and two languages is portrayed through a narrator making sense of a deterritorialized culture of "a forgotten history" in a second home.
Seyhan (2001) argues that hybrid subjects have a fragmented consciousness (p.9). These fragmented consciousnesses are a result of a dual way of understanding the world. Bilingualism and multiculturalism are a part of this duality that constitutes the hybrid subject's fragmented consciousness. "No-Name-Woman," tells the story of a woman whose story has been forgotten. However, it tells the story of a girl who resists and attempts to change the events that have transpired within this story. Right from the beginning of “No Name Woman,” the novel hints that Kingston is battling her identity crisis. This identity crisis is defined as the invisible emigrant world built around Kingston (Kingston, 1976, p.6). "Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America" (Kingston, 1976, p.6). While her family, her neighborhood, and her school is Chinese and built for Chinese-Americans, everything else that is aspired amongst American generations is from a different culture. Thus, for young Kingston, who has been exposed to American traditions, dual nationality is not something to be celebrated but needs reprehension. Kingston's Aunt gets ostracized by their family for having sexual intercourse with another boy, while her husband is in China. She loses her reputation, her right to live, and not get raped, eventually leading to her suicide. Beyond killing her Aunt, the "displaced" Chinese traditions surrounding Kingston render her Aunt’s suicide a familial shame, a secret never discussed. Kingston, a second-generation Chinese-American with a different set of cultural values than her parents, finds her Aunt's life "unable to branch" into her own American life (Kingston, 1976, p.10). In her dual way of understanding the world, she targets Chinese culture for pushing her Aunt to the edge but does not necessarily target a universal set of sexist standards expected from women regarding fidelity and sexual behavior.
The duality between Kingston's conception of Americanness versus Chinese aggrandizes as the story progresses. Kingston distinguishes between what she perceives as Chinese Feminine and American Feminine before initiating her aunt's story. "The loud Chinese communication" is not as attractive as "walking erect," which is a part of American culture (Kingston, 1976 p.13). A certain sense of confidence which she perceives to be consistent amongst American women, does not manifest in Chinese Women. Kingston's reaction to Chinese culture acts as a catalyst in understanding how the American feminine does not align with the particulars of the Chinese feminine. She mentions a lack of confidence that Chinese women manifest through their posture (Kingston, 1976, p.14). The fact that they lack the confidence American women have is why Chinese women get ostracized in Kingston's view. She later claims that American boys will like her if she becomes more American (Kingston, 1976, p.15). All the Chinese traits that Kingston does not want to be associated with are the culprits of her Aunt's suicide, not the men themselves. From a political stance, Kingston retells her Aunt's story to commemorate her loss and maybe even give her an American ending.
Hence, storytelling is the driving force in engaging with history for Kingston. Seyhan (2000) claims that “people engage in history not solely as agents or actors; but as storytellers or narrators” (p. 4). She initially imagines her Aunt's sex scenario and the longing for her husband, who stayed in China. Then she imagines her Aunt's and the culprit's acquaintance and intimacy without the cultural agencies that have silenced it. In Parrot’s terms, it "acts as a proxy for reinstating the no-name woman's volition, thereby breaking the power hold on that secret" as a rhetorical choice (Parrot, 2021, p.380). She constructs another story in which the rapist may have acted discreetly (Kingston, 1976, 8) or might have been her "imminent lover" (Kingston, 1976, p.12). All these possible versions of her aunt's story project Kingston's own future, of getting her closer to American traditions rather than Chinese ones. In a sense, she constructs an end, a reality in which she would like to live through her Aunt's story.
In Reflections on Exile, Edward Said (2000) once said that "being in exile" denies people of "an identity," and thus autonomy, and writes to claim language (p.140). Kingston engages in her experience of being an exile in both of her cultures by subverting the talk stories she hears from her mother. On the metaphorical level, she depicts her hybridity as a battle, a battle in which the side that melts into Americanness can win. This sense of a battle, reinstated through storytelling, gives the novel its name, the Woman Warrior (1976). Like her Father, who wants to forget her Sister, Kingston wants to forget "the invisible" Chinese world built around her "imagined American nation." In “No Name Woman”, Kingston gives her no-name-aunt a name to fight Chinese tradition. By recognizing her Aunt’s story, instead of forgetting her she establishes her own autonomy. One might think that Kingston's problematic cultural comparisons limit her vision and they may restrict her from creating a Chinese American female subjectivity. As a reader and a researcher from another decade, it may be easy for someone to make that claim and many have criticized Kingston for endorsing American culture against the Chinese. How multiculturalism and bilingualism have been perceived and dealt with has evolved over time. There remains a sense of not-belonging or struggling between cultures which Kingston tries to deal with through storytelling. The retelling of stories presents itself as a coping mechanism for the hybrid subject who does not fit into their own multicultural reality. Regardless of all that has been said, the Woman Warrior is still a novel that finds its way to many immigration-themed classes proving its greatness and relevancy to American multiculturalism.
Kingston, M.H. (1976) The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood amongst Ghosts. Introduction by Xiaolu Guo, Main Market, 2014. Hunsaker, S. V. (1997) “Nationality, Family, and the Language in Victor Perera’s Rites and Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior.’” Biography, Fall, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 437, 461. JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23539733 Parrot, J. M. (2021). “Power and Discourse: Silence as a Rhetorical Choice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, University California Press, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 375, 391. JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rh.2012.30.4.375
Said, E. W. (2000) Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Harvard University Press. Seyhan, A. (2000) “Neither Here/Nor There: The Culture of Exile.” Writing Outside Nation, ed. Emily Apter, Princeton University Press, pp. 1 - 25.
Cover Image: Anonymous. (n.d.) Ballad of Mulan Poem. Retrieved from: https://electricliterature.com/the-last-chinese-american-woman-writer-who-hasnt-read-maxine-hong-kingston/
Figure 1: First Edition Book Cover, The Women Warrior (1976) Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_Warrior Figure 2: Eagle, E. (n.d.) Illustration of Maxine Hong Kingston.'s Portrai Retrieved from: https://www.elleneagleportraits.com/maxine-hong-kingston-portrait_smithsonian-national-portrait-gallery/ Figure 3: Xuan. Z. (n.d.) Court ladies making silk. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_clothing_in_China