Volume X, Number 1, Spring 2014

"Voices and Voicing in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior”" by Andreia-Irina Suciu

Andreia-Irina Suciu is a PhD lecturer at “Vasile Alecsandri” University of Bacau, Romania. She holds a PhD in English philology and the topic of her research included the works of Malcolm Bradbury both as a critic and as a writer. She has published a monograph on this author and a translation of two of his novels as well; she has written articles on John Osborne, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Bond, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. She is interested in aspects of postmodernity (Maxine Hong Kingston, Don DeLillo, Susan Sontag and others) and researches dystopias and the campus novel. Email:

I. Introduction. The Woman Warrior’s Pluriperspectivism

The five parts of the novel The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston are a series of accumulations featuring the following aspects: firstly, the growth of a young girl and then the growth of a writer/ story teller (“I am a story talker” 184), whose female and artistic personality is shaped mainly by her mother’s stories; secondly, the cultural tensions of the Chinese that take refuge in the Gold Mountain as America is seen in comparison with communist China; thirdly, the gap within the family/ethnic group between the generations of parents born in Asian culture and their children, who seem to inherit only the American-born spirit; fourthly, the book revives the lost voices of the immigrants, who brought their own history and stories to America and wanted to make them heard. Thus, the novel introduces a number of different voices: the girl/daughter/sister/woman/mother, the artist, the refugee/exile/immigrant, the Chinese versus the mainstream American voice, and, in the process, builds a scaffolding for one of the most complex use of perspectives in the writing of fiction, in general and of the (auto-)biography/memoir in particular.

Kingston’s novel appeals both to the senses and to the emotions making the reader step firstly into a realm of fantasy and remembering what is mythically obscure about the Chinese tradition; then, in a masterful network designed by the author, Kingston observes the metafictional mechanisms of writing fiction, biography, memoir, history, fictionalized history, myth and legend or all by mixing them in a molten alloy that eventually becomes a composite text. The strength of the novel lies in its four main sources: (1) the drama of Chinese women within a culture which treats them unfairly; (2) the difficulties of the displacement of the exiles and refugees, who depart from the deeply-rooted Chinese tradition to the newly emerged American context and experience a special cross-cultural conflict; (3) the narrative strength of the storyteller, who veers from fantasy to biography deftly and naturally; (4) and the power of symbols and metaphors. Due to these factors the text becomes a literary and historical document of human experience with emphasis on the transformation and adaptation of Asian culture to the civilization of the West through the figure of a woman. It is an example of contesting authority within the same culture, within one’s own family, all in the attempt to shape a new self. The aforementioned sources bring five different perspectives upon the problem of women in a highly traditional culture as they formed in the mind of an impressionable child by the narration of the adults. The first part of the novel, “No Name Woman,” is the story of an unnamed aunt, who gave birth to a baby conceived outside marriage, revealing the centuries-old drama of Chinese women, who were forced to yield to the strict patriarchal laws. This first part creates one of the most powerful images of the entire novel by making the new mother seek the refuge in the realm of Mother Nature, in an open field when she gives birth to her child. The narration provides the background frame for the building of a female character who will rebel and fight against these written or unwritten rules that Chinese tradition was imposing on women by the presentation in part two, “White Tigers”, of the archetypal heroine Fa Mu Lan, who manages to control her body through the power of her mind and be a complete woman: daughter, sister, wife, mother, but also apprentice in the art of fighting, soldier, ruler of an army. Part three, “Shaman” narrates the story of the narrator’s mother who presents the fight of the modern Chinese woman with the past by the exorcising of the Sitting Ghost (in an undertaking that starts shaping the escape from under the influence of tradition, but also as an anticipation of her “taming” the Americans, the White Ghosts, by borrowing something of their pragmatism and spirit of enterprise) and also surpasses her social condition by obtaining a degree from a medical college and becomes a physician before leaving China. In part four, “At the Western Palace,” the narrator underlines the necessity of the Chinese woman to adapt to a fast changing world because otherwise, the remaining behind, stuck to a confining, constraining tradition, would mean the loss in the face of the (post)modern. Her aunt’s story of being left behind, in China by her husband who finds another wife in the Western Palace that America was, clearly pleads for the emancipation of the woman who has to take a profession into consideration and surpass her condition of mere breeder of children, and to fight for the reclaiming of her rights. All four voices presented in the first four parts – the voice of the traditional family, the voice of history, myth and legend, the voice of emancipation and adaptation, and finally that of negotiating a position in society, help the defining in the last part, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, of a definite, clearly individualized voice of the narrator who manages first and foremost to confront her mother and take charge as a creator – for she is now the story teller/ the writer who has gained a voice just as the character from this last part has regained hers. This multiple perspective has lead critics to label the novel as being the intimation and creation of a racial and gendered consciousness (Geok-Lin Lim 264), a self-representation through the presentations of other(ness), but also a self-invention.

II. The Convincing Logos from Me/My(self) to the O/other

II.1. Biography

The Woman Warrior, though labelled most of the times a biography, is not built literally as such but it rather uses a technique that draws it near to the postmodern experiment in terms of narrative structure; the novel is not built chronologically, and it is rather an accumulation of “multiple time planes (personal, family and social history myth) flowing in unstructured circularities” (Geok-Lin Lim 259) and giving the impression of synchronic time. The main narratives are reconstructed from dialogues with a parent, an aunt, spirits of the past or from “flashbacks and retrieved memories and recollections” (Huntley 78). The episodes “do not follow each other chronologically or develop logically, but rather appear to be called into textual being by allusions, reminiscences, and motifs, and are in turn replaced by other texts” (78). The author was accused of having written a text which is situated between fiction and autobiography, but being clearly neither of them. But she herself confesses (Skenazy&Martin 75) of having written

new literary structures to contain multiversions and to tell the true lives of non-fiction people who are storytellers…. After going back and forth on my classification for a couple of years, I’ve decided that I am writing … about real people, all of whom have minds that love to invent fictions. I am writing the biography of their imaginations.

It seems rather to fit the label of creative memoir circumscribed to the broad background of cultural memory. There is a basic matrix of memories that represent the larger fabric of narration on which the other imagined stories are later woven. Kingston herself admits that generally in fiction, and particularly in her case (she says she had actually worked for several decades on the book in her attempt to distil language) it is “the living that you do before” the actual act of writing that shapes the future written product. Thus, remembrance is used creatively, it is re-interpreted and then interlaced with dreams, reflection, rumours, speculation, and madness so as to translate (in both meanings of the word) a culture.

II.2. Autobiography

This type of confession of the author brought the novel closer to its interpretation as autobiography but it also raised some of the most important controversies concerning its generic status and therefore the integrity of the book and of the author, accordingly. The very first label of this sort was apparently given by the publisher who first commissioned it as a work of non-fiction and then, literally, as an autobiography.

The novel started being judged as a bicultural autobiography, meaning that it “recounts lives that originated in distinctive minority subcultures but does not end there” (Couser 210). Things are not anymore as clearly set when issues concerning the ambiguous cultural status or the authority of the biographer are raised here. This disclaimed authority came from the fact that the author was accused of not having found a balance and a strong enough voice between the tensions emerged from the struggle of assimilation into mainstream culture and allegiance to her own subculture (Couser 210). As a result, the immigrant and the ethnic voices of the narrator are mixed up in a discourse which was objected by some as not having preserved the traces of the national voice.

As a work of ethnic American literature, the novel was submitted to the rigours of analysis and it apparently failed to pass the test due to the extent of the “fictional” features that permeate what is supposed to be a confessional writing and, at least partially, a historic document drawing on and presenting to the public “the sociopolitical context of minority literary creation” (Wong 31). The epistemological status of such writing becomes therefore uncertain, the story it follows is neither chronological and progressive, nor individual; the balance is broken by failing to present “a chronologically sequenced account with verifiable references to places, people and events” (31). And the fragmentary incomplete literary project is rather a subjectively arbitrary document which presents highly emotionally episodes. But it is not an exclusively historical document that The Woman Warrior builds and it is not what the author confesses to having written. Instead of presenting the external real, in a typical postmodern manner for the autobiographical writing, which “allows, then inhibits its ostensible project of self-representation” (Renza in Duke 30), the book breaks the hegemony of the formal autobiography and creates identity by lingering more upon the internal “real” life. It presents an account of personal sensitivity rather than a historical account, or an account of a voice which seeks to emerge between so many other voices that speak or had spoken for her. Ultimately, it is a postmodern autobiography belonging to the postmodern mixed-genre tradition of partly fact, partly fiction, which builds itself through the building of “a new type of subjectivity by refusing the totalizing individuality of the modern era” (Quinby in Smith&Watson 297).

Studies of autobiographies have been written for a long time and the writer’s variations imposed new considerations of the previous theoretical debates. In 1980, William C. Spengemann (Seyhan 69) identifies the defining formal strategies of self-representation as follows: “historical self-explanation, philosophical self-scrutiny, poetic self-expression, and poetic self-invention”. In the case of diasporic writing, some or all of these strategies are developed by help of familial, communal, political, historical, mythological, literary/ symbolic voices and become testimonials of exile writing, celebrations of bilingualism or polyglot selves, re-writings of geography and genealogy, ultimately they become voices of a collective identity. It is this kind of spirit that made the novel be circumscribed to the category of “memoirs of migration and dislocation” that “commission acts of self-reflexivity” (Seyhan 69) through the multiplicity of ambiguous and contesting voices developing a discourse of redefinition of one’s self. This self-reflexivity arises from the fact that the novel develops a real, but also reimagined narration of the life of the family seen through the tradition-abiding mode and through customary stories. These stories, which project the author in a dreamlike state as they succeed one after the other like dreamlike sequences (the author being unable to distinguish the border between her mother’s bedtime stories and whatever happens after she fell asleep) build a type of autobiography which is an act of willed self-invention “situated at the intersection between intimate self-portraiture, linguistic travels and travails, and a poetically nuanced triangulation of dislocation, memory and human agency” (Seyhan 70).

The point at which the novel passes beyond the common Bildungsroman is that in which it manages to build “a considerably more variegated linguistic and ideological fabric” (Morrison 80). The author builds not only individual language and ideology, but she also outlines the ideology of a new category of authors – the “story-talkers” (Kingston 184) – and she makes a history of the Chinese language through the stories she narrates and gives this language a new identity on American soil.

The manner in which Maxine Hong Kingston constructs these stories in terms of technique is again a borderline undertaking: she amalgamates the aesthetic form of the stories from Cantonese tradition with the Western form of autobiography retaining however the “continuities between different times and places, between contemporary and ancient tales, and between family traditions and traditional myths […] through a highly intricate process of storytelling” (Morrison 84). This process of storytelling bears to marker of the postmodern experiment of multiplying perspectives, of opposing and overlapping spaces, of opposing the new to the old, or the newly emerged myths and values of the contemporary age in comparison with the traditional ones.

II.3. Memoirs

The Woman Warrior gives from the beginning the impression of a strong biographical writing and research into her life do reveal traces of autobiographical writing. Where the novel steps over the borders of autobiography is in promoting an “I” “that is explicitly constituted in the reports of the utterances and proceedings of others” (Quinby in Smith&Watson 299). If the “I” from autobiographies explores interiority in a confessional type of discourse, the “I” in memoirs is externalized and builds a multiple and discontinuous subjectivity. E. D. Huntley (77) notes the same difference and identifies such strong memory traces in Kingston’s novel:

To a certain extent, Kingston’s text functions as an autobiography in the sense that it is a personal history centred on reflections about her early life as she attempts to interpret and understand the cultural codes that have shaped her life. But The Woman Warrior is less an autobiography than it is a mosaic of memoir, history and fiction – artistic storytelling in the service of one’s woman (re-)creation of her own identity.

The novel gains legitimacy as a writing of memoirs or a “narrative of postmemory” (Rice 221) because it is precisely a mixture of records of events, movements, transactions in a person’s life, as they come within the personal knowledge of the author or are obtained from other sources of information, comprising both particular observation and biographical traces. Lee Quinby (qtd. in Smith&Watson 229) makes an astute analysis of the word “memoirs” starting from the French etymology of the word and observing how the noun having initially a feminine gender, has acquired a masculine gender in its specialized use being seen as a contracted form of écrit pour mémoire; the anomaly seems to be continued in the preserving of a quasi-French pronunciation in English. Thus, the critic interprets that the transformation and anomaly of the memoirist genre announced in the subtitle is transferred onto the very narrator who seems a somewhat anomalous memoirist “using a grammatically feminine term that has been colonised by a masculine form,” introducing a type of “subjugated femininity subversively erupting against linguistic and literary exclusion” (229).

By each new story she reconstructs, the author-narrator seems to build a voice from the child’s and later the teenager’s and adult woman’s yearnings, hopes, dreams. Each story told to her by her mother, or each story presented by the narrator in the five parts of the novel adds a new side to her personality and a new octave to the voice that wants to make itself heard. It adds a new epic to the narration and a new storey to the multilayered, plurivocal and yet homogeneous edifice of the novel making pass from biography to autobiography, from history to myth, from archetype to new social roles. The initial filter of memory which may be failing due to physiological as well as psychological limits of repression is nevertheless not an issue as creative memory/ memoir fills instantly the gaps. Many critics have regarded this aspect of forgetting or eschewing reality as the main flaw of the novel, but in fact Kingston manages to create a subjective (re-)writing, (re-)interpretation of old sources (myths, archetypes) which is only the equivalent of the use of intertextuality. It is what Michel Foucault (Tchibana 1) calls counter-memory as the necessary opposition to traditional history:

The traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and for retracing the past as a patient and continuous development must be systematically dismantled […] “Effective” history deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature […] [and instead] deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations. An event, consequently, is… the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked “other.”

George Lipsitz offers his own definition of counter-memory. In his view this is seen in the following:

Counter-memory is a way of remembering and forgetting that starts with the local, the immediate, and the personal. Unlike historical narratives that begin with the totality of human existence and then locate specific actions and events within the totality, counter-memory starts with the particular and the specific and then builds outwards toward a total story. Counter-memory looks to the past for the hidden histories excluded from dominant narratives. But unlike myths that seek to detach events and actions from the fabric of any larger history, counter-memory forces revision of existing histories by supplying new perspectives about the past. Counter-memory embodies aspects of myth and aspects of history, but it retains an enduring suspicion of both categories. Counter-memory focuses on localized experiences with oppression, using them to reframe and refocus dominant narratives purporting to represent universal experience. (213)

The failure to distinguish between real historical events, original myths and legends and subjective reshaping of these should only be pinned on the reader as long as the author never claims to have written a historical/ biographical account of a people/ person. She passes indeed furtively from “perhaps” or “could have been” to “surely” and “was,” she recounts facts that happened before her birth in a series that fuses “recollection, speculation, reflection, meditation, imagination” (Wong 32).

II.4. Histories

The novel starts in what seems to be a typical Bildungsroman. The beginning―typical for a novel of adolescence―draws the traditional trajectory of a writing in which “the protagonist experiences a significant change of knowledge or character” and then unfolds in a writing which “tends to be heavily autobiographical and its hero is frequently gifted or extraordinarily sensitive”. In the typical line of the initiation story, “the protagonist may acquire new knowledge about the world or make a lasting character change,” she “rejects the constraints of home, sets out on a journey through the world, obtains guides which represent different world views, including a philosophy of darkness, and meets with many setbacks before choosing the proper philosophy, mate, and vocation” and experiences a typical pattern with the following steps: “estrangement from the social environment, conflict with parents, disillusionment in love, departure from home, and encounter with different people and ideas” (White 3). The initial story from Kingston’s novel follows almost to the letter this pattern and thus manages “to emerge as a quintessential coming-of-age narrative” (Grice 29) mainly triggered and dictated by her rejection of the domestic confinement and the social constraints while adopting the role of a pioneer emancipator and (female and literary) identity assertor. It is what we would call a personal history or a she-story.

The novel also seems to re-construct people’s (mainstream) History from the collective memory. In one of her interviews the author confesses:

I was constantly listening to [my parents] and my relatives talk-story. Their recollections of myths, fables and Chinese history turned out to be amazingly accurate. After the book was published, several people pointed out the presence of these stories in anthropology and art books. (in Skenazy 2)

A third level of the variation of “story” is the talk-story. This tradition is linked to the local oral traditions of Hawai’i where Kingston lived in mid ’60s and ’70s. Wendy Ho (28) explains that “talk-story” is a pidgin expression designating a “social or communal oral exchange in which people gather to ‘chew the fat’ or ‘shoot the breeze’ with friends and family”. In this process the author “retells traditional oral stories and/or invents subversive stories to account for the varying social, economic, cultural, and historical circumstances of Chinese women, families and communities in the United States” (28). Thus, the novel becomes a mental re-presentation of an incoherent memory, an emotional misinterpretation of patriarchal type of legends by a woman – a feminist re-appropriation of these myths and legends, a cultural revising and an artistic distortion of Chinese sources. The stories move beyond the orderly shaping of a life whose events are anchored in the external world, and pass into the internal world of a very imaginative and creative memory which presents a series of events connected by their significance rather than chronology. And in the author’s defence against the critics who contested this extensive liberty-taking in mixing History, myth, legends and family events (that is, individual history), there were other critics who stressed upon the permissiveness of the Chinese oral tradition within which “there is no fixed, unitary story, no one ‘right’ story” (Ho 143) each of these stories having their validity in the continuum of cultural survival. By re-telling these stories, through a process of disruption, mutation and reconstruction of culture, the author makes her past usable and understandable to the American contemporary existence and thus creates her Chinese American identity but also constructs a Chinese American literary tradition exposing the dangers of loss and erasure within the process of social transgression.

Another interesting artifice performed in this type of transgressive autobiography is a type of writing in which the daughter foregrounds the story of the parents and she herself becomes an appendix to her own text, emerging only in the end as a fully grown individuality. Such dialogues (with the m/other and with the voice that echoes the voice of the collective) stress and make use extensively of the relational nature of identity. By borrowing her voice to the m/other and to the fellow Chinese the author gains “freedom from the fixity of circumscribed positions and self-definitions” (Seyhan 71). The author’s great merit is that of transgressing borders in remembering and reminding, understanding and explaining, filtering and appropriating, and ultimately recasting the fluid voices of the past generations in alternative, fable-like, dreamlike, maddened, symbolic setting. But the ultimate purpose is not the sketching of a family’s personal history, and of a community’s or a people’s history, but the reinvention of the self through borderline genre of biography/ autobiography in an undertaking of being all the more convincing by alternatively foregrounding and backgrounding perspectives and voices. The narrative technique that the author uses to bring the lost history and geography back to life is that of creating a chain of small narratives coming from the collective memory or being reconstructed by her own memory, fables and verbalized dreams. These aim at restructuring her tale for survival by imagined retrospection in the Chinese culture and by actually experiencing the American culture. All of these stories function as an interface between mother and daughter, between Chinese heritage and American upbringing. At the same time these small narratives are illustrative of some rites of passage – the first story, of her nameless aunt giving birth to a child from an adulterous relation and being punished by the choice of a more than degrading location, the pigsty, and ultimately by being found drowned in the family well, is the passage into a milestone period of her first menstruation; the second, the legend of the woman warrior, is the passage towards the woman finding her own strengths and limits into the age of adulthood/ motherhood; the third, her mother’s becoming a doctor and owner of her own slave, is the passage towards gaining financial and educational independence; the fourth, her aunt’s plight of having been abandoned by her husband and trying to regain him, is the passage towards the Chinese woman trying to find her lost previously superior position in front of the American capitalist women; the fifth, and last story, that of the poetess Ts’ai Yung, is the author stepping into the position of the creator, shaper of words and stories and of consciousness. These stories are written in or on

birth charts and immigration papers, permission slips and schools diplomas, anthropology books and dictionaries, […] laundry packages, words pinned on the cloth of corpses, […] shop windows and office doors, boxes containing fragile items, […] letters. (Blassnigg 397)

These are ultimately written on the back of the people, as Fa Mu Lan’s tattoos, as the burden of people carrying the cross of their history. The mythical characters have been the subject of the utmost ardent debates as the author’s changes have been regarded as exaggerated and misleading for the readers. But the author clearly stated that

[M]yths transform lives and are themselves changed… sinologists have criticized me for not knowing myths and for distorting them; pirates correct my myths revising them to make them conform to some traditional Chinese version. They don’t understand that myths have to change, be useful or forgotten. Like the people who carry them across oceans, the myths become American. The myths I write are new, American. That’s why they often appear as cartoon as kung fu movies. I take the power I need from whatever myth. Thus Fa Mu Lan has the word cut into her back; in traditional story, it is the man, Ngak Fei the Patriot, whose parents cut vows on his back. I mean to take his power for women. (qtd. in Grice 24)

Thus, the author uses this device of reconstructing a people’s history from small s/he-stories. The result may be a subjective one, but it nonetheless stronger at an artistic level.

III. From Convincing to Convicting

III.1. Accumulation of Perspectives and Narrative Voices

Apart from the thematic level, another level at which the novel builds itself in a typical experimental postmodern manner is that of the accumulation of narrations. The employing of talk-story as a narrative strategy, built with the help of apparently objective documentary or idiosyncratic fantasy, gives the author the possibility of building a network of sagas which clearly survive individually, but also help the building of a complex fictional-(auto)biographical system that constructs a self – her own. This network develops on three main coordinates which dictate the choice of perspective between two cultures: ethnicity, language and gender as identity shapers in a double process of both resisting their dominance and turning their resources to an advantage.

The main sagas – that of the narrator’s mother, that of the mythical/ historical warrior, that of the Chinese immigrants, and that of the narrator’s aunt – ultimately help the bringing on the surface of one grand story which is that of the becoming of a the narrator-writer in a complex process of embedding into her identity the identity of a family, of a community, of a people. The narrator-writer becomes a palimpsest on which each new text of the story is written borrowing from the spirit of and completing the perspectives of the previous one, completing a cultural inheritance which is written in every pore of her being as in the tattoos on Fa Mu Lan’s back. The novel thus, becomes a credible artefact as it bears both history and personal confession, tradition and postmodern emancipation, myth but also personal belief and growth exemplified through the she-stories of “a long line of women, mythical and historical, strong and weak, slave and warrior, young and old” (Huntley 79), voiced and voiceless, traditional and (post)modern, assertive and submissive.

One of the strongest examples of the author’s skill in the building of these credible, unique voices is the creation and the introduction in the very first part of the novel of the nameless, voiceless aunt who is supposed to equate with the idea of illegitimate, shameful, repressed, denied voice of the woman who tries to assert herself in a process of appeasing the multiple conflicting selves. These shifts in point of view are the device which support “the instability of authorial and narrator identity” (Geok-Lin Lim in Culley 259). By telling a hidden story and extracting from a piling up of ambivalent, ambiguous, multiple presences, the narrator builds a new self and a new text in the new context of combining cultures. Such a voice can be a subject in a story, but not its author, a quality reserved exclusively to men. Therefore, the function of such a story would be that of unfolding a long forgotten identity, of breaking the silence of a female voice up to then condemned to anonymity, ultimately of outlining an original form of what feminists call “herstory.” All the other four parts/ stories that compose the novel could be analyzed in terms of the function they perform. Thus, the second story―that of Fa Mu Lan―has as a function the giving to women of the power to both create and destroy life. But this is done in a complicated process of revenge both on and for her family because their struggles are placed in the service of patriarchy (Fa Mu Lan goes to war instead of her ailing father and Kingston develops quite a unique perspective of filial duty). The third story, that of her mother becoming a doctor, has the function of presenting female self-constitution and determination, but also one of definition in terms of her relationship with the other – a new position is being ascribed to her which comprises both her family duties and her individual, assertive personality.

III.2. The Typology of a Persuasive Discourse

What was admitted even by the critical voices analysing the novel was the author’s main successful device of building a “vibrant multivocal discourse” (Couser 230). The dialogue between the voices she inherits from the childhood Orient is blended with the dis-Orienting American influences/ voices in an attempt of self-reorientation. Kingston’s main sources, apart from her memory, more or less imaginative, are often folk or popular, deriving from her bicultural girlhood. Her imaginative/ creative memory is in perfect accord with the “improvisationary oral discourse that both perpetuates and revises traditional models” (Couser 230) giving shape to an interesting fusion of fact and fiction. Though having clear episodes which are borrowed from the author’s early life (her “silent years” in which speech was difficult as a Chinese among the Americans which led to her failing one year in kindergarten, the episode with her painting black backgrounds on her drawings in school, her mother’s authoritative figure and gift for storytelling – she even said that the mother had produced stories which were better than The Woman Warrior), the novel manages to persuade readers not only at the basic of autobiographical verisimilitude and at that of the historical and cultural contextualizations, but also at the level of creative re-construction of events. The introduction of the talk-story technique has the function of using the oral tradition of narratives and transforming/ transferring it into the written text in a recording of “any kind of oral tale, whether personal, familial, communal or historical” (Lim Geok-Lin in Culley, 253).

She credibly combines her mother’s exotic talk-story with the vividness of dialects spoken in Chinatown or with the American slang in which she and her siblings experienced acculturation. She never lets her self/ voice be swallowed by the dominant American cultural self/ voice, but “appropriates and revoices the tales and texts of her childhood in a way that challenges or deauthorizes the discourse of the cultures – Caucasian, Chinese and patriarchal – that threatened to silence or marginality” (Couser 230).

What is wonderfully strong is that even her memoirs are a second degree experience because, just like the narrator from the book, the author had never travelled to China (Kingston did this only in 1984, after having written the novel) and her Chinese “experience” was drawn exclusively from the “stories” she had heard. Thus she becomes herself a “victim” of a process of being persuaded by other story-tellers (mainly her mother) into believing a narrated/ story-told H/history and forming one perspective upon facts. At this point in the narration the technique employed by the author is that of speculation – numerous questions are being asked by the narrator concerning numerous and various types of events, types of behaviour or features of the other characters. Therefore, the narrator seems to be trying first and foremost to convince herself and to understand some developments and, in the process, the reader is convinced as well.

Additionally, what is more meritorious is the fact that Maxine Hong Kingston manages to write not only some pages of personal history or Chinese history, but she also convinces the public by introducing one slice of America’s history “drawing upon a number of popular discourses in the 1980s including those related to the recovery movement, yuppie life and liberal pluralism” (Wong in Cheung 51). The States have always been known as the melting pot comprising the united histories and identities of so many people, they were given an identity precisely through unity in diversity and the perspective of a Chinese immigrant completes, reiterates and newly outlines this aspect. She achieves this aspect by the use of the mechanism of creative memoir and by having three targets for which she writes, or by addressing three types of audiences: firstly, she said in numerous interviews that before all she writes for herself in a process of legitimating and self-legitimating – in this respect all the stories develop as a subtext the women’s ability to resist the power of men on particular and the cultural change in general; secondly, she writes for the larger public and it is on this level that she manages to disseminate an immigrant’s experience and perspective and to present the writing of Chinese history and the re-writing of the official American history after the arrival of these immigrants; and thirdly, she writes for her co-nationals in the hope of rising other voices towards making their stories known. Thus, the narrator uses the techniques of persuading on three targets and on three levels by combining all these perspectives and committing a successful act as a persuader. But it is precisely this hybrid narration that brought Kingston her strongest criticism by stating that, in fact, the book presents too much of everything failing to form a unity. It was accused of not bearing the validity of a historical document, but also of not exploiting the realm of fiction enough as it had started in parts of the novel.

At the same time, another manner through which the author uses a convincing register and builds a persuasive discourse is that of the voices she introduces as first person narrators: apart from the narrator, Fa Mu Lan and Brave Orchid are also voices who claim the first person narration; they are voices which tell their own stories thus gaining an assertive nature. This technique is all the more convincing in the context of postmodernity to a reader who is accustomed to the technique of juxtaposition, discontinuity, fragmentation and reconstruction – the reader sees the employment of these multiple perspectives as a technique of the narrator’s reconstructing her identity from the fragments of her inheritance, from the combining of selected bits and fragments that had formed her past and her people’s past, forming in the end a patchwork that reminds us of pastiche. The reconfiguration of these fragments is precisely what gives credibility, validity and uniqueness to such a discourse in the attempt to preserve polivalency of symbolic retelling and resist transparency.

Another interesting aspect of the Chinese-American writings is that they are taken from the beginning as commissive, as promises to bring the exoticism of a different civilization. That is why readers most often will read such a book through a re-established canon; they will therefore see into it a people’s history or mini-history/ies and will fail to discern between personal (fictional) biography and community history. Readers do expect such a perspective from such authors who have the vantage point of the native and have the possibility as building “anthropological guidebooks” (Wong 40) sometimes becoming genuine cultural guides. But The Woman Warrior steps forwards/beyond through something different – an increased subjectivity which manages however to be convincing through emotional power and not factual truth which is all the more a meritorious quality for an author.

III.3. Feminist Writing

In her study Growing Up Female: Adolescent Girlhood in American Fiction, though not giving examples from Maxine Hong Kingston’s works, Barbara White analyses a series of novels from 1920 up to 1972 and, while not wanting to make generalization and establish any patterns, she clearly identifies some important similarities in novels of female adolescence when she writes that

girls envy their brothers, […] they express outrage at being molested by a man, […] they try to avoid doing housework, or […] they say they feel enclosed, imprisoned, stuffed in a sack, or under a bell jar; […] the protagonist is in conflict over her gender identity. Most likely she considers women inferior and wants to be male; she rejects the traditional roles and vocations of women, especially marriage, and reacts in a violently negative manner to sex. In her rebellion against growing up female the adolescent heroine is usually besieged from within and without. She is hampered both by the strength of social institutions designed to prepare her for a subordinate role and by her own inner conflicts and passivity. (137)

Thus, in a writing “characterized by conflict,” the heroine “seeks experience in a conscious attempt to cultivate inner powers” mainly by questioning whatever values prevail in the society and by constructing her own “morality and philosophy of life from the bottom up” with two main goals: “the harmonious development of the whole personality but the reconciliation of the transformed self with political and social contradictions in society” (White 11–13). In The Woman Warrior the narrator similarly follows this trajectory, but the first step in such an undertaking was that “bypassing the father’s position, and inscribing in its place a woman’s text” (Culley 259).

The first two parts of Kingston’s book present the main ambivalence introduced and maintained by the narrator’s mother: the presentation of two types of women – the shameful nameless aunt and the legendary woman warrior – is made by Brave Orchid as an axis between whose ends the Chinese woman had to live her life moving from a silent woman into a voiced one, but at the same time preserving something that is supposed to give her the validity of her ancestral culture. The narrator tells us how her mother “said I would grow up to be a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the woman warrior” (Kingston 26). The novel is clearly written under the sign of women’s emancipation, legitimating, empowering following a credo of the author, instilled in her not through education, but through the political and social realities she experienced:

Politically and socially… I look at myself as being very much a feminist. Growing up as I did as a kid, I don’t see how I could not have been a feminist. In Chinese culture, people always talk about how girls are bad. When you hear that, right away it makes you radical like anything. (qtd. in Grice 16)

In part one, by presenting issues of political equality, survival on native but also foreign lands, Kingston gives voice to women in an artistic act which redeems for eternity this voice which fights against oppression under the form of sexism and racism. In part two, she empowers women and subverts the stereotype of the passive/submissive/powerless woman and continues the undertaking in part three where she legitimizes women by profession and financial independence. In the fourth part, she urges women to fight for their rights or rightful positions while in part five she teaches women the true power of the nonviolent fight: the power of the word.

The author’s capital attempt is that of repositioning the woman through the legend of the man-woman warrior Fa Mu Lan and that is why Maxine Hong Kingston takes so much liberty and introduces deviations from the original legend in changing Fa Mu Lan’s story so as to fit her purposes. Much of the book’s success was attributed to the novel’s exaggerations of “the ills of Chinese-American male chauvinism” (Wong 34), the presentation of female anger and its flaw was seen in the act of placing personal pain above political purpose. The high degree of personal involvement apparently fails to make of The Woman Warrior a manifesto, and makes it a poetic confession. What an ethnic autobiography has the moral obligation of containing, critics claim, is “the diversity of experience within the group and the uniqueness and self-definition of the individual” (Wong 37) bringing to the foreground the social truths of that community. The collective history, theorists posit, should be enforced by personal history only to foreground the ethnical ideological imperatives and personal authority should yield to this so as to achieve its educational purposes by presenting social truths and, in this particular case, the triumphs of the community over racism.

Kingston is not exaggerating on feminist issues in her second novel, China Men, where she presents Chinese male heroes. Only a reading of these two novels, which Sabine (2004) calls a “broken book” (that is, a syntagm continued in the title of the book, a diptych whose halves have to be united so as to understand the whole completed with Tripmaster Monkey) would bring us a real understanding of the writer’s view on fighting for one’s rights.

III.4. Text and Metatext

The novel’s main axis is the forming of a person through telling/writing and in the act of presenting this process “language – nationalist, sexist, racist – is made the basis of the narrator search to define her different (female Chinese-American) subjectivity” (Hutcheon 73). This fact is obvious from the arrival of the family of immigrants on the New Continent for they are labelled through the level of knowing the language of the new land. Thus, presented from the beginning as illiterate (because of their lacking the knowledge of the American language), positioned as ex-centric from this perspective, this family and their history is a pretext to make the different, the off-centre “into the vehicle for aesthetic and even political consciousness-raising” (73) as a first step into introducing a real change. That is why the book builds an edifice presenting the conventions of language, discourse, narrative. It also introduces the forming of ideology to understand differently both historical and personal truths. This is how she “links the postmodern metafictional concerns of narration and language directly to her race and gender” (Hutcheon 70), an act which places her writing at the core of postmodern writing. Thus, the text about a person’s/family’s history becomes the text about language and culture acquiring, about adapting to change and causing change, about creating a new history by problematizing the old one. That is why, beneath the surface level of presenting history, the book is rather a strikingly violent lament with stereotypes about a culture and a people’s history, and it is rather an experiment with point of view so as to picture the anxieties of a self and to create a new subjectivity.


Maxine Hong Kingston is a special case concerning the manner in which she chooses to explain herself (in Amirthanayagam 55–65). The writer insists upon her being viewed as a Chinese-American with a hyphen because the presence of such a graphic marker would render the relation of equal weight between the two terms, in opposition with the syntagm “Chinese American” in which the former is an adjective modifying the subsequent noun. The care given to such orthographic, lexical details clearly demonstrates that the novel has passed long beyond the limit of being viewed simply as a socio-historical document and has rendered as obvious the importance given to the construction of a new meaning given by a new language used by multiple voices. The novel explains itself through the language it re-creates, re-builds and it gives the very functionality of building characters/voices and of becoming the subject matter of this “daughterly over-written text” (Lim Geok-Lin in Culley 253–259). The new language is paradoxically built precisely from silences, ambiguities and anxieties, from heard and unheard, real and imaginary voices.


Works Cited

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