'Woman Warrior,' A Memoir That Shook the Genre

Maxine Hong Kingston published her memoir when feminism and multiculturalism were coming to the fore.
Maxine Hong Kingston published her memoir when feminism and multiculturalism were coming to the fore. (1979 Photo Copyright Thomas Victor)
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Three decades ago the memoir was a relatively minor genre in American literature. Of the few acknowledged classics -- "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," "The Education of Henry Adams," Edith Wharton's "A Backward Glance," Richard Wright's "Black Boy" -- all but the last were the work of people who had reached sufficient maturity to be able to look back on long lives. Though memoirs by three younger men (Frank Conroy's "Stop-Time," Willie Morris's "North Toward Home" and Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes") had been published in the late 1960s, the received wisdom was that memoir was an older person's -- an older man's -- genre.

Precisely when and why this began to change -- not to mention whether the change was for the better -- is open to debate, but a strong case can be made that the decisive moment was in 1976 with the publication of "The Woman Warrior," by Maxine Hong Kingston. It is, as was immediately recognized at the time, a work of considerable literary distinction, but it was also very much a book of its moment. In the mid-'70s two movements were gaining strength and public attention: feminism and multiculturalism. Though not written as a political tract, "The Woman Warrior" spoke to both causes with remarkable immediacy. It gained a following that seems, if anything, to have increased over the years.

Thus, for example, Bill Moyers has reported that "The Woman Warrior" and Kingston's second memoir, "China Men" (1980), are the most widely taught books by a living American author on college campuses today, which echoes a claim made by the Modern Language Association. This rather astonishing information no doubt reflects the various categories of political and cultural opinion to which Kingston's work appeals, but it also means that "The Woman Warrior" is probably one of the most influential books now in print in this country -- and certainly one of the most influential books with a valid claim to literary recognition.

It is a sign of how much the country has changed in the past few decades that this distinction is enjoyed by a woman whose parents were immigrants from China, who was born Maxine Ting Ting Hong in 1940, who worked in her parents' laundry as a girl, yet who managed to win admission to the University of California at Berkeley. She married Earll Kingston in 1962, taught in California public schools, then moved to Hawaii and continued to teach. There she wrote "The Woman Warrior," which was given a National Book Critics Circle Award. She now is professor emeritus of writing at Berkeley.

I was one of the many people who first read "The Woman Warrior" soon after its publication. One good thing about reading it three decades ago was that one could do so free of all the baggage the book subsequently accumulated, much of it having to do with politically correct attitudes fashionable in academic and literary circles. In 1976 it was simply a very good book -- smart, tough, witty, simultaneously self-deprecating and self-assertive, a missive from a part of America about which most of us knew nothing -- and it could be read as such with great pleasure, which is exactly what I did.

Books' subtitles often are unimportant or gratuitous, but this one matters: "Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts." Kingston's are both conventional ghosts -- the memory of her dead aunt, for example, the "No Name Woman" of the book's deservedly celebrated opening section -- and more fanciful ones. Americans are ghosts: "Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts."

Ghosts, then, are creatures of imagination and memory, many of them introduced to her by her mother, who "would talk-story until we [children] fell asleep." As a girl "I couldn't tell where the stories left off and the dreams began," which is a useful clue to a book that is as much dream as story, that crosses the line between fact and fiction so frequently and blithely that it is pointless to try to distinguish between the two. What matters is that Kingston is trying, through what she remembers and what she imagines, to explore her central subjects: the place of women in Chinese society (whether in China itself or in immigrant communities elsewhere), the relationship of mothers and daughters, the experience of immigration.

A case in point is the story of her aunt, who committed suicide just before the men of her family sailed for America, "the Gold Mountain," in the mid-1920s. She was unmarried and pregnant, and the people of her village persecuted her mercilessly; finally, after giving birth, she threw herself and her infant into the family well. Young Maxine is told this story -- or at least the bare details of it -- by her mother:

"Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. 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. . . . Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?"

Coming to a new country isn't easy for anyone. Coming to the United States from China has been especially hard because the two cultures are so dissimilar. Kingston doesn't bother to dwell on the discrimination the Chinese have faced here; that's a given. Instead she zooms in on the differences: "It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly, to American ears, not beautiful like Japanese sayonara words with the consonants and vowels as regular as Italian. We make guttural peasant noise and have Ton Duc Thang names you can't remember. And the Chinese can't hear Americans at all; the language is too soft and western music unhearable. I've watched a Chinese audience laugh, visit, talk-story, and holler during a piano recital, as if the musician could not hear them." More, perhaps, than most immigrants to this country, Chinese remain resolutely Chinese even as they become Chinese American, a subject Kingston explores without passing judgment.

She does pass judgment, on the other hand, against the discrimination inflicted upon Chinese women within their own culture, which barely acknowledges, as she says, that if a society wants to have boys, it has to have girls as well. When she was in college she "would have liked to bring myself back as a boy for my parents to welcome with chickens and pigs," and if her mother called her "Bad girl," "sometimes that made me gloat rather than cry" because "Isn't a bad girl almost a boy?" In "White Tigers," the chapter in which she imagines her instruction as "a warrior woman," she fantasizes about "the men I would have to execute," and though this is only (one assumes!) a dream of revenge, doubtless the bitterness is real. She was, after all, born into a culture that believed, as her father told her: "Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests. A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that."

Her mother is the heroic figure in this book. The two women obviously had many confrontations over the years, but her mother's resourcefulness and strength are evident. In the 1930s, while Kingston's father worked in America, her mother studied at the Hackett Medical College for Women in Canton for two years, receiving an diploma certifying her proficiency in midwifery, pediatrics, gynecology and other practices. She was "brilliant, a natural scholar who could glance at a book and know it," and she was self-confident enough to keep her maiden name, Brave Orchid, even after coming to the United States in 1940, "adding no American name nor holding one in reserve for American emergencies."

All of which makes abundantly clear why "The Woman Warrior" is treasured by feminists and people of minority cultures. I have it on good authority that many women were inspired by it to write their own stories of immigrant life in this country, that it convinced them that they, too, had stories to tell, that American literature is not solely the property of white males. As a result our literature is constantly being enriched these days by people whose voices were not heard as recently as a generation ago. That is reason enough to esteem "The Women Warrior." But what matters, and in the end is the only thing that really matters, is that it is a book of unusual originality and power. If what it tells us seems familiar now, part of the landscape, that is because Maxine Hong Kingston made it so.

"The Woman Warrior" is available in a Vintage paperback ($12.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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