Monday, April 24, 2000, 2 p.m. EST
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World. Leading the discussion is Book World Editor Marie Arana. This month's selection is Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior."
Born in Lima, Peru, Arana hails from a long career in books. Before her current post, she was Deputy Editor of Book World for seven years. Previously, she was a vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster as well as Harcourt Brace Publishers.
Arana earned her BA in Russian literature at Northwestern University, studied Mandarin at Yale University in China, and completed an MA in Linguistics at the British University of Hong Kong. An award-winning book editor, she sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and has served on the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is currently at work on a memoir about growing up bicultural.
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Marie Arana: Welcome to our Book Club discussion of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. I’d like to start the discussion by asking two questions, because they were the first things on my mind when I read the book again after 25 years: Is the memoir colored by an earlier sensibility? Did it strike you as a work that addresses what it means to be an immigrant, or a woman, or a “transitional” American in a ’70s way? For me, the book has a timeless quality. It might have been written one hundred years earlier, and (perhaps except for the references about plastics or cars) the events and emotions would hold up. Perhaps this is because Kingston’s perspective is so deeply mythical, and myths have a tendency to live on, no matter what the culture. What do you think?
What was it about this book that you found so compelling?
Marie Arana: What moved me about this book was the way it thrust the reader into not only the Chinese mindset, but the Chinese immigrant mindset. It is an extraordinary mix of memory, history, and an an almost scathing lucidity. It made me feel Chinese by the end of the book, although it is the furthest thing from my own personal experience. What about you?
I think this is so much more than the immigrant experience. For me, it was the realization - as a woman- that I need to find my voice, my way of expressing myself. Kingston had to find her way of affirming her existence as a writer and as a woman. This book represented that archetypal journey.
Marie Arana: Well, I think you are exactly right. Remember she begins the book with "No Name Woman," the aunt who committed suicide because she became pregnant and shamed the family. She moves from there to her training as Fa Mu Lan, the Warrior. It is an amazing transition. And, as you say, a life affirming journey as a woman.
What do you believe led Disney to dramatize the "Mulan" story?
Marie Arana: I must confess I'm not familiar with the Disney dramatization. But Disney & Co. would not be doing their work if they weren't ferreting out the myths we connect to. The woman as warrior is common in other cultures. But the Chinese version is particularly compelling as described by Hong Kingston.
I would like to comment upon the irony of the talk-story of the Warrior Woman, which the author's mother said was "her story"(and, I guess, meant to be a model for her) and the constant references to her as a bad child, as a girl -- less valuable than a goose, which she heard throughout her childhood.The author struggled, seemingly unnecessarily, to find her place within her family and culture. How was she supposed to know what was true and what wasn't? The mother said the Chinese spoke in opposites, what a confusing way to grow up! Also are we to believe that the mother did cut her daughter's frenum? Is this customary? I have never heard of such a practice.
Marie Arana: The speaking in opposites is interesting, isn't it? The Chinese believe that if you say your child is beautiful, the gods will think you too cocky, and perhaps punish you by doing something to that beautiful child. It's best to say your child is ugly--something this book actually describes--to insure nothing untoward happens. It's protection: speaking in opposites.
I loved this book. I first read it as a high school college student, and was impressed more every time I read it again. The way she writes, and the ways her stories about the lessons she has learned about becoming a "woman warrior" are subtly and powerfully told are truly moving. One of my favorite quotes, which I have to say has been important to me in my own life..."Perhaps I could make myself a warrior like the swordswoman who drives me." This is one of the most important books I have ever read on and about Asian and Asian-American women breaking the silence that holds them back and keeps them quiet.
Marie Arana: Very true. But it's not only Asian American women who are culturally frozen in silence. Muslims, Latins--I can think of many more. Wasn't it fascinating, though, that when the protagonist had a chance to sympathize with the little girl who wouldn't talk in school, she only became angry, and even terrorized her.
But, it's even so more than that.. It's a way of taking that personal narrative style and making it her own. She flirts with different styles, but they render her unable to say what she needs to say in the way she needs to say. For the most part, they represent male voices. What she finds is that her voice is that blending or melding of the voices of her aunt, her mother, Fa Mulan, the voiceless little girl that Kingston intimidates. She gives voice to all of these women. This is what is mythic to me...
Marie Arana: The style was what blew me away when I first read it, and then blew me away again this month. It is hardly the sort of memoir one reads today. It's like crawling into somebody's head. There is nothing linear in its narrative.
I was interested in your comment about the Chinese sensibility evoked by Woman Warrior. I have taught the book to high school students, seldom of Chinese extraction, and have found a positive response. I see the novel as representative of the broader immigrant experience. I emphasize Maxine Kingston's struggle to find her voice, both literally and figuratively, as she learns to speak the truth. The mother-daughter relationship also strikes a chord with students. I would be interested in hearing from others who have used the book with students. Do you think that this novel is a good choice for high school students?
Marie Arana: Interesting that you automatically called it a novel. It was published as nonfiction. I wonder if it would be published as nonfiction today: Memoirs have such a tendency to be literal today. I think the book would be splendid for high school students. It's about finding an identity, about reading what identity means to different generations. And yes, it's about truth and truth-telling.
That little girl evoked the painfulness of Hong Kingston's own journey to find her own voice. She was seeing herself in that little girl. That's why she responded so harshly.
Marie Arana: Yes. And the little girl in school (who wouldn't talk) was so Chinese, with her ricebowl haircut. She seemed to signify all the things that a young American girl wanted to get away from. The shyness. The cowardice. The lack of voice. By the way, about cutting the frenum: my son was tongue-tied as an infant. He grew out of it, but the scene of cutting the frenum was absolutely terrifying to me, and, I suppose, might have been very realistic.
One of the most amazing aspects about this book is Kingston's ability to show how silence is a form of communication and how it shaped and molded her being. Her mother tells her to be silent, yet she goes against her cultural standards by talking about her aunt, which is an act of will on Kingston's part by offering us her ancestry. The ideograms that she tells us about are the connection between image and meaning, and the ideogram is a silent token of meaning. The notion of silence can be simplified into a sign of oppression where someone isn't allowed to speak. But silence can also be seen as a sign of respect, such as prayer or rememberance. Kingston mobilizes silence through themetizing subordination, will and semiotic silence. The silent birth from her no-named aunt furthers this idea, in the respect that both Kingston is speaking about her aunt when she is not supposed to, and her aunt is having a child that is banished by society.
Marie Arana: Silence is a large theme in this book, I think. The culture of "talk-stories" is a way to battle the silence, a way of winning in a context that is meant to make women lose. But didn't you find it interesting that there were many levels of silence and communication. Moon Orchid, for instance, had to be taught that she could speak out in the American context, and yet when she did, it didn't work for her. In the end the culture shock appeared to drive her mad.
I have to admit that when I was first handed this book, all I could think was that I wasn't going to like this--there was no way I was going to be able to relate to what Kingston talks about! But as I read, Kingston enveloped me into her world, into her life, and into her stories. I was the little girl who didn't talk in kindergarten. I was the aunt who was forgotten. I was the Woman Warrior on the White Tiger mountain, conversing with the old people, saving my village, and getting my direction from nature. Kingston's ability to tell a great story is something that we don't see often in today's world of self help books and surface novels.
Marie Arana: Perhaps it's because there is such a hallucinatory quality to this book--it's so dreamlike, so surreal--that, as readers, we can relate to the story on a level that is other than strictly cultural. But I wonder if people today wouldn't have serious questions about its category as a nonfiction book. What do you think about this?
I enjoyed the book as a white male. I read in Philip Short's new biography of Mao that he too wrote and thought and spoke in opposites.
Marie Arana: Oh,the "opposite" thing is quite important here. You know China in Chinese translates literally as the "middle kingdom," and the thinking is that it is best to stick to the middle road, not stand out too much, not provoke the extremes.
I too teach this book in my high school classes. It sets up my year. My senior English class used it as the first reading of the year. It became the framework for discussion for all of the other works. They understood the concept of finding their voices through Kingston's journey. When they composed their own senior projects, they too searched for their voices and documented their evolving journey in much the same way as Kingston did.
Marie Arana: The voice is quite original, but I do think it can be translated to other cultures easily. I once heard Julia Alvarez (her last book was "Yo!") say that Woman Warrior was the book that cracked her Latina-ness open. She began thinking about the myths, stories, and characters that had shaped her own concept of self.
Woman Warrior is quite an interesting book. I absolutely enjoyed reading it. Although it would be exaggerating if I compared it to Black Elk Speaks, to a lesser degree, it is redefining a culture. Not Chinese culture (even though its accuracy is superb on this), but Chinese-American culture during post-World War II. In White Tigers, Kingston’s myth about a heroine, she pieces together different legends to create her woman warrior. It becomes her source of strength in a dual society that both rejected her sex as well as her race. Perhaps times have changed now. (excuse me if this is so cliché, but you’ll agree with me that…)
Marie Arana: I don't think the Chinese American culture has changed too much (at least mythologically) from the '50s, do you? Perhaps I'm wrong in this, but I think the legends have been very strong for some time. It's what makes Hong Kingston's book approach a classic status.
I do think Woman Warrior is nonfiction, but memoir not autobiography. The myths are a way to talk about emotional growth. Incidentally Hong Kingston's second book China Men is also powerful but much more historical. It would be interesting to those who want to know more about the Chinese-American experience. I am wondering if Woman Warrior is a women's book. Does it have any appeal to men?
Marie Arana: Well, I looked at the reviews of the book when it first came out, and the reviewers were almost entirely men. They loved it. Our book critic Jonathan Yardley gave it a rave. John Leonard of the New York Times called it "dizzying, elemental." Bill McPherson who reviewed it for the Post said it was "savage and wonderful." So I think there is a powerful connection, even for the male reader. But then I thought the autobiography of Henry Adams was wonderful, and there's nothing female about that.
Is Maxine Hong Kingston still writing? What else has she written?
Marie Arana: She hasn't written for a long time. She wrote Tripmaster Monkey in 1989, China Men in in 1980. Neither of these books approaches The Woman Warrior.
I loved this book so much for so many reasons. Many memoirs today seem to emphasize victimhood. "I suffered, feel sorry for me." This describes a difficult childhood, stuck between two cultures, a girl who felt she was not valued and so imagined herself as a mythical heroine, yet there is not a shred of self-pity in it. Her tone is matter-of-fact throughout. Each section described what it is to be a woman, to be a stranger in a strange land, from a different viewpoint and yet with a universal feeling. My favorite section was probably the one which described her mother's education. My mother struggled for a higher education, probably about the same time, in a place ( rural Dust-Bowl era Texas) that also didn't much value education for girls. Thanks for the recommendation.
Marie Arana: It didn't seem to matter to the mother that she had been a physician in China, then a laundrywoman in America. She took up her lot in life, made it work. There is a certain fierceness in that alone. But told, as the story was, from the perspective of a child, the victimhood aspect struck me as more real than pathetic. There is a strong fighter figure in most cultures, I think. That's the part that connects.
You have asked about the classification of this book as nonfiction. Although the stories are myths, Kingston has included them as background (well, more than background)for her eploration and expression of her life events. I believe that nonfiction is the appropriate category; certainly it is not fiction.
Marie Arana: I agree with you. Legends and myths can say more about us that quotidian details. This is nonfiction to the core.
Do you think that Americanization has changed the Chinese-American woman's traditionally submissive role? Is there a kinder, less cruel way for Chinese-American women to raise their children without losing their cultural heritage?
Marie Arana: Funny, I don't think of Chinese American women as being submissive. I think the culture may want them to be, but the Chinese American females I know are strong-minded, opinionated. The same is true for Latin females. There is something that happens to the character--the strength bubbles out in other ways. Has anybody read Wild Swans? The three generational autobiography that takes us from concubine to revolutionary soldier to immigrant? If that's not strong, I don't know what is.
Having heard the author read at the University of Virginia, I find the "talk-story" rich in music and poetry. In the end, however, I am left with a couple questions. First, why these particular stories? Second, could we have some more author commentary in parentheses?
Marie Arana: I think these particular stories were chosen because they all address the "warrior" aspect: the forging of the ancestor female, the mother, the aunt, the memoirist herself. And they all appear to be connected in some way to the introductory legend of Fa Mu Lan.
I have never been so passionate about a book. It enabled me to conceptualize the way in which we respect our selves... We must talk... We must find the way in which we have to talk... We must find a way in which to come to terms with gaps in our lives, in our histories --- personal and cultural.. We must come to create our own personal narratives...
Marie Arana: Yes, exactly right. The string that held the memoir together was the talk-story. Those who didn't talk ended up like the ancestor woman in the well.
There is a contrasting the myths I heard when I was growing up to those that Kingston relates. Mine were fairy tales and along with my religious background, they comprised stories of fear and guilt. It was actually the strength of my mother and her values which became my models. Actually it was Kingston's mother who was the warrior woman before her.
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The Woman Warrior encourages women to be leaders even though society reprimands it. This story inspires women to be courageous and display their qualities in covert ways. Woman, like white tigers are rare, beautiful, and valuable. What do the dragons symbolize in this story? Do they have a major significance? Why did Fa Mu Lan have to learn the ways of the dragon before returning home?
Marie Arana: Rare, beautiful and valuable. I like that. What a good way to end this exchange. Thank you all for your incisive comments. It's time for us to close now, but I want to remind you that our next Book Club feature is The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead--a rich contrast to The Woman Warrior--and it will be presented in this slot (last Monday of May at 2 p.m.) by my colleague Jabari Asim. Happy reading!
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