The Woman Warrior is a book that fascinated me when I was reading it. There were many things that contributed to my fascination, but the most remarkable is that, despite traditionally included within the group of non-fiction books (It is even considered, joined with China Men, the biography of Maxine Hong Kingston); it is never clear -at first- where it is placed the boundary between memory, invention, history and myth. That means, it is written in an “autobiographical form” that combines both fiction with facts or non-fiction.
As this is something quite different from the traditional autobiographies we have studied before in North American Literature, this is going to be the theme on which is going to be focused my essay. But, before analyzing this topic in detail, some biographical and literary notes are going to be introduced about Maxine Hong Kingston: The author of The Woman Warrior, Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is a member of the second generation of Asian American, she was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1940 in Stockton, California.
There was a difficult period during the first years of her education, she calls it her “silent years” in which she had to cope with her difficulty to speak, she even flunked kindergarten, but once this problem was overcome Maxine became a straight-A student who won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, where she got her bachelor’s degree in English in 1962. Three years later she even earned a teaching certificate, and taught English and mathematics from 1965 to 1967 in Hayward, California.
Then she and her husband moved from Japan, but they stopped in Hawaii, where she wrote The Woman Warrior (which won the National Book Critic Circle Award for the best non-fiction published in 1976) and China Men. And became a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. Both books are Kingston’s biographies of her female and male ancestors. Imagination becomes her way to approach these characters, some of them she had even never met.
According to Marilyn Yalom in her essay The Woman Warrior as a Postmodern Autobiography: “the author -Maxine Hong Kingston- has “descentered” herself and substituted in her place contradictory alter egos”. At the same time this is something of which Maxine Hong Kingston herself was very proud, she told Rubinowitz in an interview: “to have a right imagination is very powerful” (… ) “because it is a bridge between reality”.
In the same interview Kingston stablishes the differences between both books, and how “they were supposes to be one huge book”, “the male story follows a more linear passage through time” because “those men were making history; TWW, the women’s stories, on the other hand, “have a convolution” because women were caught up in “old myths”. The main source for Kingston’s imagination are her mother stories. She educated her children with “talk stories”, which included myth, legend, family history and ghost tales.
Through these stories her mother, Brave Orchid, extended Chinese tradition into the lives of this second generation of Chinese American children. Now before analyzing the most important stories, their meaning for Maxine, the function that Brave Orchid added to them, etc. we are going to develop the main theme of the essay: the difference of this kind of “biography” versus our typical concept of biography, and immediately after this we are going to see it with examples of each section:
Firstly in order to start with it we must ask ourselves: What is what make this autobiography different from those we have read before? Some of the cues have been revealed in our introduction: The Woman Warrior is filled with family stories, legends or ballads, and traditional Chinese tales that are not presented in chronological order, as most Western autobiographies are. Kingston’s book is not structured chronologically, while western narratives usually contain chronological stories that develop logically.
Kingston’s biography differs from Western styles of autobiography that focus on the individual, such as, for example, Frederick Douglas’ autobiography, in which He tells us about his life and the frustrations of being a slave. TWW on the other hand, breaks with this individual perspective and Kingston focuses the community in her writing rather than the individual themselves, but most important is the fact that Maxine Hong Kingston leaves aside the typical chronological manner to write her memoir in a circular one. She writes with not set structures including flashbacks, memories, recollections, and her mother’s stories.
We can see the most evident examples of Kingston’s flexible writing throughout her memoir: While in the first section: No Name Woman She remember a story that her mother told her about an aunt that committed adultery and killed herself and her baby after having suffered the humiliation at the hands of the villagers, this woman’s name can no even be pronounced, Brave Orchid advices her not to tell this story to anybody: pag11 “You must not tell anyone” (something Maxine breaks when she writes it at the beginning of this book).
But She is somehow remaking her aunt story in order to make her respectable by believing she might have been raped by someone, whom name she even had preserved, and who might have been among the villagers who came to punish her. There is a sort of identification: pag. 22 “my aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her” … This was somehow the tribute she makes to her aunt. This story has a function, this function is warning Maxine that now that she had begun to menstruate.
In the next section: White Tigers Maxine Hong Kingston continues her novel with a highly fictional account: The story or the re-writing of the story of Fa Mu Lan, the young girl who is trained to become a woman warrior, and after she became a good woman warrior, she came back to fulfil the role of submissive woman by giving birth. It is important to remark that Kingston tells Fa Mu Lan story in the first person. She imagines herself as the woman warrior that Fa Mu Lan is. All this story is fictional, and suddenly Kingston comes back to her real live discovering that being a female was not so bad, and discovering “who the enemies are”…
Then Kingston concludes that pag53: “the sword woman and I are not so dissimilar” . These two chapters are two good examples of how the autobiography the book is supposed to be is very peculiar in its form but also in its contents. The dichotomy between fact and fiction is also present within the third section: Shaman: because while in the first paragraphs of this section we find the description of documents, diplomas, photos … which seem to support the biography of Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, but the sudden appearance of spirits and “sitting ghosts”… turns the apparently real story into a fictional one (into a ghosts’ story).
In the fourth section: A The Western Palace despite the narrator can be said that continues as Marilyn Yalom said “descentered” because it is the story of another person: In this case Moon Orchid, Kingston’s aunt who has come from Hong Kong pushed by Brave Orchid to recover her husband, who is now a rich surgeon that has married another woman in Los Angeles, after she discovers this and is refused by her husband Moon Orchid becomes crazy. But despite the Maxine Hong Kinston continued “descentered”, as we have said, we perceive her closer to us because she is no longer distanced by time, space, and a frame tale.
The character in this section seems to correspond with Kingston’s real life, because they are people that can be found in the street of Stockton or Los Angeles. The Last chapter: A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe can be considered Kingston’s own story. And therefore non-fiction, but we had to wait till the end to see if all the section is going to follow this factual pattern or whether is going to be mixed with pieces of fiction: She tells us how her mother cut her tongue’s fraenum when she was a baby, and how she is scared of and bad at talking, she also tells us how she failed kindergarden because she did not talk.
Among other things she tells us how she tortured the girl who never talk, despite they have a lot of in common. And how after this she suffered a mysterious illness (which she interprets almost as a punishment. She also tells us how their parents wanted to married her off to a FOB -Fresh -off – the – boat or new immigrant. And how a retarded boy followed her around the laundry where she helped her parents. And the list of things she had to her mother as confessions. And finally how She suddenly burst forth and said most of these thing during dinner.
Kingston ends the book with the story of Ts’ai Yen, a woman who was captured by the barbarians and therefore forced to learn their ways, while during her captivity she sang songs, one of which was “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reep Pipe”. So a the end of this non- fiction chapter the story comes back again to the fictional world, always full of meanings, in this case Kingston, like Ts’ai Yen, will translate an alien culture -Chinese- to the “barbarians” (Americans).
As we can see The Woman Warrior is not written in a Western linear autobiography style of writing. It is always between the fiction and the non-fictional world. To sum up, it requires the reader to think more deeply about where is the novel going on, critics have written criticism on this topic, but Kingston has answered them saying that “readers ought not to expect reading always to be as effortless as television” She adds that she is introducing a challenge to American readers hoping that they also will take something of her culture and her memoir.