A Review by Su Young Lee

Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

 

Arriving in America for the first time in freshman year, I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts without any knowledge of when it was published. It was, astonishingly for an Asian girl who had spent most of her life in another English-speaking country, the first time I had read an original English work by an Asian author. The Asian girl was told that no one would want to see her foreign name printed on books. There were shouts from strangers on the streets telling her to return to her own country, alluding to a land far away that she didn’t feel was more home than the place she stood in.

These things are actually from my own childhood, but it might as well be from Kingston’s.

In her attempt to understand her own identity as a Chinese American, Kingston describes feeling like living in a land of ghosts, is afraid to speak loudly after years of imposed silence, and becomes bullied and the bully. She is often an outcast, unable to fully commit to a binary label of either Chinese or American. Although her presence in America makes it easier for her to observe and assimilate to its culture herself, her physical detachment from China means the only connection to her Chinese heritage is the stories she is told by her mother as a young girl.

This perhaps helps explain Kingston’s unique style of writing, of blending myth and autobiography together – it is because her Chinese identity is so helplessly dependent on what others tell her. With morals from such stories being imposed on her, Kingston explores the power of storytelling that can shape her identity. At first, it seems she is simply retelling stories as a listener who was shaped by what she was told. However, in the power of her own narrative we can see that the purpose of retelling these stories is something beyond reiterating the stories she heard. This time, unlike during her childhood, she is the one telling the stories. By the end of the collection this distinction becomes clearer—despite borrowing from other folktales, the stories she tells are very much her own. The book, a haunting mix of speculation, myth, and memoir champions storytelling as a mode of healing and establishing selfhood. It is also timeless and applicable even today in the light of continuing cultural turmoil as it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.  

Her book is a strongly recommended read—and luckily for us, NYU is to host an event with Kingston in celebration of its 40th anniversary in April. Keep a look out for further details closer to the date!

 

Modernist Character, by Charisa Gunasekera

As Virginia Woolf explains in her famous 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, “Novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes. They go a step further, they feel that there is something permanently interesting in character in itself. When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession”.

Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway—published in 1925, the year after she wrote the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”—details a single day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway, a fictional high-society housewife in post-World War I London. Clarissa Dalloway is Woolf’s titular character and, more importantly, a transitioning member of the Victorian age. As this novel’s structure experimentally breaks from the more conventional narration of the Victorian era by emphasizing the internal, its Victorian style characters emerge as ‘thinking’ individuals, self-consciously emphasizing the unconscious rather than the outer, visible self. In almost every sentence of this novel, Woolf’s readers encounter multiple ideas and multiple tones. Through all this noise, Woolf strives to represent her literary era’s war-torn world with brutal honesty by experimenting with stream-of-conscience techniques to explore the personal volume of an ordinary day, attempting to examine the psychology of her different characters—minute by minute, hour by hour, as Big Ben chimes their moments away unfailingly throughout the novel. This internalized shifting free indirect discourse attempts to contain the uncontainable: the unfathomable modern world of post-war London in June 1923.

Post-war England was a civilization poised between its dying Victorian sense of power and it’s impending post-colonial impotence. Yet London at the beginning of the twentieth century was a city marked by an elaborate sense its place as The Capital of British imperialism. Mrs. Dalloway, a middle-aged British housewife character, exists attempting to escape her deeper thoughts in the hustle and bustle of London when forced to deal with repressed undercurrents of urbanization, cross-cultural contact (specifically of post-WWI); colonialism, decolonization; fundamental redefinitions of the individual mind, language, gender, and sexual identity – all essentially hinting toward the growing force of modern globalization juxtaposed against the transitory nature of her deeper human thoughts.

The continuous passage of time during this single day in London’s changing space is shown to be particularly distressing for Clarissa: “Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself” (Woolf 8).

Mrs. Dalloway’s “conscious” world is defined apart from any other subject she passes in her walk through the city, distinct from even the city itself, yet her inner-world also naturally synthesizes with her surroundings. Still, Clarissa’s stream-of-conscious reveals two very different mindsets here: One is displayed through her belief in living superficially in the moment to survive (“the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits … the people she knew best”). The other seems to be a deeper inner-life that Clarissa associates with oblivion (“did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely?; all this must go on without her?; did she resent it?; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”) and, thus, avoids engaging these deeper and darker thoughts by retreating to her superficial observations of London.

It is the passage of time alone that structures Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, creating a lose frame around the chaos of post-World War I London by imposing order where there is none. However, the fascinating thing about Clarissa in the midst of this is that she actually does seem to perform consistently in a way that confirms her identity as a perfect hostess. Each time Mrs. Dalloway finds her performance threatened—that is to say, each time she runs the risk of having her identity deinstituted—Big Ben interrupts the threat and successfully insists that Clarissa immediately return to the confines of her role. Yet her innate complexity as a modern character is not lost on Woolf’s readers. In remaining stuck in her Victorian modes by traditional convention and the lose structure of Big Ben, Clarissa’s true character remains unexplored. But not altogether lost.

This second conscious Mrs. Dalloway hides inside throughout Woolf’s novel, but it is still a force that is ever present.  In true Victorian fashion, Clarissa defines her life in terms of her performance as Mrs. Richard Dalloway, the perfect hostess. Clarissa performs the role to the extent that it consumes her. She tries to equate the performance of this role or type with her identity, but her attempts to use the role as a substitute for the fixed-essentially the Victorian—sense of self she covets result in emptiness, a lack of fulfillment, and ironically, virtually no self at all. All of Clarissa Dalloway’s actions testify to a longing for a recognizable, stable, unified Victorian self. Even her love for organizing parties for her husband’s political career hints a deep-seated desire for structure. However, the only true structure Virginia Woolf provides in this modernist novel is, again, time—the chiming of Big Ben, counting down the hours of the day. The simple Victorian conception of selfhood Clarissa constantly attempts to fabricate for herself in her layers of conscious is a flat, nonexistent falsehood belonging to the past era, prior to the trauma of WWI. For Mrs. Dalloway to be a simple London housewife character would be the exact opposite of Woolf’s modernist aspirations of exploring new selfhood in the complexity of modern character. Clarissa cuts much deeper.

Mrs. Dalloway is a prime example of the modern novel and the beginning of modern character due to its experimentation with traditional literary formats by manipulating time and order, perspective, and point of view. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf so declared in the beginning of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. When peace finally arrived in England at the end of the World War One, the trauma incurred triggered a revolutionary movement of self-determination in early twentieth century culture that lives on into literature today. The Modernist Period in English Literature indicates a historic movement that broke from the traditional, recommending that individuals get rid of old conventions and attempt to replace them with updated and improved ones that interact with the new world, shattered by global warfare, in a more self-conscious way.  The modernist movement emerged as a new, visceral artistic and literary reaction against the sterile and suddenly culturally irrelevant Victorian culture of the nineteenth century. And, as one of modernism’s foremost literary figures, Virginia Woolf strove to carry this movement forward by breaking from traditional writing forms, recommending that society get rid of old conventions and attempt to replace them with tested and improved ones.

this one, by Ondine

this one’s for new york city and the rolling bitumen

beneath my feet on meserole street

the soggy subway cars that inject you

into the city and hide you momentarily beneath

the earth’s crust

this one’s for the guy on the corner deli

who once put chicken in my blt but its

okay because he asks me how you

doing sweety where you been that’s three dollars

this one’s for the exaggeration, hyperbole,

overreaction that is inherent everywhere-

on prince and broadway, bedford and 6th,

houston and lafayette,

this one’s for the friends that call me,

for the friends that don’t, the friends that will

and the ones that won’t

for the three-legged dog that doesn’t quit:

this one’s for you

the walk home, by Ondine

the jellyfish stain on the sidewalk of rue du bac

holy scripture rolling papers

sad plants in sad pots

orange gel nails that pluck eyelashes so easily

eating peaches in october

blue-palmed doormen

fur coats full of smoke

grey water running a small gutter river,

collecting cigarettes and tiny debris

tripping on the same jagged step

and backwards the next day

Listicle Satire, by E Yeon

Pitches for Ironic Listicles:

  • Addictions that are problematic but don’t quite warrant rehab
  • Names of men who are more likely to go through a divorce
  • Tramp stamps that defy the patriarchy
  • DIY projects you can do with your sex toys
  • Halloween costumes that show you were raised in a shame based American religious tradition
  • Reviews of instruments my Asian mother made me try as a child
  • 7 ways I’ve dishonored her, my family, and my cow
  • Names for pet cows
  • Random estimations of each U.S. president’s stamina
  • Stage names for the Obama family
  • Memes that express condolences appropriately
  • Fan theories following the 44th season finale of “America”
  • Birthday gifts I’ll show polite gratitude towards but won’t love (it’s 11/29 btw)

 

Thoughts on the Election, by Audrey Deng

unnamed

French newspapers after the 2016 US election.

I profess: I often find myself ill-equipped to defend my political beliefs. This is mostly because I get all my political news  from “The Simpsons” and satirical reports; I argue my points by saying things like “because it’s not nice” or—once—by crying.. My dad had tried to teach me and my sister political philosophy when we were kids; he asked us, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, “In a totalitarian society, would you rather be a master or a slave?” I answered, and when he asked “Why?” I promptly burst into tears.

We have now placed a misogynist, baseless, pink-faced racist in charge of our nation and I again find myself near tears. Questions which were once offered as philosophical brainfood reveal themselves as crucial and troubling realities. As I grow older, I close the distance between me and my bureaucratic rulers by shedding layers of legality. I am gaining rights as I inch forever closer to the administrative flame and I’ve learned that it isn’t always going to be Barack Obama and that it isn’t always going to feel safe or pleasant or nice. In fact, it will hurt this time.

When my home state Pennsylvania voted red, I wondered which of my neighbors and former teachers and classmates voted with the majority of the country that agreed to value fantastical extremes over basic human decency. Is your name in my yearbook? Were you at that potluck dinner in 2009? Was I at your ten-year-old birthday party, did you teach chemistry, did I lend you my bow resin at orchestra, did we wait for the after school bus together? My paranoia is now manifold.

It was 7 a.m. in Paris when I found out the president would be someone who wanted to harm those I love and care about. That morning, I think I gave up for a couple hours. I texted exclamation points and sad emojis to my parents. Then I made the decision to wear sweatpants to class.I didn’t send any emails or check the weather and when I felt rain pouring outside, I didn’t open my umbrella. I felt sad and I showed it—but this is not good. When your enemy gains undeniable power, defend yourself: take out your super rusty purple umbrella, don your poncho, your rainboots, build dams, give damns!

There is no more “we” or “our.” Whatever unity existed before was a mask of manners which this election has violently stripped away. This victory of the hateful, ignorant, predominately white voter is one I will not claim as my own. But Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, her steady tone and spine-chilling optimism—that is all mine to cherish. That, and a regressive and noxious next four years.Smiling through gritted teeth, I am horribly happy that I can feel this Faustian range of emotion. At least I now know where I stand.

–Audrey Deng, West 10th Copy Editor

Cigarette : 10, by Shannagh

Cigarette : 10

(1) Finely chopped, toasted leaves.

(2) Tight packed, thin rolled

Miniature kindle, ignites on contact, brings that

(3) Slow alveoli burn.

(4) A chemical kicker, send tingles to your fingertips

(5) Composure with a touch – a deep inhale after

Bad news or rough sex. (6) Categorize:

Social / Solo / Habit / Trend –

(7) “I just buy them on the weekends” and “Not in front of the kids”

(8) Hand-held gas pump, tubular tar transmitter

Nestled in the hollows of four chambers,

Two pulsating balloons and millions of blue-red threads.

(9) Boxes 20 compulsive habits.

(10) Pockets (14 types of) cancer.

You’re Invited to West 10’s Prose Workshop!

Attention all NYU undergrads: On Thursday, November 3rd, at 7:30pm, join West 10th for a poetry workshop in Seminar Room B at Palladium Hall.

Make sure to RSVP and check out the Facebook event, too!

Bring up to 750 words of fiction/nonfiction to receive some feedback from your West 10th Editors. See you there!

Just a reminder that we are still accepting submissions until December 15th!