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!