The genius of The Woman Warrior.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 27 2007 10:35 AM

The Woman Warrior at 30

Maxine Hong Kingston's secrets and lies.

Click here to read more from Slate's Memoir Week.

(Continued from Page 1)

Not all of The Woman Warrior is taken up with this kind of fantasy. As it proceeds, it becomes more sober, more like a normative memoir, full of anecdotes from Kingston's childhood and her life as an—inevitably misunderstood—young artist in an immigrant culture with fixed expectations of success. But through the entire book, Kingston sustains the same furious ambivalence that we encounter in "No Name Woman": the longing to reconcile a bifurcated identity, the desire to critique China and embrace it, the anger at the many injustices suffered by Chinese women—beginning with the traditional belief that a son is a great gift and a daughter a terrible punishment—and the desire to be reunited with her own estranged family. At the very end of the book, Kingston compares herself to the second-century poet Cai Yan, who was taken captive by "barbarians," or nomadic tribesmen, and who is best known for her Thirteen Stanzas for a Reed Pipe, a series of short songs about her longing to return home. Of course, as Kingston points out, the reed pipe that provides the music is the invention of the very barbarians who kidnapped her.

This unresolved ambivalence—in form and content—has provided much fodder for The Woman Warrior's critics. In the 1970s and '80s, the Chinese-American author Frank Chin, novelist and editor of the anthology The Big Aiiieeeee!, * repeatedly attacked Kingston for not taking a more radical stance against American racism; for presenting a Westernized, sanitized view of Chinese culture (by, among other things, comparing Hua Mulan to Joan of Arc); and even for mistranslating the Cantonese word gwai (used to refer to white people, or foreigners in general) as "ghost," when, he claimed, a more literal translation would be "demon" or "asshole." Polemical and unfair as Chin's charges may be, it certainly is possible to criticize The Woman Warrior for trying to be too many things at once: a revenge fantasy and a sweeping act of cross-cultural reconciliation, a work of new mythology and a personal narrative. There's a sense in which Kingston's vengeful narcissism becomes, in the end, simply narcissistic, as if every element of her experience can be transformed into a perfect metaphor, or as if her personal experience can be understood on the level of large-scale myth.


It may be this sense of boundless egotism that has kept more memoirists from following Kingston's example. More likely, though, American memoirists, and perhaps Americans in general,  are fundamentally uncomfortable with The Woman Warrior's implication that our mental lives are made up of overlapping narratives—some invented, some inherited, some remembered—rather than one sequence of "true" events. Of course, the Western novel has always acknowledged that the boundary between the stories we read and the stories we tell ourselves is not so firm: A list of self-novelizing heroes and heroines would have to include Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov, and the fictional Marcel of In Search of Lost Time.

The memoir, however—a younger, more uncertain genre—tends to emphasize the stability, and the autonomy, of individual human memory. Even when a memoirist admits to fragments or gaps in his or her account, those gaps are treated as sacrosanct; to treat them as occasions for invention would be a betrayal of the "what really happened." The writer and editor William Zinsser, commenting on the scandal over A Million Little Pieces, said, "I think that the strength of the memoir comes from history and from the truth of what people did and what they thought and experienced. That is more rich, more surprising and funny and emotional and compelling than anything that could be invented." But The Woman Warrior suggests a different standard of honesty. "I made my mind large, so it would have room for paradoxes," Kingston writes at one point; the most difficult paradox, she suggests, is that we may have to invent our life stories if we don't want to lie.

Correction, March 28, 2007: This article originally misidentified Frank Chin as the editor of the anthology Charlie Chan Is Dead. In fact, Jessica Hagedorn edited the book. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.