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.

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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.

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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.)

Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories. He teaches in the English department at the College of New Jersey.

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