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Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts was published 30 years ago last fall, at a time when Chinese-Americans evoked few associations in the American consciousness other than laundry, chop suey, and Bruce Lee. Steeped in Cantonese legend and folklore, filled with unfamiliar phrases and untranslatable expressions, it won rapturous, if occasionally baffled, praise from mainstream critics; the Washington Post, speaking for many, called it "strange, sometimes savagely terrifying, and, in the literal sense, wonderful."Three decades later, it has become a contemporary classic, taught in thousands of high school and college classes every year. When I query my first-year college students about books most of them have read, The Woman Warrior falls somewhere between Beloved, Romeo and Juliet, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Yet the most remarkable, and often overlooked, quality of The Woman Warrior is that it is a book without a genre. At various times it has been described as a memoir, an autobiography, a novel, a manifesto; yet anyone who spends 10 minutes with it understands that none of these labels really apply. Not because Kingston sets out to exaggerate the "facts" of her own experience, à la James Frey, but because she deliberately acknowledges that to write autobiography is to stand at the borderline between memory and invention. Like the "ghosts" in its subtitle (the word refers to the white Americans around whom Kingston grew up in Sacramento), The Woman Warrior stubbornly refuses to be either entirely fictive or entirely real. Perhaps the second most remarkable thing about the book is that in its wake, the American literary world still seems to regard the tissue-thin boundary between memoir and fiction as absolute and inviolable.
Kingston's method of merging real experience and fiction is deceptively simple, so much so that the reader hardly notices it as it happens. The book's first chapter, "No Name Woman," offers an account of a family secret: an aunt in China who became pregnant out of wedlock, was rejected by the family, and drowned herself in a well. Because Kingston's parents refuse to tell the story in any detail, Kingston introduces a few plausible assumptions of her own. The narrative introduces detail after intimate detail about No Name Woman until, with no fanfare, Kingston crosses from speculation firmly into her aunt's point of view: "Perhaps my aunt, caught in a slow life, let dreams grow and fade and after some months or years went towards what persisted … She looked at a man because she liked the way the hair was tucked behind her ears."
In the context Kingston has created—her parents' dreamy recollections of their childhood village, the mysteries they refuse to dispel, and her own second-generation sense of rootlessness—this act of appropriation seems almost inevitable. Its audacity becomes clear only when we step back from the page and consider the literary conventions that ordinarily would stand in the way of such an act. We all like to imagine some continuity of experience, some secret empathy, with our immediate ancestors; we like to think that our families have personalities and defining characteristics that set us apart. But few of us would allow ourselves to develop, and record, such a detailed fantasy about a family member so removed from us in place and time. To write a historical novel—a version of Roots—is one thing; to undertake a rigorous investigation based on sources, like Francine du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents, is another. Kingston, by contrast, shamelessly intermingles memory, speculation, and projection, reclaiming her aunt's forgotten memory and holding her parents, and herself, accountable for suppressing it. Speaking of (and to) her parents, she writes, "They want me to participate in her punishment. And I have."
The book's second section, "White Tigers," is audacious in a different way. In it, Kingston imagines her childhood self as the Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan, who joined the army in male disguise in order to defend her home village. Kingston's retelling borrows imagery and plot conventions from martial-arts movies, the Native American vision quest, and the story of Joan of Arc, as well as a panoply of Chinese legends and symbols. But in keeping with the original, it is both a tale of liberation and of perfect subservience: In the end, after Mulan/Kingston has defeated all her enemies, overthrown the corrupt emperor, and begun a new dynasty, she returns home and tells her parents-in-law, "My public duties are finished … I will stay with you, doing farmwork and housework, and giving you more sons."