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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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."

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.)

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.