Maxine Hong Kingston

Speaking to the Ghost of Frank Chin

I. On Ghosts

To suggest that ghosts are important in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is hardly an earth-shattering observation. Nonetheless, considering the nature of ghosts in the memoir helps create a foundation for the several issues I’ve been thinking about the last few days. Ghosts are central to the reality of this book, not as figments of the imagination but as extant expressions of experience. In a way similar to Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, ghosts offer tangible presence on the page. They are not symbols of superstition, nor a mechanism to explain the less-than-fully-sophisticated background of Kingston’s mother, nor phenomenon to be explained away scientifically. Instead, Kingston writes of ghosts as a way to foreground and value the reality of non-Western-scientific thinking. The chapter of their appearance, “Shaman,” in fact begins with a subtle critique of the binary of Chinese superstition vs. Western science. In writing of her mother’s medical background, Kingston clarifies that she has both studied in the way a Western reader would expect and approve (school, diplomas, science) but also that her rigorous study included things a Western reader might not support (historical/traditional medicine). Further, we see that she becomes unable to continue her practice of medicine once she moves to the U.S. Kingston does not comment on this fact directly but, instead, relies on the layering of image and the deployment of ghost stories. Again, these are not representational stories. They are presented as real, and any dissonance a reader might feel — how can we believe something like that actually happened? — works to turn a careful reader inward. That very response is what Kingston writes against, even if it happens to be the very response she might have found in herself as she grew up in California, hating and distrusting the “superstitious” behavior of her mother. By reading ghosts, and realizing our own entrapment in our own overly-rational conception of the world. we begin to be able to read against the homogeneity of Western intellectual tradition and, more importantly, recognize how “superstition” is merely a word we apply to other people’s traditions we do not share.

II. On Voice

Also quite obvious in The Woman Warrior is the subordination of Kingston’s voice. Most of the book includes the telling of other people’s stories, whether they happen to be family stories or remixes of Chinese myth. Within the first four chapters, Kingston appears directly only at the end, creating context and intersection with her own life. But, largely, hers is only a tiny voice that bumps into the larger stories.

Kingston voice appears in force, finally, in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” a chapter that also presents an inversion of the previous patterns of the book. Here, we begin and stay primarily within Kingston’s experience, turning in the end to myth. “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine” (206), Kingston writes. The sequencing of this chapter functions crucially. Kingston “finds” her voice, which for most of the chapter comes across as immature, hateful, and naive. She browbeats a fellow child who doesn’t talk, abusing her verbally in a bathroom. She explodes at her mother and lays out all of the wrongs she has perceived, thanks to Chinese tradition. That catharsis follows a Western narrative arc — the hero finally speaks her mind! — but also leads Kingston to a recognition that a good reader will share:

Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation…. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts. (204)

The voice that Kingston finds is an American voice that denies the Chinese, that considers the hyphenation of Chinese-American as a perpetual separation and, moreover, a requirement of choice. The voice that Kingston displays is one that cannot reconcile the halves, and so she reconciles in the direction that denies her mother. Yet Kingston writes this to show the dangers of this voice, that she herself misinterpreted the past (of herself, of her mother, of China) as something to be moved away from. The beauty of the ending of the memoir, then, is that Kingston returns to story, in fact ends with a story “instead” of her personal voice. But now, the careful reader I keep referring to, recognizes that the story that Kingston’s mother begins and she ends is, in fact, part of her voice. Story, like ghosts, is not a superstition to be unravelled rationally. Stories mean as stories do, not as codes, or signs of avoidance, or primitiveness, or lack of rigor. Stories mean. (Sidelight: I think I’m defending the importance of the study of literature in general right now, encouraging any fool who thinks the empirically measurable is a superior mode of knowing to just go read a book…an artful book that deals more in language and figurative thought than information.)

III. Frank Chin

… is not a careful reader. Or maybe he is. In certain respects, I don’t feel that I have the background and context to comment, but his infamous hatred of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work (and Amy Tans, and David Henry Hwang) seems to me to come from the same place as a careless reader’s condemnations of a book as boring, or worthless, or whatever. Chin’s argument is that Kingston is a white racist, deploying stereotypical Chinese backwardness that is devoured and championed by a broader white American culture in the name of self-congratulatory multiculturalism. That the reading and championing of any non-European writer is not necessarily a signal of true multicultural belief is, of course, a point where I cannot disagree with Chin — I can think of too many people, quite quickly, who claim to love certain books but do very little to actually resist the cultural dominance of White Male European modes of thinking. Certainly, there must be plenty of fans of Kingston et al who do the same thing. Reading The Woman Warrior becomes the beginning and end of many liberal mindsets.

But, on careful reading, I see the construction of The Woman Warrior as a tremendous defense against the hegemony of homogeneity. She presents voice and ghosts and allows for the pre-conceived notions of American readers to offer their own critique of the American self. The careful reader recognizes that he/she, like Kingston, views certain moments as curious, or exotic, or superstitious, or backward very much because he/she comes into the text already believing such things. The power of the memoir is to create dissonance if the careful reader: why did I do that? The power extends, ideally, in the same way that Kingston ends her book, with a recognition of what is lost when we find a narrow voice, that a failure to see ghosts is not a signal of intellectual advancement but, instead, fully a failure.

Legend, Memoir, and the Mid-70s

Three publications, in this sequence: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior in 1975, and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (part of his collection Desert Notes) in 1976.

Three opening lines:

  • I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. (Dillard)
  • “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “What I am about to tell you.” (Kingston)
  • I am going to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. (Lopez)

If I squint just a little, I can connect these three lines through their comment act of compressing the stories of others into the story of the self and, particularly, in the way memoir can be written within the stream of cultural myth, not so much as citation but as an experience that lies in the flowing stream.

Another factoid: last weekend, as part of a research trip for my own writing project, I met a (very) conservative Catholic who explained his continual belief in St. Christopher — a saint excised, among others, from the official canon of saints due to a lack of factual evidence defining his existence — as driven by ontology. To this man, the truth of tradition is as valid as the truth of verifiability, with tradition more or less corresponding with the concept of faith itself. Thus, St. Christopher is a saint because tradition says he’s a saint, whether or not the current hierarchy of the church recognizes him as such.

The three writers I cite, then, are engaging the truth of tradition. Dillard, (in)famously, did not own that cat, nor experience that moment but, in fact, borrowed the story from someone else. Kingston begins her memoir with the story of No Name Woman, an aunt she never knew, but writes within multiple versions of that aunt’s point of view and, later, within the point of view of Fa Mu Lan, a legendary warrior woman of ancient China. Lopez writes of the natural history of ravens and crows, desert mythologies of those creatures mixing with naturalist observations to create a fabulous totality. Common among these openings, then, is the implicit declaration that story carries truth in a way different but equally powerful as verifiable acts. More importantly, story offers an access to truth and reality that cannot or should not be considered as subordinate to that which can be measured “rationally.”

Thinking particularly in the context of Kingston, Woman Warrior opens with two chapters that invite the reader to consider the present persistence of story in experienced reality. Kingston herself does not experience that which her aunt suffered (in the first chapter) nor what Fa Mu Lan experienced. But those stories also cannot be  placed into the limiting situation of metaphor. Stories are not to be told as a means of relation. Instead, stories are presented as extant within her own experience. Kingston memoir begins with the apparent subordination of the self — very little is written about her — and the foregrounding of exterior, “unverifiable” second-hand experience, but that subordination is actually the activation of stories power. Her life has been lived within and around those stories; her life is itself a story that intersects and overlaps the universalities of the tales being told. Specifically, then, Woman Warrior begins with two stories that demonstrate the limited prospects of being a woman warrior. The choices are to a) commit suicide after suffering the violence of male domination or b) conceal one’s identity as woman in order to do things considered masculine. Neither is a suitable choice, and in fact Kingston seeks to write space away from those restrictions. But, in fact, both her memoir and her life exist within the ongoing context of the framing stories. They are not examples or counterpoint; they are life itself.

I offer, also, the observation of the consecutive publication of the three texts I cite here: 74, 75, 76. This may be mere coincidence, but I’d like to make the unsubstantiated claim to consider the mid-70s as an important root in the comprehension of memoir as a literary way of being instead of as facts written to paper. Indeed, the usage of story in these three texts indicates an important shift away from narrow conceptions of what counts as truth. Crucially, I don’t mean this to suggest that truth doesn’t matter, nor that we can make simple separations between emotional and literal truth. Instead, I’m think close to the sense of truth of tradition, and closer still to an ill-informed citation of the intellectual love child of Derrida and Heisenberg. If, as writers, we believe words matter, and stories matter, we also intend to conceive of the world as a place where story is as real as stone.