I’ve finally read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1975), a book I have heard so much about but somehow never got to until now. The book is creative non-fiction, a memoir of Kingston’s Chinese childhood among “ghosts.” Ghosts are white Americans, and reading this book gave me access to what it must really be like to grow up in a country where you are an outsider, where your parents fit one culture and your peers fit another, and where you must straddle a fine line of loyalty and sensemaking.
The results of this are confusing. Kingston explained, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. . . . sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many” (p. 29). I loved this explanation for her own experiences, but I see this as true for many of us, as we live in situations and a world that is not black and white. It is hard to make sense of paradoxes, but this point of view invites them and helped me to realize that paradoxes are life. Accepting them is the only way to understand some of the difficult situations we might face.
Kingston’s chapters read as individual “short stories” of different experiences. This made the book easy to read, put aside, and contemplate, before going on to the next phase. In one section, she retells the legend of Fa Mulan, whom we all have become familiar with through Disney. It is a beautiful story that gets more justice from Kingston’s writing than from the animated big screen.
My favorite chapter is toward the end, called “At the Western Palace.” This is the story of Kingston’s mother, Moon Orchid, and her sister Brave Orchid. Moon Orchid has lived in the United States for some time, practicing medicine and raising her family. Brave Orchid arrives as an old woman. She’s there to find her husband, who left decades ago for the United States. Brave Orchid spends weeks and months with Moon Orchid, imagining how she’ll let her husband and his “second” wife know that she’s here. After much resistance and the willingness to stay with her sister for the rest of her life, Brave Orchid is finally dragged to her husband’s office (he’s a doctor), where the family realizes that he is younger and has a much younger wife. They remember the practice of marrying off young men to older Chinese women before they left for the United States in an effort to make them return. Brave Orchid has a strange confrontation with her “husband” and the two part without any sort of reconciliation and without Brave Orchid taking her “rightful” place in the household over the younger, newer wife. This story, while comical in the telling, represents a serious grappling with the old and new ways of two cultures that have very different expectations for marriage and ambition.
Earlier we learn of the consequences for women if they break marital bonds. Kingston recounts what she heard of an aunt who died. She finds out that this aunt became pregnant while her husband was away, and she tells an imagined story of how this aunt committed suicide because of the viciousness and judgments of her neighbors, among whom was likely her lover. Kingston mourns this early death, along with the death of the aunt’s newborn baby, although her family refrains from speaking of this woman and considers her a disgrace who was never born. They see her demise as necessary. Again, we see Kingston wrestling with the distances between cultures.
We learn more about the cultural differences in marriage in the final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Kingston writes of the desire her parents seem to have to marry her off to a strange and very stupid young man. They seem to think little of her and her prospects, despite her smarts. Her parents warn, “Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests . . . A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that” (p. 193). However, after much worry and confusion, Kingston learns that her parents did not intend him for her. She is safe.
I enjoyed the lyrical quality of this memoir, and I can see why it stands as an important part of an emerging multicultural canon. It certainly represents an important part of the American experience, the immigrant experience, which should be familiar to us all.