The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts
Maxine Hong Kingston
1976 (1989 edition)
Late as usual! Once again, I read quickly but write slowly. Oh well. My post on The Beauty Myth should be ready soon, too….
The Woman Warrior calls itself a memoir; it’s a collection of stories about Maxine Hong Kingston’s life, the life of her mother, a doctor who emigrated from China to the United States before Kingston was born. It highlights in many ways the information that is missing or ambiguous—the things of which Kingston cannot quite make sense. In the second chapter, referring to the letters that they receive from family in China, she writes:
The news from China has been confusing… It is confusing that my family was not the poor to be championed. They were executed like the barons in the stories, when they were not the barons. It is confusing that birds tricked us. (50-51)
It’s confusing because she can’t reconcile what she knows or expects with what she hears from her family. She has expectations of the revolutionaries based on what she has heard about them in the stories, or in the news, or elsewhere. A page later, she comments that “I read in an anthropology book that Chinese say ‘Girls are necessary too’; I have never heard the Chinese I know make this concession.” In both cases, there are conflicting reports, varying authorities. She can’t reject either the reports of her family members’ deaths or the stories that have underpinned her entire experience since childhood. The reasons for this are somewhat complicated, but I hope they’ll be clearer by the end of the post. The attempt to correlate everything together and make one unified story is constantly frustrated.
One of the discussion questions for this book was about the use of the word “ghost” for both the dead and the foreign. One effect of this is to create further confusion. Kingston explains that throughout her childhood, her mother referred to the surrounding non-Chinese Americans as foreigners, “ghosts.”
But America has always been full of machines and ghosts—Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. …
It seemed as if ghosts could not hear or see very well. Momentarily lulled by the useful chores they did for whatever ghostly purpose, we did not bother to lower the windows one morning when the Garbage Ghost came. We talked loudly about him through the fly screen, pointed at his hairy arms, and laughed at how he pulled up his dirty pants before swinging his hoard onto his shoulders. (97-98)
For Kingston’s mother, this is not confusing. By making her neighbors into ghosts rather than human beings, she isolates her family in their immigrant community. Returning to China remains the ultimate goal for her, and she regards China as more real, with “real tables and chairs” and flowers that her children could smell. Interestingly, even when she gives up this dream, she does not give up the use of the term “ghost.” By describing America as a land of ghosts, China remains “home:”
Whenever my parents said “home,” they suspended America. They suspended enjoyment, but I did not want to go to China. … I did not want to go where the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own. (99)
From the reader’s perspective, and perhaps from Kingston’s, this confusion between ghosts (the dead) and ghosts (foreigners) is disorienting and plays into the difficulties of building a coherent narrative. Kingston the adult, of course, realizes that white garbage collectors and mail carriers are human beings like her. But in her memoir, the list of American ghosts comes just after the account of the Sitting Ghost. This is a story about Kingston’s mother and an apparently supernatural encounter she had in a haunted room of the medical school she attended. She defeated the Sitting Ghost by first insulting it and then ignoring it and chanting her medical lessons. The account is full of realistic details, although it’s very complimentary to Kingston’s mother.
As a story that stands by itself, it’s entertaining and does a good job of establishing some aspects of her character. When we try to somehow correlate it with the frame story, Kingston’s memoirs, it can be seen as just a story that her mother liked to tell, or possibly a lesson about studying hard and standing up for herself. But if the double use of the word “ghost” is taken into account, it’s hard not to wonder if something happened, and exactly what it was. But it’s impossible to find out. The ghosts have become part of Kingston’s life—after all, the subtitle of the book is “Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts”—and they were introduced by her mother. But she does not have access to exactly what her mother meant by them.
In Kingston’s retelling of the story of Mulan, she takes on the part of the Fa Mu Lan in her imagination. This character remains distinct from Kingston herself; she responds politely to a question about whether she has eaten, while Kingston remarks that she would have answered differently: “’No, I haven’t,’ I would have said in real life, mad at the Chinese for lying so much. ‘I’m starved. Do you have any cookies?” (11). Valuing ‘straight answers’ is, I’m told, a very American approach to conversation; Kingston wants them, but she can’t get them. She is an outsider, unable to access the real meaning behind what her mother tells her. Their argument is revealing:
“I didn’t say you were ugly.”
“You say that all the time.”
“That’s what we’re supposed to say. That’s what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite.”
It seemed to hurt her to tell me that—another guilt for my list to tell my mother, I thought. (203-204)
So what’s supposed to be taken literally? How can Kingston fit what she knows about the world with what she knows about her family? How can she understand what her mother is trying to tell her? How much of this mutual incomprehension is due to the cultural differences between American Kingston and her Chinese mother, and how much of it is just the normal communication barriers that always exist between people? And is it worth it to try to establish understanding? It becomes clear in the incident with Moon Orchid’s husband that Kingston’s mother is a person with her own perspectives and her own flaws who sometimes behaves unreasonably and certainly doesn’t have all the answers.
In a way, the point of the book is that these questions can’t really be answered. Without the insider cultural knowledge, it’s impossible for Kingston even to really know exactly how much is being missed. This isn’t presented in a way that makes Kingston’s mother out to be an inscrutable foreigner; on the contrary, it’s more that Kingston is wrongfooted and confused and unable to really get it right.
It’s interesting that the book ends with a note of hope—a story which entertains the fantasy of being able to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next and create a song that could be translated from one language to the other. The entire book has shown us that it’s very difficult for it to work this way—but the story itself is one begun by her mother and finished by Kingston, so in a way it enacts what it hopes.