The Woman Warrior: Memoir of Girlhood Among Ghosts is a memoir written by Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston that focuses on female characters from various backgrounds, tales, and traditions. The events of the book unfold in a non-chronological order, with stories taking place either in China or America and at different periods of time. Despite the distance of the two opposing lands and the characters ranging from aunts, mothers, and wives, The Woman Warrior is primarily Kingston’s own biographic tale that addresses her experience as a hyphenated Chinese-American identity as she grows up in America.
In the first chapter of the memoir that is titled No Name Woman, Kingston narrates the unfortunate life and death of her father’s youngest sister whose existence was erased upon being impregnated by a man who was not her husband and giving birth to an illegitimate child. After giving birth alone in a pigsty, she drowned herself in the village’s well together with her new-born female baby. This story is actually told by her mother who in return, warns her not to tell it to anybody else, to pretend as if she has never heard of it before and to never speak of her aunt especially in the presence of her father. In many ways, the story of her aunt has several underlying meanings and motifs that echo throughout the Kingston’s narrative of this text and her own life. It acts as a preface for Kingston’s memoir and biography, a haunting existence that branches itself into Kingston’s own life.
Talk stories encompass most of the narrative of the text with the author either retells stories she heard from her mother or other family members, and only telling stories from her own account at certain instances. Talk stories presented by Kingston’s mother seems to motivate the idea of self-invention that serves as guidelines—a list of to do’s and not to do’s in life. No Name Woman is the first talk story to appear in her memoir and as Kingston ages throughout her life, her mother kept telling “stor[ies] [for her] to grow up on” (4). The memoir starts off with the tale of the doomed aunt to the mythical tale of the female warrior Fa Mulan. The next part is another talk story focusing on her mother, Brave Orchid and her years as a medical student and practitioner in China. Growing up, Kingston’s morals and achievements are based off of these talk stories ranging from cultural myths to familial accounts. All these talk stories serve a purpose in moulding her into the perfect woman or daughter that abides the cultural guidelines of her Chinese heritage.
Unlike the tale of Fa Mulan that propagates the idea of courage and filial piety, the story of no name aunt serves as a warning. Kingston’s mother warns her as she tells the story: “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us.” (4) Young Kingston might have been influenced by this story and at some point of her life she must have feared being forgotten and having her existence erased as well. Therefore, she obeys what rules are imposed on her, idolizing mythical and familial figures such as Mulan and her own mother, Brave Orchid. However, she “does not find the story [of her aunt] useful or relevant” (Bolaki 42) as a warning. Instead, she turns this cautionary tale of her aunt into a warrior tale, merging the forbidden existence into her own through many instances in the text and throughout her own life as she “identifies with the rebellious aunt, whom she calls ‘my forerunner’” (Hunt 6).
Kingston firstly draws inspiration from the destructive silence that is manifested during the incident that happened to her aunt in the past. Additionally, the erasure of her aunt’s existence is a direct implication towards the existence of a silencing culture that is dominating her ancestors. Prior to Kingston’s creative imaginings, silence can be seen dominating her mother and their villagers as well throughout her aunt’s growing pregnancy. Kingston’s mother made it clear how she had noticed the baby bump on her aunt’s stomach but proceeded to pretend as if it was nothing. The villagers as well, considering that there were “no strangers” (5) among them and that they are closely there must have seen her body growing over the month but “[n]o one said anything.” (3) Her aunt also suffered in silence, delivering her child alone in silence and never naming her “inseminator’s name,” (8) until the very end.
Unlike her ancestors, Kingston sees the silence surrounding her aunt’s tale and death as something that needs to be destroyed rather than a humiliating secret that has to be passed on from one generation to another as a cautionary tale. If Kingston were to engage in the game of silence and pretend, she too would have participated in the family’s life-long punishment towards the aunt—which for about twenty years she did. However, upon gaining her own voice, courage, and realization, she knowingly breaks it. At some exceptions, silence can also be seen broken out by the people who practice it but only out of necessity. Kingston’s mother tells this story to her as a means of caution—warning teenage Kingston who had just hit puberty that she will face the same fate if she ends up humiliating her family. Similarly, the aunt’s family also only broke their silence to curse her after the villagers’ raid— “Ghost! You’ve never been born” (9).
Before breaking the silence of others—especially ones that have been passed through generations—she needs to break her own silence first. As Miller says, “[Kingston] must untangle the threads of her identity” before untangling others (13). Like her silent aunt, Kingston also has gone through a haunting phase of silence before she finally achieves her own voice. During school years, she has been silent for three years and struggles between two opposing notions of feminine voice. Unable to decide between American feminine and Chinese feminine she ends up “whisper[ing] even more softly than the Americans” (111). Her voice is too small that it makes no impact to her racist male bosses that disrespect her. Upon gaining her voice as a child, she eventually misused it as well—bullying the Chinese-American girl from her class into talking because “[i]f [she doesn’t] talk, [she] can’t have a personality” (116). She undergone a phase of discovery and misuse before she could eventually use that power of voice for her own good and for others.
Yet, upon gaining control of this power of voice, she eventually learns to use it for good. She breaks her own silence during her adolescent years and when the right time comes, she breaks the silence of her aunt—unveiling her existence towards the whole world. This very act of breaking the silence implies both personal and social commitment against the constricting cultural traditions. By telling the story of her aunt to the whole world, Kingston uses her voice to “protest against [the] inhumanity” of her own culture (Lightfoot 60). By breaking the silence behind the story of her aunt, Kingston is exposing the unpleasant side of her culture and is determined to undo it.
Seeing that “voicelessness [is associated] with victimization,” (Cheung 164) Kingston later uses the voice that she has acquired to rebel against the cultural and patriarchal notions that are surrounding her and that had destroyed her aunt. Growing up she’s told by her mother that she “would grow up a wife and a slave” (13) but she declares that she wants be “[a] lumberjack in Oregon” (31) and even “a scientist or a mathematician” (129) if she wants to. She even vocalises her intention of going to college and her desire for independence, rebelling against the idea that “[t]o be male is to be autonymous and active; to be female is to be passive and dependent” (Melchior 282).
Consequently, Kingston also draws inspiration from her aunt’s autonomy in carrying out her actions upon being mistreated. In a village where she was victimized, her aunt took upon her own self to decide her own fate by committing suicide, compared to being passive as she was before and letting the villagers have the privilege to torture her as they please. Despite its morbidity, Kingston establishes her aunt as a powerful female figure that was able to determine her own fate after being unjustly shamed and attacked by the villagers. She gave birth and carried her baby till the very end of their lives, protecting the innocent soul from the unforgiving society because “[m]others who love their children take them along.” (10) Her “spite suicide” (11) is both an act of compassion and revenge that was orchestrated out of her own free will as a fighter and a lover.
Like her aunt who decided her own fate, Kingston establishes herself as a rebellious individual who does things out of her own will and for the sake of herself rather than anybody else. She goes to college and “marche[s] to change the world” (31) instead of going to typing school like other villages girls are. Kingston also assumes the role of a protector through her rebellious acts as she “protect[s] [her] sister and [her]self at the same time” (Kingston 124) in her own ways even if it means making herself undesirable by “limp[ing] across the floor” and “spill[ing] soup” on the male suitors that came to their house (124), refusing the traditional notion of arranged marriage both towards herself and her sister, therefore “subvert[ing] the traditional role assigned to women,” (Houioui 29) and violating the gender boundaries imposed by her culture by choosing her own path of studies, career, and future.
Throughout her memoir, Kingston also “recounts diverse experiences involving women that turned . . . [her] into an author” (Lightfoot 56) with the most significant one being the story of her aunt. Growing up, Kingston uses her voice to familiarize herself with the genderless pronoun ‘I’ against the gendered Chinese ‘I’ that indicates “slave” (31) to demonstrate self-assertion and self-invention. Kingston detaches herself from the binds of talk stories that are supposed to shape her, the same way her aunt detached herself from the villagers and family that cursed her. Melchior highlights that the “heroine is not a female hero; she exists, usually, to further or impede the development of the hero” (282). The villagers said that her aunt “act[ed] as if she could have a private life” (9)—emphasizing herself as an individual of her own (‘I’) rather than just an attachment of her husband and this individuality of hers angered them.
According to Morante, “articulation creates selfhood” (78). Through her rebellious voice, Kington manages to create identity and individuality for both her aunt and herself by drawing inspiration from her aunt’s choice of having a ‘private life’. Instead of just retelling a talk story (one that she’s not supposed to even tell anybody of), Kingston takes a different approach in retelling the story of her no-name aunt. She reimagines and reinvents the incident that befalls her aunt and reconstructs what could have actually been. Through the little details of her infidelity that her mother has secretly relayed to her, she conjures up multiple perspectives and fictional possibilities of what could have actually happened to her aunt—further emphasizing her identity and individuality rather than just describing here as an adulterous wife. She imagines that her aunt might “have to buy her oil from him or gather wood in the same forest” (5) or that the man himself might have “organized the raid against her” (5). She creates multiple stories and possible identities for her aunt, the same way the following chapters of the book are creating her own stories as she progresses from “rewrit[ing] her mother’s talk stories” (Bolaki 39) to writing her own.
Through her imaginative rebirthing of her aunt, Kingston betrays her mother, her family, and her Chinese tradition (Johnston 139) that strictly impose silence. Therefore, Kingston looking upon the tale of her exiled aunt for inspiration seems like a treacherous act. However, through her act of cultural and ancestral defiance, Kingston doesn’t totally assume the role of a traitor. Throughout her text, she still reiterates her culture of oral traditions by retelling talk stories that she hears from her mother, signifying how she cherishes this tradition and practices it even in a foreign land (Houioui 33). She also incorporates female figures or warrior qualities from Chinese heritage such as Brave Orchid, Fa Mulan, and Tsai Yen. Despite never been to China and only hearing stories of it from her mother, she holds her Chinese heritage close and identifies with it. Like her exiled aunt, rebelled throughout her writings, doing what she can to provide justice for those faced with injustice and to provide voice for those who are unheard.
The life of Kingston and the life of her exiled aunt interweaved with one another with a bond so strong that it crosses cultural and national boundaries. Ultimately, from the existence of her aunt, her (Kingston’s) existence branches and blossoms out of it. Kingston’s mother might have told the story of her aunt as a warning, but Kingston embodies the story as her own—imaginatively reminiscing what could have happened and immortalizing the forbidden existence into paper, granting her the role of a forerunner for the author’s very own existence. Myers states that “autobiography is an interpretation, even a construction of the life” (121) and in Kingston’s autobiography, she constructs and reinterprets the life of a woman who once lived and suffered—entombing the soul that had inspired her within sheets of paper. Deliberately breaking the silence of her aunt and her own, she “eventually becomes the adult artist who ‘talks-story’ in a ‘high and clear’ voice,” (Morante 78) celebrating the heritage of her culture and her forgotten aunt, regardless of their imperfection.
- Bolaki, Stella. “‘It Translated Well’: The Promise and the Perils of Translation in Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior.’” MELUS, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, pp. 39–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20618099.
- Cheung, King-Kok. “‘Don’t Tell’: Imposed Silences in ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘The Woman Warrior.’” PMLA, vol. 103, no. 2, 1988, pp. 162–174. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/462432.
- Houioui, Faten. “‘I Alone devote pages of papers to her’: Kingston’s Blurring of Generic and Gender Boundaries in ‘The Woman Warrior’ and ‘China Men.’” Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Science, vol. 5, no. 7, 2017, pp. 28-38. Quest Journals, http://www.questjournals.org/jrhss/papers/vol5-issue7/D572838.pdf.
- Hunt, Linda. “‘I Could Not Figure out What Was My Village’: Gender vs. Ethnicity in Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior.’” MELUS, vol. 12, no. 3, 1985, pp. 5–12. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/467116.
- Johnston, Sue Ann. “Empowerment Through Mythological Imaginings in ‘Woman Warrior.’” Biography, vol. 16 no. 2, 1993, p. 136-146. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2010.0369.
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1976. PDF File.
- Lightfoot, Marjorie J. “Hunting the Dragon in Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior.’” MELUS, vol. 13, no. 3/4, 1986, pp. 55–66. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/467182.
- Melchior, Bonnie. “A Marginal “I”: The Autobiographical Self Deconstructed in Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior’” Biography, vol. 17 no. 3, 1994, p. 281-295. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2010.0297.
- Miller, Margaret. “Threads of Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘Woman Warrior.’” Biography, vol. 6 no. 1, 1983, p. 13-33. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2010.0678
- Morante, Linda. “From Silence to Song: The Triumph of Maxine Hong Kingston.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 1987, pp. 78–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3346195.
- Myers, Victoria. “The Significant Fictivity of Maxine Hong Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior.’” Biography, vol. 9 no. 2, 1986, p. 112-125. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2010.0800.