Arts

‘The Woman Warrior’ is a triumph in feminist literature

Maxine Hong Kingston's novel examines the struggles of being a woman and a minority.

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It’s important to have recognition toward feminist writers as well as minority writers. This past year I took “English 173,” during which I had the opportunity to read “The Woman Warrior.” When I first heard the title, I had no idea what I was getting myself into or how it would open a whole new world of literature. Feminist literature is a form that gives voices to women who are traditionally suppressed or oppressed. “The Woman Warrior” is taught in many high school and college classes, serving as a contemporary classic which enforces the idea of feminist criticism that traditional patriarchal structure is not the only form a reader should view.

This book has been around for over 42 years and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. The writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, was one of the leaders during the second wave of feminism, where she and other non-white writers focused on the connection of race-related topics to feminism. The idea of intersectionality coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw describes how various overlapping social identities relate to oppression. Kingston analyzes the female identity of Chinese-American women through criticism of misogyny in Chinese culture and racism toward Chinese-Americans in the U.S.

The book itself has caused debate as to which genre it would fit into: It has been described as a memoir, autobiography, novel and manifesto. Some critics view Kingston’s work as reinforcing Western stereotypes toward Chinese culture in “The Woman Warrior,” while others see her use of Chinese mythology and folklore as a triumph in postmodern literature. Kingston’s work embodies the feminist idea of “the personal is political” through the interconnection of large political structures and her individual experience to state something about cultural identity.

“The Woman Warrior” focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, reflecting aspects of Kingston’s life and emphasizing the dynamic of female relationships as a whole in a patriarchal society. She recounts learning about life through the stories and memories of her mother and grandmother. The dichotomy between tradition and modernity is evident through the novel to add another dimension to the meaning of being a Chinese-American woman. The book is divided into five individual chapters that act as short stories. In “The Woman Warrior,” foot-binding, sexual slavery and infanticide of baby girls are examined, but it also discusses the story of the Chinese folk heroine Fa Ma Mulan, a woman warrior who sets out to save her people.

The first chapter is titled “No Name Woman,” which narrates a family secret about an aunt who bears a child out of wedlock, causing shame and the culmination of her being outcasted. Kingston is never given the full details of her aunt’s story, causing her to fill in the gaps with her own imagination. The opening line to this chapter states, “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you.” The speculation of young Kingston is evident when she transfers from her thoughts to the actual aunt’s POV “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 tucked behind her ears.”

Through this blatant memory of speculation and projection, she is able to reclaim her aunt’s memory while holding her parents and even herself accountable for suppressing it: “My aunt haunts me — her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote these pages of paper to her.” Kingston rewrites this story in her own understanding of the Chinese patriarchal society and exposes the unjust discrimination between women and men. The idea of silence is prevalent in this chapter from the very first line to the last: “It translated well.” The silence takes the identity away as a Chinese-American, a woman and a human being by preventing them from having a voice. Despite the guilt of contributing to the oppression of her aunt’s story, Kingston is able to honor and give back the aunt’s voice to be an individual. Kingston writes, “But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have.” Ultimately, Kingston gives her aunt the only name she can: “No Name Woman.”

Kingston’s second chapter is referred to as “White Tigers.” This section blends together memory and myth to tell a tale of liberation and subservience. She describes how “Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I couldn’t tell where the stories left off and the dreams began, her voice the voice of the heroines in my sleep.” She envisions her childhood self as Fa Ma Mulan. The presence of role reversal is shown by Kingston’s fantasy of taking over the role of the male warrior while triumphing as a female avenger. Some other examples consist of how Kingston’s husband in the fantasy leaves the battle to go home and take care of their son, how the men conscripted in the army are as "lowly as slave girls," or how ladies with bound feet go on to form a mercenary army. In this story, Kingston brings together the different worlds of womanhood as a warrior, along with the duties of a wife and mother.

“The Woman Warrior” utilizes language and various narratives to explore cultural voices and identities. This is shown through her emulation of Chinese speech in her prose to reflect the context of each story. The dualities of identities — damsel and warrior, old world values and Western social expectations, individual and society — play into the idea of intersectionality. There are multiple identities and connections that can be factored in regards to women and minority groups. Kingston dives into the notion that women and minorities don’t have the opportunity to explore themselves as individuals without factoring in their various social identities.

Since having the opportunity to read this book, it has opened my eyes to the complexities of being a woman, a minority and the societal implications of being individualistic. The impact of this book is more than a tale of memories and ancient stories — it is an awakening for women out there who may be in similar situations or wish to have the voice of another. I encourage everyone to give this book a chance and decide for yourself.

It may just change your life.

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