29 April 2021
(Songbook of the Canonical Barbarian)
Hong Kingston’s Inquiry of Americanism and Literary Slums in The Woman Warrior
“But America has 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…” (Hong Kingston 96-7).
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, the reader encounters a reality intertwined with myth. While the two seem to be contradictory, the novel blends truth and fantasy to fashion a meta-genre of literature unconcerned with narrator reliability. In fact, the voice of the novel phases predominantly between the voice of Hong Kingston, her mother (Brave Orchid), and the mythical figure of Fa Mu Lan. These myths and methods of “talk-story” are reflective of traditional Chinese culture and yet are utilized to portray Hong Kingston’s experience, an American experience. Hong Kingston, through the American imagination she forges in The Woman Warrior, participates in redefining what it is to be American and in pushing the boundaries of canonical American narrative. This accomplishment will be explored through a number of topics and concerns: historical and authorial background, the novel’s reflection of American racial reality, American contextualization through Chinese means, paradoxes of cultural harmony, and the pedagogical light in which The Woman Warrior demands to be read.
Chinese immigration has long been viewed as an invasion, with national sentiments akin to fears of an encroaching evil (Lee 36). These sentiments, undoubtedly still lining national culture today, are rooted in the flood of Chinese laborers at the end of the nineteenth century. This xenophobia solidified into a number of policies, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act adopted in 1882. The policy blocked the immigration of Chinese workers for ten years and denied naturalized citizenship to standing Chinese immigrants (Lee 36). Time after time, Chinese persons have been (and continue to be) swept outside the borders of the American imagination, despite their long-established presence and influence within the United States.
Hong Kingston plays an integral role in reinserting this presence. Maxine Hong Kingston was born (1940) and raised in Stockton, California, reinforcing her experience as American in the most literal sense. Her family is not unexposed to the repercussions of Chinese xenophobia; her father, an esteemed scholar and teacher in his home village, was forced to take up lower-level jobs upon arriving in America in the late twenties due to the number of anti-Chinese employment laws in place. Thus, growing up for Hong Kingston often entailed conflicts between her Chinese and American identities, which she refuses to divide through the use of a hyphen. Her objective is often a blend of Chinese culture and Americanism, as seen within The Woman Warrior’s Chinese narrative-framing of a “plotline” (the novel often jumping around voice, place, and time) with an increasingly American trajection, moving geographically from China (realistic and mythic) to Hong Kingston’s home neighborhood in Stockton.
She utilizes the methods of Chinese ghost story to showcase a revelation of the American socio-political reality. She constructs this portrayal of the socio-political landscape by addressing the issue of race. While subtle, the novel’s statements about black presence (or lack thereof) within American consciousness makes a lasting impact: “There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts” (Hong Kingston 97). The use of “ghosts,” a recurring motif of The Woman Warrior, brings forth a number of historical and contemporarily-relevant characteristics of American race relations. The systems of oppression on which the United States is in every sense founded reduce both the oppressed (Black Ghosts) and the oppressors (White Ghosts) into non-human forms, hollow shells that are possessed by an intoxicating violence and pain. Despite the historical and lingering role of Blacks as the oppressed, the novel calls them “open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts.” In doing so, Hong Kingston characterizes the African American community as something more alive than dominant white culture, suggesting that black perseverance is the true substance and lifeblood of the American identity. All the while, this portrait of the American imagination is executed through the superstitious underpinnings of Chinese myth and storytelling, the idea of “ghosts” and traumas loitering beyond the falls of their material institutions. In this sense, the America that Hong Kingston reflects is one that relies on the affirmation of minority presence and sacrifice, specifically concerning the black community. Regardless of canonical American history often claiming otherwise, black exploitation and black presence has been shaped into something undeniably American. And Hong Kingston makes sure this is known.
Hong Kingston also asserts her own struggles in injecting herself into the American imagination. “To make my life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance. I pushed the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories” (87). In the recounts of her “girlhood among ghosts,” Hong Kingston consistently tries to claim this title of “American-normal” as a young girl. In this instance, she attempts to do so by rejecting the story-telling of her traditional Chinese ancestry. The narrative voice in and of itself and the pre-established motifs of ghosthood and myth showcase a progression from this habit of Hong Kingston’s childhood. They showcase a reclamation of the Chinese culture she grew up in as a means of reconciling a preconceived necessity of conforming to mainstream American Canon. The disparity between the novel’s narrative framing and the childhood concerns of adopting her Chinese ethnicity shows how she has learned to contextualize her Americanness in the methods of her ancestry.
In fact, Hong Kingston takes on the voice of a Chinese mythological figure, Fa Mu Lan, as her own. In the section “White Tigers,” she recounts how her mother taught her the legend of Fa Mu Lan, “the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village” (20). When recounting the legend in the novel, Hong Kingston keeps her first person narrative voice, despite the voice shifting to Fa Mu Lan’s perspective: “…I could point at the sky and make a sword appear, a silver bolt in the sunlight, and control its slashing with my mind” (33). Foremost, this accomplishes the maintenance of narrative agency and control for Hong Kingston, which reflects American rhetorics of independence and individuality. Additionally, this complicates the genre of memoir and the notion of genre itself. In the novel, fiction and biography have no borders and instead rely on each other to co-exist. In this way, the genre of The Woman Warrior becomes ambiguous in order to challenge the way American Canon cuts up the literary pool and forces works into confined spaces of not only intended audience but restricted racialized pedagogy. It forces the American imagination to hold paradoxes: “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes” (29). Chinese identity does not compromise Americanism and vise versa. In this way, Americanism is forced to be multiple things at once and is expanded to hold space for ethinic minorities that continue to lack attention and agency in the United States.
Harmony between her ownership of both Chinese and American identities is summed up at the ending of the novel, in the section titled “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” The fable is symbolic of her mother’s adversities in America and her feelings of displacement: “Her children did not speak Chinese. She spoke it to them when their father was out of the tent, but they imitated her with senseless singsong words and laughed” (208). Not only did her mother experience a disconnect with her environment in America, but she also faced, at some level, a disconnect to her own children who were born and raised in a different culture than her own. In showing this, Hong Kingston criticizes the white expectation of immigrants to conform to mainstream social canons. America has been historically viewed as a culture that has no room for multiplicity, that one must relinquish all of oneself for in order to successfully integrate and earn the true title of American. In the last line of the novel, Hong Kingston assures that Americanism is flexible, able to hold the content of other cultures while still retaining its identity: “She brought her songs back from the savage lands, and one of the three that has been passed down to us is ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well” (209). It is the traditions of her mother and her ethnicity that have given Hong Kingston the tools to conceptualize her American reality. The last line, “It translated well,” reinforces not just the possibility but the compatibility of Americanism and Chinese culture without the concession of either. In broader terms, this reconceptualizes the American imagination of its literature into one unreliant on English lingual propriety, Christianity, and whiteness.
Chinese American literature is restricted into “literary slums,” pedagogical spaces that keep works isolated within a foregin context and deny their adoption into the mainstream American identity, despite their American-born authors. The formation of these segregated pedagogical spaces favors white authors and falsifies a drop in calibur when it comes to minority writers (Schultermandl 290). The “Chinese” of “Chinese American” is perceived to negate the claim to the latter identity, reinforcing a pseudo-form of generical “purity” within American literature. Instead, “Chinese” is perpetually associated with a foreign “otherness.” The misreading of The Woman Warrior as such (Chinese rather than Chinese American or simply American) creates concerning repercussions: “As readers construct [The Woman Warrior] exclusively as a Chinese one, they conflate Kingston’s [Chinese American] sensibility with the Chinese one and cannot recognize the importance of critiquing U.S. institutional racism” (Shu 207). Therefore “American” has unofficially become synonymous with “white,” “Christian,” and often “upper class.” The rest of the works that fall out of these categories, most likely the majority of physical literary works that have been published in America, are thrown into metaphorical trash piles or confined within literary slums. Thus, more is demanded from minority authors, especially Chinese American authors, in efforts to assert themselves on the American stage.
Hong Kingston ambly fulfills this demand. In a paradoxical blending of “Chinese” and “American” that retains the individuality of each, she destroys a perceived necessity of cultural dominance over narrative, consequently redefining the American label for literature. The American Canon is not just reformulated but broken apart altogether, as it is revealed to be a Westernized institution that perpetualizes systemic racism and violent pedagogy. The antidote to these poisons lies in paradox and coexistence.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. Vintage International, 1976.
Lee, Erika. “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 21, no. 3, 2002, pp. 36–62. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27502847. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
Schultermandl, Silvia. “(Breaking out of) the ‘Literary Ghetto’: Where to Place Asian American Writers, Or De-Essentializing Canon Formation.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), vol. 14, no. 2, 2008, pp. 287–302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41274431. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
Shu, Yuan. “Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston’s ‘Woman Warrior.’” MELUS, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001, pp. 199–223. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3185525. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.