Maxine Hong Kingston burst onto the scene of literary production
in 1976 with her bestselling book The Woman Warrior,
winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.
In this autobiography, Kingston narrates her experience growing
up as a Chinese-American woman who must not only search for
an identity but must also learn to carry the burden of her
family's secrets. This silence plays an important part in
shaping Kingston's attitude, behavior, and character. Indeed,
the struggle against silence forms the very core of the book.
Women, striving to find a voice in the midst of the turbulent
feminist movement, related--whether they were Chinese-American
or not--to this important theme.
Kingston uses the story of her aunt, No Name Woman, to show
us the cumbersome weight of the family secrets. In a story
reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter,
No Name Woman gives birth outside of wedlock and, wracked
with shame, throws herself into the family well.
Kingston's mother, also full of shame, commands her daughter
not to tell anyone the story of her aunt: "Don't tell
anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear
her name. She was never born." No Name Woman tainted
the family name, so her family punishes her by erasing her
Of course, Kingston's mother tells her daughter this story
to warn the girl of the results of sexual promiscuity and
of bringing shame upon the family. To Kingston, however, the
story is much more than a cautionary tale. It is one of the
secrets she must carry as part of her, a reason to live in
silence. By taking part in her aunt's punishment (by remaining
silent, erasing the trace), unfortunately, Kingston also punishes
herself by silencing her own voice.
Even years later, as a grown woman, Kingston is afraid to
tell secrets, fearful of the repercussions:
My aunt haunts me--her ghost drawn to me because now,
fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to
not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she
means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite
drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are
very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost,
hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to
pull down a
Although Kingston does not literally take her aunt's place,
she does wrestle with the same burden of secrecy and silence.
In telling the story of her aunt in a book, however, Kingston
has struck a balance between silence and revelation. She finds
a space between the two by writing the story instead
of speaking it.
Ghosts are not the only things suppressing Kingston's voice,
however. A lack of understanding from others also grieves
Kingston when she tries to speak. Never encouraged to give
voice to her thoughts and opinions, she becomes terrified
of speaking aloud.
When she speaks in school, for example, Kingston only receives
misunderstanding in return: "I remember telling the Hawaiian
teacher, 'We Chinese can't sing 'land where our father died.'
She argued with me about politics, while I meant because of
curses." Kingston, misunderstood again and again, learns
to keep quiet. By repressing her voice, she forms a protective
barrier around herself, which places her in a space entirely
separate from the culture that undermines her sense of self-worth.
Although silence is a lonely and miserable escape, Kingston
decides it is better than the humiliation she expects when
When in the American community, Kingston is misunderstood;
in the Chinese community, she feels that her voice is merely
a commodity used for her mother's benefit. Her mother forces
her to translate to non-Chinese speakers, a process which
usually results in our narrator's embarrassment. Her mother
simply does not understand the differences between American
and Chinese culture.
In one especially humiliating moment, Kingston is forced
to go to the local drugstore in order to demand candy as reparation
for a misdelivered package. She tries to explain to her mother
that the people who work at the drugstore do not understand
the old Chinese superstition, but her mother dismisses her
arguments and forces her out the door. Kingston states:
You can't entrust your own voice to the Chinese either;
they want to
capture your own voice for their own use. They want to fix
tongue to speak for them. "How much can you sell it
for?" we have
to say. Talk the Sales Ghosts down.
Kingston is angry with the Chinese community for using their
children as translating instruments. At her mother's insensitive
command, the daughter has become a stammering mediator between
a culture that cannot understand her and another that refuses
to validate her voice as her own.
Although she is resentful of being used, Kingston accepts
her fate silently. She loses her will in the face of her mother's
constant commands, and the role as translator becomes the
daughter's identity as she loses her voice--drowned out, as
it were, by the demands of others.
In addition to the heavy role she must play for her family,
Kingston must also shoulder the burden of secrets that her
culture places upon her. She exclaims that she "hated
the secrecy of the Chinese." The silence she lives with
creates a constant "pain in [her] throat." Kingston
finally decides that she wants to be rid of the silence and
prepares a speech for her mother, but her mother has neither
the patience nor the sensitivity to listen to her daughter:
"I can't stand this whispering," she said looking
right at me,
stopping her squeezing. "Senseless gabbings every night.
you would stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering,
making no sense. Madness. I don't feel like hearing your
Kingston's sense of identity and self-worth swirl down the
drain of her mother's selfishness. Once again, our narrator's
attempts to speak out and fight the silence that smothers
her are met with coldness and hostility. Kingston becomes
more estranged from her mother and frustrated with herself.
Although Kingston becomes powerless in the face of her controlling
mother, the daughter's resentment and pent-up anger find release
with another silent Chinese girl. Kingston, in fact, sees
herself reflected in this reserved and socially awkward peer.
I hated the younger sister, the quiet one. I hated when
she was the
the last chosen for her team and I, the last chosen for
my team. I
hated her for the Chinese doll hair cut. I hated her at
music time for
the wheeze that came out of her plastic flute.
Kingston's disgust with her own fears and insecurities causes
her to lash out at the girl in frustration, demanding that
she speak. Our silent narrator has become a bully, a role
that only increases her own self-hatred.
Fortunately and finally, the cumulative effect of these experiences
push Kingston over the edge, and she decides to break free
of the social forces that constrain her:
I'm going to college. And I'm not going to Chinese school
I'm going to run for office at American school, and I'm
going to join
clubs. I'm going to get enough offices and clubs on my records
get into college.
Fed up with being strangulated by silence, Kingston rebels
and is able to find her voice in her desire to escape. Emboldened
by anger and frustration, she finally relieves the pain in
her throat by speaking her mind.
By the end of the book, Kingston has become the "woman
warrior" of the Chinese legend. Her self-assurance is
her shield, and her voice is her sword. With these weapons,
she is able to defeat her adversary--a past full of secrets
and a society that demands silence.
Herein lies the secret of The Woman Warrior's incredible
success. Women in the 1970s, wading through the second wave
of the feminist movement, needed and craved the very role
model that Maxine Hong Kingston provided.