Introduction to The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston
August 9, 2011
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This month we’re going to be reading The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in addition to working our way through the rest of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I hope that some of you, like me, enjoy taking short breaks from such long, dense books to revitalize our reading brains, and that this month’s overlap will offer inclusion to those who have decided to skip The Second Sex (or have already read it) with no added pressure!
The Woman Warrior was written in 1975 and blends memoir with Chinese folktale to portray the experience of Chinese-Americans in the wake of the Chinese revolution. According to wikipedia, the book has remained controversial since its publication as many have contested its portrayal of both Chinese culture and Chinese-Americans. Kingston has been accused of simplifying people and history into stereotype so that her work would be more easily received by a Western audience, and one reviewer thought it “too mainstream American feminist” (to be believable? for his taste? I’m not sure). In 1982 Kingston responded to her critics with an essay in which she asks why she must be held responsible for representing all of China or the entire Chinese literary tradition in the telling of her own story.
I think the questions of cultural authenticity that have fueled criticism of this book are interesting in that they are an indication of marginalization. Though individual white male authors in the U.S. are sometimes lauded for writing “the great American novel” or accurately capturing the “American spirit”, or whatever, it does not seem to me that this is the standard to which all white male authors in the U.S. are held. They are allowed to write as individuals as a function of privilege, whereas members of marginalized communities are seen only as members of those communities and not as individuals, and thus face the increased expectation of accurately representing all of their history and culture.* This seems, to me, an impossible burden and a set-up for almost inevitable failure.
Despite the criticism, though, The Woman Warrior has remained immensely popular and is taught in a variety of academic settings. The Modern Language Association, in fact, has named it the most frequently taught text in modern university education, which was a surprise to me as I have yet to come across this book in my classes. I am newly interested in “creative nonfiction” and am looking forward to learning about how Kingston has experienced girlhood as a Chinese-American and the ways in which she locates herself and her personal history in the context of 20th century events and timeless mythology.
Discussion questions will appear next week!
*This seems to work a bit differently with gender. Instead of the expectation that women should represent all of womanhood in their writing, the expectation for women writers seems to be that they should somehow transcend their gender in their writing so as to be “un-gendered” which, as we have seen in Beauvoir’s work, masculinity is assumed to be, and therefore more acceptable for a mixed-gender audience. Otherwise, they’re filed away under “chick-lit”. What do you think?