‘One of the Best I’ve Read in Years’: Critics on ‘The Woman Warrior’

At a time when few Asian American stories gained recognition, Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir astounded readers and was met with admiration as well as exoticizing reviews.

maxine hong kingston, woman warrior
Lacy Atkins

The Woman Warrior is a crucial part of the California literary canon. As the California Book Club’s October selection, it will be discussed on October 21. The 1976 book, which is an astonishing blend of memoir and fairy tale, established Maxine Hong Kingston, at the time an English teacher in Hawaii, as a force of a writer. The newspaper critics of the day wrote pages of praise, describing it as fierce, fascinating, engrossing, vivid, brilliant.

It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 1976. As John Leonard, the editor of the New York Times Book Review at the time, put it, “a remarkable book has been quietly published; it is one of the best I’ve read in years.”

The Woman Warrior plays with chronology, reality and fiction, retelling and metaphor, bending the category of memoir about as far as it will go without breaking into novel. “This is an engrossing, sometimes shocking, feast of myth and remembrance,” Elizabeth Pomada of the San Francisco Examiner wrote in her review, noting the book’s balance of “yesterday meeting today.”

Critics attended to Kingston’s compelling voice, her passion and urgency in telling of her life. “She writes as though she needs to set down on paper the desperate forces that warred within her as a Chinese girl in an adopted country,” Alison Higgens of the Sacramento Bee wrote shortly after the book was released. Pomada called Kingston’s writing “passionate, savage, penetrating.” Similarly, in the New York Times, Leonard described the book as “fierce intelligence, all sinew, prowling among the emotions.” But Kingston’s passion reflects her restraint as a writer. She avoids the sentimentality common to memoirs of the day, especially those recounting youth. “In stark detail Kingston leads the reader through scenes of her childhood, without ever once giving in to sentimental rambling,” Higgens wrote.

The Woman Warrior is the oldest book selected thus far by the California Book Club. Unsurprisingly, then, its critical reception not only cheered its bold strokes but also reflected the often racist interpretations afforded to Chinese American authors. Critics conflated great writing and unique storytelling with otherness rather than talent. “Mythic forces flood the book,” Margaret Manning wrote in the Boston Globe, “but they have their own strange and brooding atmosphere inscrutably foreign, oriental.” Even some of the most favorable reviews treated the book, about a California girlhood, as foreign: “Here is a fascinating look at a childhood inherently different from most of ours, and one which most people don’t even think to wonder about,” Higgens wrote.

In response to her critics, Kingston published a sharp essay in 1982 in the journal Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue. Titled “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” it blasted critics. “It is up to the writer to transcend trendy categories,” she wrote. “I had not calculated how blinding stereotyping is, how stupefying. The critics who said how the book was good because it was, or was not, like the oriental fantasy in their heads might as well have said how weak it was, since it in fact did not break through that fantasy.” She pointed out instances of racism and exoticism in reviews from papers across the country. “I have a horrible feeling that it is not self-evident to many Caucasian Americans why these reviews are offensive,” she wrote.

Yet Kingston’s memoir endured long past these early reviews. Taught in many classes, The Woman Warrior became a cornerstone of American literature, particularly California literature. It continues to receive recognition on publishing anniversaries, over four decades later. As Vanessa Hua said in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2017, and reiterated in her recent essay for the California Book Club, Kingston “has inspired a generation of writers, and will inspire generations more.”•

Be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss The Woman Warrior with Maxine Hong Kingston on October 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific. To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Clubhouse to discuss the book.

Jessica Blough is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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