Speech—talking about what is left unspoken or what might be made up—is considered across the distinct sections of The Woman Warrior. In the last of these, “A Song for Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Maxine Hong Kingston mentions that her mother cut her tongue when she was a baby. She says it so matter-of-factly that you might have done a double take and read the sentences again: Did she really just say that? She did: “Maybe that’s why my mother cut my tongue. She pushed my tongue up and sliced the frenum. Or maybe she snipped it with a pair of nail scissors. I don’t remember her doing it.”
Kingston’s memoir is a work of deep imagination, but there are gaps in her memory and in her family history. Lurking in the background is an ever-present awareness that things might have happened differently than she remembers, than her mother remembers. Memoir, it seems, is an act of storytelling, of reconstruction, not an authoritative recitation of facts.
Even her interpretation of cultural practices is infused with double meanings, contradictory meanings. In one moment, Kingston remarks, “The Chinese say ‘a ready tongue is an evil.’” The text slips into her examination of her own tongue, and her efforts to compare her own tongue with other people’s. Notwithstanding her mother’s claim, hers doesn’t look cut.
Recalling her shifting interpretation of what may or may not have happened to her, Kingston writes, “Sometimes I felt very proud that my mother committed such a powerful act upon me.” The sentence is startling, discomfiting, unexpected, perhaps making us laugh, partly baffled, partly intrigued, partly empathetic toward the child that Kingston once was.
When Kingston queries her mother about the tongue-cutting, however, her mother’s reasoning is slippery, as complicated as Kingston’s own response to it. Her mother explains,
“I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak languages that are different from one another.… Your frenum looked too tight to do those things, so I cut it.”
Kingston’s mother repeatedly reveals that she is attentive to cultural difference around speech. Confronted by her daughter’s mention of the traditional Chinese saying that decries easy speech, the mother explains, “Things are different in this ghost country.”
Kingston probes her mother further, but before we can sink too deeply into this interrogation, her mother reverts. Her blunt, unresponsive sentence, another question, seems to reassert the Chinese saying her daughter had asked about: “Why don’t you quit blabbering and get to work?”
And later, Kingston attributes her own storytelling to the tongue her mother loosened despite her mother’s admonition in the first sentence of the memoir, “You must not tell anyone.”
But Kingston does tell. She explains, “Maybe because I was the one with the tongue cut loose, I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat.” The climax of the memoir circles around her refusal to keep her emotions bottled up any longer.
Acutely honest conversations between family members with different aims are part of what makes The Woman Warrior an absorbing read. We are delighted to announce that novelist James Janko will be joining Kingston and California Book Club host John Freeman in conversation as our special guest at the gathering on October 21. Janko is the author of Buffalo Boy and Geronimo and The Clubhouse Thief. Buffalo Boy and Geronimo is an antiwar novel that received a starred Kirkus review. The reviewer summed up the novel as “pervasively melancholy, folkloric in approach…sustained by prose that is often lyrical, though never self-conscious.”
The book also received an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Poetry/Prose and a Northern California Book Award. The Clubhouse Thief won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for the Novel and the silver medal for Best Regional Fiction in the Great Lakes from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. In an interview with the Massachusetts Review, Janko noted how he was influenced by Kingston’s National Book Award–winning China Men, a sequel to The Woman Warrior that focuses on Kingston’s male family members. Janko served as a medic during the Vietnam War but protested further military action by returning his medals to the U.S. government in protest. Those experiences colored his novels.
The conversation among Kingston, Freeman, and Janko is bound to raise intriguing questions of gender and what it might mean to be a warrior, as well as of speech and actions to protest war and our efforts to make narrative sense of our experiences and those of others.
- When: Thursday, October 21, at 5 p.m. Pacific time.
- Where: Click here to join the Zoom event.
- Author questions: Please send your questions for Kingston to email@example.com. You can also submit them using Zoom’s chat feature after the event begins.
- Special treat: We will be giving away five author-signed copies of The Woman Warrior following the program.
Thank you very much, and see you on Thursday!•
REPRESENTATIONS OF FAMILIES
From the nuances of a transracial adoption to a granddaughter who is supposed to keep secret that she is saying goodbye to her grandmother who is dying, here are nine recent literary, film, and TV representations of Asian American families and their intergenerational tensions. —Alta
FRIENDSHIP IN LOS ANGELES
Critic and frequent Alta contributor Heather Scott Partington analyzes Judith Freeman’s fifth novel, MacArthur Park, in which two friends, who are opposites, take a road trip together. The novel considers complex tensions between women’s obligations and freedoms. —Alta
EPIC STORY OF A SONG
Sony Pictures Classics has taken most global rights to Bay Area filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary about a beloved poet and songwriter, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. The documentary was inspired by Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’ —Deadline
Histories of the Bay Area’s punk houses take center stage in Jeanne M. Hansen’s photography exhibition at the San Francisco Main Library and in Elizabeth Whitney’s Instagram account. Hansen has written a book about thriving punk communities that will be on sale at the exhibit, while Whitney is working on one. —San Francisco Chronicle
Jean Chen Ho, the author of the forthcoming debut novel Fiona and Jane, which is about a friendship, writes about recently losing one of her best friends to suicide and not having words to capture her feelings of loss but finding images. —Los Angeles Times
Terry Tempest Williams, Colum McCann, Chris Dombrowski, and Chris La Tray will read and discuss Jim Harrison’s poetry at the Montana Book Festival on October 26 at 6 p.m. MDT. The virtual event is free. —Montana Book Festival
Documents show that Amazon India’s private-brands team may have used internal, proprietary data from Amazon.in, including information about customer returns, to replicate products sold by other companies and then manipulated search results to favor its own products. —Reuters
BOOKSELLING IN END TIMES
Stephen Sparks, the owner of Point Reyes Books, explores insights about selling print books before and during the pandemic. In one section, he notes that “the resurgence of bookselling over the past ten years owes much to a desire to remain connected in a fragmenting world.” —The Believer
Bay Area novelist Lillian Howan’s unsettling flash fiction considers a mysterious package left on the front porch of an empty American house in French Polynesia.—Museum of Americana
CALIFORNIA PROFESSORS RECOGNIZED
UC Berkeley’s David Card, author of pioneering books such as Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage, won the Nobel Prize in Economics along with Stanford economist Guido Imbens and an MIT professor. —UC Berkeley School of Law
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