Maxine Hong Kingston opens her 1976 debut, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, with an admonition: “ ‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said.” It’s as audacious a beginning—to a book and a career—as I know, both for what it signals, the intention to share the secrets, and for its abiding faith in the potency of not only myth and memory but also words. The Woman Warrior is a tour de force; it helped establish memoir as a literary genre. Yet more essentially, in its five impressionistic chapters, Kingston uses talk story—a fluid, improvisational approach to narrative in which meaning accrues through retelling—to highlight the flexibility, or elusiveness, of narrative, reframing both her family and her own history in Stockton through an unexpected and empathetic lens.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
The opening section of the memoir, “No Name Woman,” offers a striking case in point. Here, Kingston shares the saga of her father’s unnamed sister, who bore a child out of wedlock while still living in the family’s ancestral Chinese village and drowned herself and the baby in a well. This is the story Kingston’s mother doesn’t want her to tell. “Whenever she had to warn us about life,” the author notes, “my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities.” The catalyst here is that Kingston’s younger self has “started to menstruate,” which means that “what happened to her could happen to you.” A cautionary tale, in other words, about the dangers of the female body.
Kingston, however, understands that stories serve not only to reclaim but also to empower, which she illustrates by presenting this one three times. In the first instance, it is as her mother recalls it. In the second, it is to conjecture that her aunt may have been raped. The third, however, imagines her aunt as “a wild woman,” free with her body and her sensuality. “My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her…. I do not think she always means me well,” Kingston writes.
Here, we see the power of the memoir—both The Woman Warrior and the form itself. In retelling her aunt’s story, Kingston makes room for all the other narratives. She creates a place for herself. What is the balance between memory and imagination? The question sits at the center of this astonishing book. In The Woman Warrior, Kingston gives depth and breadth to a series of extraordinary lives.•