Finding ‘The Woman Warrior’ Among the Paperbacks

Author May-lee Chai recognizes herself in books for the first time in Maxine Hong Kingston’s groundbreaking memoir of Asian American girlhood, the October 2021 selection of the California Book Club.

the woman warrior, maxine hong kingston, paperback covers

I didn’t find Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior until I was in college, and its words startled me. I’d never read a story like it. In fact, from kindergarten to high school, I was assigned only one text written by or about an Asian American. That story, whose name I no longer recall, was set in the 1950s in Washington, D.C. When I saw it in my elementary school language arts reader, I was hopeful. It bore a brightly colored illustration: two characters, a mother and a daughter, who appeared East Asian, walking on a busy city sidewalk, the mother’s black hair permed stylishly. My pulse quickened and I leaned forward, as though moving closer to the book would allow me to join the characters on the page.

But the story went straight to hell. The narrator details how she hates her mother’s accent when she speaks “broken English.” The central plot point is how an embarrassing immigrant mother “saves the day” because she knows how to fix the heel of the shoe of a wealthy white woman who trips on the sidewalk. Look how useful my mom is, the narrator glows as the mother bows and hands the white woman the repaired shoe.

Shame seeped into my bones as we read this story aloud in class. My classmates seemed mainly bored and barely reacted as the teacher explained the words she’d chosen for our coming spelling quiz. I was relieved at least that they hadn’t particularly liked the story, but my heart continued to pound inside my chest. Was this how people imagined I felt about my family, about my Chinese immigrant father, my uncles, my grandparents? Was this how other people saw them? Saw me? I couldn’t name this feeling, only recognize it, like symptoms of the flu, the same symptoms I’d felt when I’d seen a Bugs Bunny television cartoon in which Bugs portrays a Japanese soldier with bucked-out teeth and glasses that give him squinty eyes. My mouth had turned dry, my stomach queasy, and it happened again reading the single story about Asian Americans I’d read up to that point.

Why couldn’t the characters have an adventure like the white people we read about, the people who weren’t called “white” but “Americans”? But I had no words yet to express my rage, just the feeling of flames, hot and deathly white, in my heart.

After the dearth in my K–12 education, I spotted The Woman Warrior faceup on a table of paperbacks in my college bookstore. I was attracted by the deep maroon cover featuring a Chinese woman’s face made up of dramatic brushstrokes. It hadn’t been assigned in any of my classes, but I bought it to satisfy my own curiosity.

From the opening line, I was hooked: “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself.’” I identified with this narrator, this voice, this woman mulling over family secrets. I knew my own grandmother had left behind a niece in China. It was a story my father had told us in whispers after a fight in a restaurant with family that had ended in shouts and my grandmother’s tears. A memory had been triggered, and then the recriminations had followed. Clearly pained, my father refused to go into many details on the long, tired drive home from Manhattan; there were only the refrains of “the war” and “Nai-nai thought a girl would be too hard to protect” and “It’s too late.”

As I read, devoured, inhaled, absorbed, lived Kingston’s chapters, an entirely new feeling washed over me: a sense of recognition, followed immediately by the even stranger sensation of being seen.

The girl who dreamed of becoming Fa Mu Lan and avenging her parents to prove her filial piety (“It’s not just the stupid racists that I have to do something about, but the tyrants who for whatever reason can deny my family food and work”), yes!

The girl who beats up her own doppelgänger in the school lavatory: “I hated her when she was the last chosen for her team and I, the last chosen for my team. I hated her for her China doll haircut. I hated her at music time for the wheezes that came out of her plastic flute.”

How did this writer know how I felt? I wondered. It had never happened before. My shame, my rage, my awkwardness, my ignorance, my imagination, my secret desire to be heroic and powerful and knowledgeable and acknowledged. I couldn’t believe that someone else had felt this way, all these unvoiced embarrassing emotions, and found a way to describe them incandescently on the page.

These were the words I had longed for as a girl to express my feelings. Found at last. As I finished the last chapter, something tight and painful binding my heart released. The loneliness of never reading words that mirrored my inner life lifted. In place of that: joy.

To everyone reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, whether for the first time or the hundredth-something time, relish this feeling of recognition, this naming of what has been too long silenced.•

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.

May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, which won a 2019 American Book Award.
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