Maxine Hong Kingston Is the California Book Club’s Next Author

This week’s newsletter: A close read of the opening of The Woman Warrior suggests the family secrets and Chinese folklore to come.

maxine hong kingston, woman warrior
Vintage Books

Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, published in 1976, is a riveting ghost story. From its disturbing yet magnetic opening sentences, it announces a haunting that we, Kingston’s readers, are definitely not supposed to hear about.

“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. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”

The opening conjures a mystery for the daughter, and us, to solve. Not only has the family decided not to talk about the suicide, but they erased the aunt’s existence entirely, leaving only male members of her family. And we’re piqued by this secret, which, for some of us, is framed in a familiar way: a parent telling the story of family in the foreign country of the past.

Intrigued, placed in almost the same position as the daughter, we want to know more. Who is the aunt and why does she haunt Kingston? Who is the mother? Why is she telling her daughter this story? Despite Kingston’s masterful creation of suspense within the opening pages, this is not a linear memoir. It is not a progression in which event A causes event B, which causes event C, which causes event D, moving into the future. Instead, Kingston moves in a more associative manner through time and place, circling and embellishing her mother’s talk story—a Chinese oral tradition—to explore imagined points of view.

Contradictions in stories are embraced rather than explained away. Early in the book, Kingston remarks, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” And her language signals her efforts to find her own voice, a singular style. As her mother tells it, as a lead-up to the aunt throwing herself in a well, in 1924, the village had

“celebrated seventeen hurry-up weddings—to make sure that every young man who went ‘out on the road’ would responsibly come home—your father and his brothers and your grandfather and his brothers and your aunt’s new husband sailed for America, the Gold Mountain.”

“Hurry-up weddings” is an interesting construction. Within its unexpected syntax and its use of “hurry-up” as an adjective are the mother’s speech patterns, as well as a clue into social conditions that lead to the aunt becoming a ghost. Hurry-up weddings were rushed weddings not born of romance. They were, instead, designed to ensure the return of young men who’d sailed away to make their fortunes in gold in California. Yet there is no reference to panning in the creeks, the more literal image tied to gold rushers. Instead, with the image of a “mountain,” Kingston’s mother calls attention to the ambition of these young men and their desire to transcend the material circumstances of their humble upbringings. It is when her husband is gone that Kingston’s aunt becomes pregnant by an extramarital rape and the villagers, for whom food and resources are limited, find out.

After a raid by villagers, Kingston’s aunt gives birth. Suffering deeply, she throws herself and her baby into a well. She turns into lore, a cautionary tale. As in many families, you don’t talk about it, not only because of the shame around sex and suicide but also, Kingston speculates, as a way of continuing to punish her for her transgression, even after her death.

And yet the aunt lingers, a revenant, across an ocean and 50 years into the future. After relating the violence of the villagers, Kingston’s mother gives her own reasons for telling her daughter the story, a warning: “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us.”

There are stories we tell, and stories we don’t, stories that slip by in silence, and stories like ghosts that haunt us for all our days. Which of these specters of the past do we tell about and what do we do about our own shifting interpretations of what people in the past must have felt, or even what happened, when there are certain silences around the facts? One of the beautiful elements of Kingston’s memoir is its assumption that we are composed not only of our own memories but also of the stories of others. While Kingston was telling her own truth, her memoir was an invitation to many to ask the questions and tell what we were told not to reveal, to imagine our way into paradoxes at an angle.

We hope you savor this bold, inventively told memoir, now a classic. Sign up for the upcoming California Book Club gathering with Kingston to discuss The Woman Warrior on October 21. As you continue to read the book, we invite you to discuss it with the California Book Club community in the Alta Clubhouse.

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Alta

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