Memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston Inspired a Generation of Writers

In this week’s newsletter, read an excerpt from The Woman Warrior, a personal essay about an author recognizing herself in books for the first time, and an examination of the legendary Fa Mu Lan.

gerrye wong and san jose councilmember raul peralez hold the city’s resolution apologizing for its treatment of chinese americans in front of the san jose art museum on wednesday september 29, 2021 in san jose, california
Bay City News; History San Jose

We hope you’re finding Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, our California Book Club selection for October, as perceptive and as innovative as we do. The memoir explores gender and race. Some of that exploration is deeply painful, but crucial to understanding where we are now.

In a time of rising, disturbing anti–Asian American racism and violence during the pandemic, the book is a reminder of how long and intensely that history has existed in California and the country at large. It eventually led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers. Eventually, new laws were passed to exclude all Asian people from immigration, citizenship, and land ownership.

It has been more than 100 years since a suspicious fire was set in its Chinatown, displacing 1,400 people. On September 28, 2021, the City of San Jose provided a long-overdue official apology to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for the city’s role in systemic xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. San Jose is the largest American city to provide an official apology to Chinese Americans.

Imagine what it would be like to come of age in a California and a country that promised certain groups it would make all their dreams come true, while telling you that you were suspect and that violence against you meant nothing to the broader culture. Imagine that the home in which you’d lived all your life was denied to you and you were told to look elsewhere.

As Kingston writes:

My American life has been such a disappointment.
“I got straight A’s, Mama.”
“Let me tell you a true story about a girl who saved her village.”
I could not figure out what was my village.

And yet the figure of the woman warrior and the stories of Fa Mu Lan hold tremendous power, even today. In the memoir, Kingston untangles the influence of her mother’s stories of Fa Mu Lan. According to researchers, there are more than 12 versions of her story. Kingston maps the intersection of that legend and her own family’s history.

While the book repudiates certain cultural practices, it also sheds light on the history of Asian America. As Kingston puts it, “From the fairy tales, I’ve learned exactly who the enemy are. I easily recognize them—business-suited in their modern American executive guise, each boss two feet taller than I am and impossible to meet eye to eye.”

This week, we’re proud to present two personal, literary essays by authors you should read when you finish The Woman Warrior. Author May-lee Chai (Useful Phrases for Immigrants) writes sensitively about the dearth of Asian American literature when she was growing up and delicately maps her own powerful emotional shift when she recognized herself in Kingston’s memoir as an adult. Perceptive author Vanessa Hua (A River of Stars) writes vividly about the figure of the woman warrior over centuries and how Kingston’s feminist retelling opened the door for a generation of celebrated Asian American writers, including herself.

And if you haven’t started The Woman Warrior yet, read an excerpt from our October selection, as well as a lovely literary essay in which Alta’s books editor, David L. Ulin, tells us why we should read the memoir, too.•

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 memoir, Asian American literature, and the figure of The Woman Warrior.

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fa mulan
HISTORY GIRLS

FOLKLORE

Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, writes about the figure of the woman warrior in Chinese folk ballads and legends and how she appears in Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir. —Alta


woman warrior, maxine hong kingston
Vintage Books

OPENING

An excerpt from the beginning of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir hints at the personal, family, community, and cultural storytelling to come. —Alta


woman warrior paperback covers
Alta

RECOGNITION OF SELF

May-lee Chai, author of Useful Phrases for Immigrants, writes of the dearth of Asian American literature while she was growing up and of seeing herself for the first time in The Woman Warrior. —Alta


maxine hong kingston
Michael Lionstar

READ THIS

Our books editor, David L. Ulin, recommends you read The Woman Warrior. He calls it a “tour de force that helped establish memoir as a literary genre.” —Alta


inter state, josé vadi
Soft Skull

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON

Sophia Stewart reviews José Vadi’s complex collection, Inter State. Vadi addresses California’s “spotty ‘collective memory’” and the state’s ahistoricism, exacerbated by the pricing-out of longtime residents. —Alta


alta contributor books
Alta

VOICES OF ALTA

Are you hoping to read books by authors of the West or about the striking experiences lived in a heterogeneous region? Of course you are. As we ready for holiday gift-giving, here are 83 books by Alta’s wonderful contributors you should consider. —Alta


october book picks
Alta

13 OCTOBER RELEASES

Read these 13 October releases. Among our recommendations, Angela Davis and her coauthors’ Abolition. Feminism. Now.; Bryant Terry’s Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora; Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon; and Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses. —Alta


freedom to discriminate, gene slater
Heyday Books

FREEDOM TO EXCLUDE

In Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America, Gene Slater argues that California’s real estate brokers segregated residences and used the American conception of “freedom” to rally support around Proposition 14. —Los Angeles Review of Books


winchester mystery house
GETTY IMAGES

HAUNTED HOUSE

Alta Journal contributor Joy Lanzendorfer questions the paucity of dark representations of the California Victorian mansion in fiction. She considers Shirley Jackson and the Winchester Mystery House. Los Angeles Review of Books


giving birth in the end times
Lucy Jones

HOPE

Novelist Emily Holleman writes a profound essay about evacuating her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains due to the California wildfires and giving birth during what felt like an apocalypse. Motherhood requires optimism. —The Cut


litquake
LITQUAKE

GLIMPSE INTO TOMORROW

Interviews with its cofounder Jack Boulware and novelist Nayomi Munaweera, both based in the Bay Area, suggest that there are more reasons than usual to attend this year’s Litquake. Among the appearances will be Natalie Baszile and Tommy Orange. —East Bay Express


zyzzyva fall 2021 issue
ZYZZYVA

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Esteemed California-based literary magazine Zyzzyva released Issue 121 last week. Its theme is family and included are contributions from authors Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Victoria Redel, and Bethany Ball and an interview with Jonathan Franzen. —Zyzzyva


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Alta

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