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Challenging the Canon: How Maxine Hong Kingston Narrates Nonfiction with Ghosts and Talk-Story

About the Author: Nehali Patel

Nehali Patel is a rising Senior at the University of Maryland. She is currently studying English and Anthropology and hopes to continue her education after graduating to pursue teaching in higher education.

By Nehali Patel | General Essays

In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston writes a “memoir of a girlhood among ghosts” by piecing together cultural myths and personal experiences to develop her sense of self. Her novel challenges the genre of memoir, as it includes elements of fiction and often deviates from her own life. Kingston’s literary and stylistic choices are significant in that they convey her unique, intersectional position. As a female child of immigrants, her identity is full of contradictions, where her Chinese upbringing challenges her American lifestyle, and her femaleness challenges her voice as a writer. To navigate this positionality, Kingston uses fiction and cultural myths to capture a female voice that can accurately and authentically present her experience of life. In referencing the many woman warriors before her, or those women whose efforts allow for female presence to be recognized and remembered, Kingston creates a community of women that help her determine and celebrate her identity as a female minority.

In utilizing elements of fiction in her memoir, Kingston is one of many female writers that resorts to nontraditional forms of writing to portray the experiences of women. In her piece “Authorizing Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Allende's The House of the Spirits,” critic Ruth Jenkins closely examines the ways Kingston uses myths and ghosts to preserve the female voice. Jenkins suggests that Kingston’s use of ghosts in her memoir provides her with an “authority…to articulate an alternative from those endorsed by patriarchal culture” (62-63). In this case, Kingston’s writing challenges the canon “because the evaluative standards that form the canon privilege an Anglo-androcentric realism,” and “stories of female experience as well as those representing other cultures are [as a result] excluded, devalued, or quickly categorized as another instance of ‘magical’ prose” (63). Thus, her chief task in writing this memoir is to circumvent the Anglo-androcentric canon that prioritizes realism and condemns nonrealistic fiction. She does so by presenting the reality she knows—that which calls upon predominantly female-centric cultural myths and ghosts that guide her in life. The use of the supernatural, for Kingston, is drawn from the talk-stories of females that she hears from her family. Talk-story is typically understood as oral tradition, but Kingston’s memoir preserves them in text. These stories, however, only become codified as fiction because Kingston must imbue them with details that have been left out. In this way, the ghosts in Kingston’s narrative are simply women that have become silenced. Using ghosts, then, allows Kingston to retrieve the voices of females from talk-stories in order to authorize her own female voice to create her personal account of life.

Parents pass these talk-stories down to their children through word of mouth, which makes each one incredibly vulnerable to slight alterations and adjustments based on the speaker. In “No Name Woman,” Kingston’s mother censors the story: Kingston writes that “my mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity” (6). Her mother also removes significant parts of the story, such as the aunt’s name, or how she became pregnant. Kingston’s mother orally transmits the story, but warns Kingston that she “must not tell anyone” (3). The nameless aunt’s inability to have a story, to even have a name, necessitates Kingston’s writings. Her aunt is a ghost, haunting, but guiding, the memoir’s purpose. This first story signifies Kingston’s commitment to revealing the authentic experiences of ghosts, or women that have been silenced, especially through talk-story. She writes: “My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her” (16). In granting the talk-stories a written place, Kingston crystallizes the experiences of women and produces a space in the canon for herself to write a memoir.

Although Kingston deviates from the oral tradition of talk-story, she maintains the female-centric quality of these stories. According to critic Marjorie Lightfoot, Kingston’s memoir mimics the construction of talk-story, which “moves backward and forward in time and moves from subject to subject at will” (56). Thus, Kingston’s narrative style reflects non-linear ways of telling stories, which Lightfoot argues can be seen in the five chapters of the memoir that are not written chronologically by time, but “psychologically arranged to reveal how her individual vision evolved” (59). Writing in a way that is not chronological and that is guided both by fictitious and factual information challenges the ways the Western, androcentric canon receives literature, but it is a strategy that Kingston must employ in order to authentically portray her experience of life. As such, talk-story contrasts Western canon and is itself writing that captures female realism, or writing that I refer to as female writing. Kingston’s memoir has an authority, then, that cannot be challenged because there can be no telling what is fact and what is fiction in her female writing: “reality is part actual, part fantasy, and that dividing line is often obscure” (58). The reader must abandon previously held notions about reality in order to accept Kingston’s presentation of her own, personal reality. The chapter “White Tigers” exemplifies this notion of personal inscription within a cultural myth. Kingston presents the fable of Fa Mu Lan, but inserts herself into the story as the training warrior. While young Maxine did not train to fight in battles, she felt she was in the “presence of great power, [her] mother talking-story” (Kingston 20). She remembers that “this chant was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman” (20). In establishing herself as part of her mother’s talk-story about Fa Mu Lan, Kingston recognizes her place within the stories of females before her. For Kingston, it is her reality that her mother’s talk-story helped her to become the “warrior woman” she is encouraged to be. Thus, her female experience is grounded in a type of mythology cast in realism.

Kingston’s memoir is not just a literary site for her to record personal events, it is the only way she can reach out to previous generations to reclaim and rewrite the injustices made against the women in her past. She cannot do one without the other: She must first author the experiences of the ghosts (silenced women) before she can gain the personal validation she needs to legitimize her own experiences. In his piece “The Naming of the Chinese ‘I’: Cross Cultural Sign/ifications in ‘The Woman Warrior,’” David Leiwei Li describes the ways Kingston creates a Chinese-American identity through talk-story. He argues that the intersection of culture and gender contribute to the author’s forming sense of self. In referencing Kingston’s musings on the pronoun ‘I,’ he writes that “if the ‘I’ in both languages [Chinese and English] upsets the female well being, the narrator’s adoption of the given will make inevitably her susceptibility to imprisonment by the established male category” (Li 505). Thus, Kingston’s coping mechanism, to avoid this “imprisonment” is to use and reuse cultural myths that generate her sense of identity. Li suggests that Kingston reimagines the talk-story of Fa Mu Lan to be more entertaining: the story includes elements of the typical Western or cowboy plotline, and it features elements of exoticized Kung Fu movie. Though Li believes Kingston’s choice is about her need to draw the attention of a more Western audience, she actually crosses these cultures to bring about a story that is authentically hers; it reflects the very autobiographical nature of The Woman Warrior because it includes both her Chinese heritage and American upbringing. In doing so, Kingston can imagine herself, as Fa Mu Lan, who is both Chinese and American in this revision of the myth. Inscribing herself within the talk-story is a means for Kingston to reclaim the lost stories of women and to allow herself the space for her own writing.

Throughout the stories within the novel, the concept of community in Chinese culture serves as a backbone to many of the conflicts present, which informs Kingston’s ability to inscribe her experience. Li suggests that Kingston’s “public gestures and private dreams conflict and converge to weave a web of social significances that constitute her being” (498). In “No Name Woman,” Kingston reveals the prominence of communistic ideals in the villages, where her nameless aunt’s pregnancy is a drain on the community as whole because the village would have one more mouth to feed. Thus, they believe her act of adultery, which resulted in pregnancy, to be selfish. Kingston writes that “the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them,” which highlights the significance of the public sphere for the author’s Chinese ancestors (13). In response to social outcasts such as the nameless aunt, the village responds by forcing them to remain within the community, “instead of letting them start separate new lives…the Chinese family, faces averted but eyes flowering sideways, hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers” (7). This type of treatment enhances the importance of community. The nameless aunt cannot have a personal life, and in her punishment, cannot remove herself from her wrongdoing. She is restricted within the community, and her talk-story only emerges as a warning. As a female struggling to have an identity and own a personal experience, the nameless aunt becomes the ghost that Kingston frees through writing in her memoir. The attention to the Chinese value in community serves as a contrast to the American ideal of individual freedom and determination that Kingston personally experiences.

The tension associated with the public life also generates the ways Chinese culture tends to restrict women. In “At the Western Palace,” Kingston bridges the gap between China and America by writing about the experiences of her female relations—sisters Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, Moon Orchid, Kingston’s aunt, who have been separated by time and geography. In the story, Brave Orchid’s fixation on putting Moon Orchid’s family back together showcases Brave’s Chinese value of family and community but also the American idea of claiming what is yours. These two ostensibly opposite ideologies are reconciled, which works to show how the blending of two cultural identities can be achieved. Moon Orchid was not successful in her endeavors in America, but she is satisfied in the asylum where she finds a community of women. David Leiwei Li writes that Kingston’s naming practices are significant in this story. He claims that the name ‘Brave Orchid’ “can hardly be a Chinese name given its inherent contradiction in terms” (502). The name contains both male and female significations (bravery is a male concept, while the orchid flower is female). In this way, Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, breaks stereotypes, while her sister, Moon Orchid (a very traditional female name) is subject to the submissiveness of Chinese women. He writes that the naming practices are fictional elements in Kingston’s memoir, but that her mother’s name signifies the “living exemplifier of the paradoxical appellation” (502). Thus, this story is significant in that it harnesses both Chinese and American ideals in order to reveal the tension between both cultures; plus, Kingston’s fictional naming of the two women showcases her endeavor to remark on Chinese patriarchy and the strength of her mother as a woman warrior in America.

After Kingston frees her nameless aunt from the shackles of her silenced story, and fictionalizes her mother’s personal experiences, the memoirist must articulate her own Chinese-American experience. A key feature in Kingston’s development of self is speech: she finds that she has an inability to speak, which she blames on her mother. In the American school system, Kingston finds that she does not enjoy speaking, but can speak naturally in Chinese school. When she eventually gains the ability to speak in American school, Kingston bullies a young Chinese girl for also being unable to speak. The conflict that occurs in the bathroom in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” highlights the tension that Kingston faces as a result of both of her cultural identities. The young girl she bullies is the personification of Kingston’s outward struggle of her internal mental conflict. Though the memory is painful, Kingston writes on this experience to fully recognize the tensions associated with being a female child of immigrants. The memoir serves as a reflection of her personal shortcomings as a result of needing to fulfill both her American and Chinese duties. Her Chinese identity, in relation to this inability to speak, demonstrates how she struggles to find a voice in the context of being on the margins of society. In her experiences at work, she tells of racist, ignorant bosses. She writes that she “easily recognized [the enemy]-business-suited in their modern American executive guise, each boss two feet taller than I am and impossible to meet eye to eye” (Kingston 48). Unfortunately, Kingston must reconcile wanting to be valuable as a worker but also wanting to lash out at the oppressor. She is restrained within the confines of needing to blend into American society while knowing that her Chinese identity certainly still plays a role in her desire to support her culture and family. In finally articulating her own experiences, Kingston references the tensions between the two cultures she faces as a child of immigrants, and how this identity plays out in her life. Although difficult to articulate, Kingston certainly calls upon the women of the past to help her develop her memoir.

Attending to her inability to speak, Kingston relates her two identities as being founded on silence. While the Chinese community silences the stories of those that have wronged society, the West silences the experiences of non-white, non-male writers. Her emergence as a writer in the Western world is challenged by societal standards that should prevent her from attaining a voice. Despite these challenges, Kingston breaks free of traditional Chinese classification, that she is part of a single, homogenized community, and of Western principles that privilege Anglo-androcentric writing. She reclaims the stories of her fellow females and in doing so, discovers and inscribes her own personal identity. As Kingston’s narrative moves away from her distant no-name aunt and into her own childhood memories in America, there is a shift in focus from community to individual. While “No Name Aunt” is a secretive talk-story that emerged from a village, Kingston’s “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” is her individual voice bringing life to childhood events. This shift, from community to individual, can also be construed as a shift from Communist China, which values community effort and homogeny, and towards the American Dream, which idealizes individual determination and change. However, this finding should not be so simplified. In mapping out her voice upon many females, from China to America, Kingston creates a community of her own that is centered around the female experience. She creates a sense of individuality only through her formation of a female community. In doing so, she achieves an identity that is wholesomely Chinese and American, and unapologetically female. 

In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston unearths the talk-stories that have silenced female voices in order to preserve and celebrate the woman warriors in her life. As an intersectional writer, Kingston confronts her double oppression within the realm of a predominantly Anglo-androcentric literary canon. In order to establish her voice within a space that does not include such marginalized voices, Kingston utilizes elements of fiction and myth that illuminate her experiences. In her exploration of both Chinese and American values, Kingston achieves a narrative that illuminates the tension between the responsibility one has towards their culture and community and to the obligations one fulfills for themselves. The Woman Warrior, then, serves as a testament to the struggles, and successes, of forming such an identity within the margins of society.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Ruth Y. “Authorizing Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Allende's The House of the Spirits.” MELUS, vol. 19, no. 3, 1994, pp. 61–73.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. Picador Classic, 2015.

Li, David Leiwei. “The Naming of a Chinese American ‘I’: Cross-Cultural Sign/ifications in ‘The Woman Warrior.’” Criticism, vol. 30, no. 4, 1988, pp. 497-515.

Lightfoot, Marjorie J. “Hunting the Dragon in Kingston's The Woman Warrior.” MELUS, vol. 13, no. 3/4, 1986, pp. 55–66.