Nov 10, 11
Read from October 15 to November 03, 2011, read count: 2
Maxine Hong Kingston begins her memoir, The Woman Warrior, with a character imploring, “You must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you.” Not only is it an unexpected and gripping first line, but it is a perfect start for a story about speaking the unspeakable—a book about the burden of secrecy and shame carried by Chinese women in Kingston’s family, about confronting a timid, silent immigrant girl and begging her to say just a word, about somehow translating the nebulous and elusive Chinese talk-stories into the concrete American life, about articulating an identity caught in the threshold of generations, cultures, countries, and even economic systems. It is an ambitious task and an extraordinary triumph.
Illustrating the discordance between her experience of the Chinese and American worlds—the two worlds our narrator feels caught between and estranged from—Kingston interweaves traditional Chinese talk stories and the realism of immigration narratives in a Western Modernist fragmented style, with its telling juxtapositions and jarring transitions. However, responsive readers will soon realize what the book’s closing anecdote so poignantly suggests: that Kingston’s artistry creates a stunning harmony between the two worlds. (Note: saying “two worlds” oversimplifies the wide spectrum of cultural perspectives presented in the book; Kingston does not treat “Chinese” or “American” as monolithic cultural entities.) Though some parts are indeed terse and abrasive—and with good reason—as a whole, the eloquent text reads like an inspired symphony, skillfully blending tales of Fa Mu Lan, Communism, Chinese laundries, suicide, Berkeley, ancestors, school bullies, and ghosts into one beautiful whole, made up of small parts but so much more than their sum.
I loved this book. The first sentence captured my attention and the rest of the text absorbed it. Aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating, Kingston’s memoir is a must for anyone interested in cultural studies, gender issues, or damn good writing.
"It was mirrors, not aches and pains, that turned a person old, everywhere white hairs and wrinkles. Young people felt pain."
This is the review I wrote the first time I read this book, in 2010. It has stood up to multiple readings.