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A Girlhood Among Ghosts, A Womanhood Among Stories

Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston explores how gender is intertwined with culture in a semi-biographical memoir collection titled “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts”.

Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung

“Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful.”

The mother whispers, scarily and cautiously, to the ear of the little girl that is the author, afraid that she too, one day, might suffer the same fate as her aunt, dead and forgotten under the hands of fearful villagers just because she became pregnant while her husband was away, working overseas. Raw and emotionally-impactful sentences such as this are frequent in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, written by Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston, that explores the many forms of adversity and hurdle that women have to face, in the backdrop of conflicts between cultures of the East and the West. 

The Woman Warrior is written in the form of a collection of memoirs by the author, a semi-autobiographical work detailing the stories that she has experienced, heard from, or told to others. It is this aspect that blends the work’s non-fiction elements with its fictional and oftentimes mythological elements into a seamless whole, making it easier for the reader to understand and sympathize with the characters, while still being able to see how Kingston’s colorful imagination has added a layer of complexity to many stories. 

The book has five chapters, which correspond to five stories that help shaped the author’s lives and the world she is living in, detailing the fate of many women and the decisions they make: Kingston’s long-dead aunt, who is referred to as “The No Name Woman”; a mythical female warrior named Fa Mulan; Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid; Kingston’s another aunt, Moon Orchid; and finally Kingston herself. Each story is told vividly from both Kingston’s point of view, her imagination and the retellings of other characters, real or imagined, and is used by her as an effort to reconstruct her past, to understand her cultural history and to see how much an effect its legacy has on her and on the people she holds dear. Being a first-generation Chinese-American, she has the extra burden not only to confront the social and cultural barriers set up against women, but also to confront them in the context of two distinct cultures, two different environments, two separate lives. And she chooses to confront it, surprisingly, by telling and retelling stories.

Although many other themes are visible, such as cultural differences, having voices and staying silence, and growing up in a migrant community, the one most prevalent throughout the five chapters of the book is the role of women in Chinese society, and how they relate to the male-dominated society around them, controlling them through their actions and inactions. What makes The Woman Warrior stand out from other contemporary female-focused works of fiction/non-fiction of the time is how male characters and men in general are not antagonized or completely blamed for the oppression that Chinese women have to suffer; in fact, men are perceptibly and intentionally absent in a narrative that increasingly focus on its five main females. Men, in The Woman Warrior, are simply social actors that are also bounded by the more-powerful and less-conspicuous force of tradition. It is tradition that turns neighbors of the same village against each other, just because of a child born without her father present; it is tradition that leads women to convince one another that “there’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls”; it is tradition that undermines the values of women and gives power to men, so they can do what they did. 

It then comes as no surprise that one of the most powerful images depicts in the book is also the consequence of blindly following traditions: the ghosts of little Chinese girls whose parents left to die because they wanted sons instead, and Kingston feels haunted by them, the same way she has always been haunted by the shadows of Chinese cultures and traditions that seem to follow her wherever she goes. The ghosts can, of course, be a product of her imagination, but they can also be an effort for Kingston to reconnect with her past, to relate herself to many women around her who have stayed silent throughout their lives in the face of gender oppression and inequity, in an effort to speak up. “You must not tell anyone,” says the words from her mother that are also the very first words of the book, but Kingston does the exact opposite – by telling everyone, she does not only speak for herself, but also for the women, the silenced, the mythical, and the ghosts of the past. 

The Woman Warrior is one powerful journey that blends myths with reality, and modernity with tradition that, within it, the often-untold lives of women unfold. The stories of how Kingston and the women around her struggle to co-exist with a world that is full of social expectations against women are not only able to touch our heart deeply, helping us realize, understand, and sympathize with them, but also shows us what it is like to “grow up a woman warrior.”

This book review is originally written as an assignment for the course DCUL 423: Gender in Global Context, offered by Dr. Miyagawa Haruna

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