Thursday 24 May 2018

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" by Maxine Hong Kingston

We are made, destroyed and remade by the stories we are told as we grow up. Maxine Hong Kingston’s fantastic The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts provides us with a vivid representation of an Asian-American woman and shows just how much stories shaped her identity. 

Each of Kingston’s five chapters are beautifully woven with mythical and traditional stories passed down from her mother. They overpower the narrative, excellently depicting the suffocation of these stories upon Kingston’s childhood. Yet her voice still seeps through, thorny and bitter against the elevation of males and the oppression of female sexual desire in a patriarchal world. Each chapter of this memoir is hauntingly beautiful, giving life to the past by giving it space on the page. 

My favourite chapter was ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.’ Through the memoir, we journey from the silenced female in ‘No Name Woman,’ to this final explosive voice, where Kingston weaves the story of Ts’ai Yen, her voice clear and vocal. This story finally gives us a direct and raw voice, no longer overpowered by a story from childhood, instead using Ts’ai Yen’s story to show the end-point of Kingston’s search for identity. It explores Kingston’s childhood, the silent Chinese girl in the American schooling system, using an interplay of personal stories and the theme of shame and repression.

All our parents tell us stories growing up, they ‘talk-story’ as Kingston puts it. These stories play a large part in making us who we are. Yet for the generation after the emigrants, there is a huge gap between the stories and what we see outside our Western windows. I expect it’s worse for parents, who see a world so completely different to the one they grew up in. So, parents create an impossible distance between culture and Western society. Kingston’s memoir shows the destruction and turmoil that parents create by talking-story, bringing children up with fantastical superstitions to frighten them in the new Western world, making them curl further and further within themselves. And the Western world doesn’t help. White people, the ‘ghosts,’ the centre of society, cultivate shame and repression of culture and identity. Kingston’s The Woman Warrior depicts the strangeness of our generation, eloquently showing oppression from both sides, culture and society, and how we succumb to both, and consequently, belong to neither.

It is only in doing what Kingston has done in her final chapter, ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ rejecting both sides and embracing our hybridity, our distinct voices, that we can fight away the shame and even begin to be remade by the stories we tell ourselves. The Woman Warrior, with its honest and bitter narrative, makes way for Asian women, but it’s also a true inspiration for people of colour and different ethnic backgrounds to take another step forward into the Western world, out of the stereotypes, by beginning a new generation of stories that will remake us all.

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

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