Maxine Hong Kingston: “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts”

“You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you.”

So begins Maxine Hong Kingston’s genre-bending, ground-shattering 1976 book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

The admonition – fiercely whispered – comes from Kingston’s mother. She’s about to tell the now-menstruating adolescent Maxine a cautionary tale, one that is intensely private, intended only for Maxine. That Kingston starts with her mother’s warning and then immediately relates the secret story lets us know upfront, in no uncertain terms, that this book will be a tell-all breaking of taboos.

What story is so dangerous that Maxine must not speak it? It’s the tale of the “No Name Woman,” Maxine’s father’s sister, who stayed in China while her husband went to the United States to work. After he had been gone for years, the aunt became pregnant – but there was no husband to be its father. Her family was so dishonored by what they believed to be her adulterous action that they shamed, shunned, and humiliated the aunt. After she gave birth, she was so distraught that she drowned herself and her baby in the well. The family never spoke her name again and resolved to forget she ever existed.

Kingston’s mother clearly intends the tale as a stern and terrifying warning against sexual activity, but the young Maxine – or perhaps the adult Kingston looking back – imagines one possible scenario after another. Was her aunt raped? Or did she have an affair, desperately in love with another man? There is no way to know, of course, but that doesn’t stop Maxine Hong Kingston from fully and realistically imagining the ways the aunt’s story may have played out.

This imagining of possible pasts is at the heart of this marvelous book. Is it a memoir – a true story of a lived life? Or is it fiction, depending as it does on imagined versions of the past? Or is Kingston saying that imagination is also true, that to remember the past fully one must invent and imagine?

The book goes on to present fable and myth as lived reality and to depict ghosts as living beings who inform our lives. Those of you who are interested in mixed martial arts will find the chapter titled “White Tigers” especially interesting.

Kingston’s book shocked the literary world. When it appeared in 1976, there had been precious little literature written by Asian Americans. But Kingston went one step further by creating a book that was not neatly classified. Did it belong in nonfiction or fiction? (For the record, it won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.)

The Woman Warrior was very much one of my inspirations when I wrote Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. In the early days of writing that book, I struggled mightily over how to separate fact from fiction. How could I find out the “truth” about my grandmother and her family? As I wrestled with this question, my friend Kathy Shambaugh wisely said, “Are you saying imagination is not true?”

Precisely – and Kingston’s example was a torch-bearer for me, as she saw that imagination is indeed true, that it is a way back to a secret, whispered past.

I highly recommend The Woman Warrior. You can read the opening chapter – “No Name Woman” – at the Barnes & Noble website. Click here, and scroll down to “Read an Excerpt.”

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Maxine Hong Kingston. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Kingston treats.

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Watch:Watch as Maxine Hong Kingston talks about and reads from The Woman Warrior. In this YouTube clip, go to 5:10 and listen until 11:16.