The major part of the well-known US literature presents the works of white male authors. This has formed a very particular image of the American literature. Even though the country has been always known for its’ variety of cultures and religions, there was only one that dominated all the others. Only in the second part of the twentieth century the works of writers from different cultures got recognition and popular support. ‘The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts’ is a book that got special in a number of ways, as it was not only written by an Asian-American, but the author was also a woman. Therefore, this literary work is among the first ones defining the new paradigm of American modern literature. ‘The Woman Warrior’ is the book that was not only written by a representative of a national minority, but its’ themes are also closely related to the ideas of national identity and transition from own culture and traditions to the American lifestyle.
Maxine Hong Kingston has created a truly remarkable work, that even more than thirty years later attracts readers with its’ unusual style, imagery, as well as truly amazing language. Geok-lin Lim states that ‘The Woman Warrior’ remains the most successful example of Asian-American literature, and describes this book as “astonishingly multi-layered, richly stylized, provocatively historicized, mythologized, feminist, aesthetic achievement”. (4) Therefore, despite the constant development of the American literature and the growing number of Asian-American literary works, the book by Maxine Hong Kingston has taken its’ special place in the world of prose. This book presented a new form of autobiographical literature – fantasy.
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It is very hard to define the style of this book. The author constantly moves from fiction to reality giving neither the leading place. On one hand, Maxine Hong Kingston is very realistic in her ideas and perceptions, but on the other these notions are wrapped in fantasy and strong fictional imagery. Geok-lin Lim provides a truly precise description of the author’s style: “imagination is too firmly devoted to original observation to turn to make-belief; at the same time, the logos of her imagination is myth, not fact.” (4) Maxine Hong Kingston has managed to create a truly unique mixture of realistic opinions and fictional imagery, which make ‘The Woman Warrior’ stand out from both autobiographies and the works of Asian-American writers.
‘The Woman Warrior’ is usually called an autobiography, but in fact this book is much more than just a biographical story of one person. Besides the description of the life of the main character and other people around, Maxine Hong Kingston also focuses on the phenomenon of being Asian American as a whole, as well as on the concept of being a Chinese female. Sau-ling Wong describes the genre of ‘The Woman Warrior’ as “a sort of meditation on what it means to be Chinese American” (45). Therefore, this book covers many more important topics than just autobiographical reflections.
Although Maxine Hong Kingston is a narrator of this autobiographic book, it is sometimes complicated to define the author as a solid constant character. Sometimes it even seems that the narrator disappears in the plot and characters. Sometimes the narrator experiences a full transformation, like in the “White Tigers” story, where the reader meets the Fa Mu Lan heroine. In other cases, such as in the chapter “At the Western Palace”, the narrator’s “I” totally disappears. This is one of the main reasons why ‘The Woman Warrior’ cannot be called a proper autobiography. The elusiveness of the narrator creates a feeling of fiction and improbability of the events told by someone.
Along with being relatively unclear on the personality of the narrator, the constantly changing emotions of this character add a significant portion of complexity to the definition of the author’s nature. Throughout the book Maxine Hong Kingston adopts a number of different personalities, which make defining the character of narrator extremely complicated. From a shy girl she turns into a cruel one that tortures a silent girl at school; at one point the narrator tolerates the words of her racist superiors speaking of things like “nigger yellow” (Hong Kingston 48), and at other rebels against own mother. At the same time, throughout the book Maxine Hong Kingston grows from as little scared silent girl to an independent woman who can freely speak her mind.
Brave Orchid is the narrator’s mother and one of the main characters in the book. The same as the author, this character is a very complex one and incorporates a number of contradictions. This is an obviously unusual woman – intelligent and brave but, at the same time, she feels uncomfortable about moving to America and perceives the country as an alien territory. It takes Brave Orchid many years to realize that there is no going back to China, which she remembers as a “Holy Land” ignoring all the negative sides of China’s modern history. This character has obviously suffered from a cultural shock upon arriving in the United States. It was caused not only by the new surrounding, but also by the dramatic change that has happened in the social status of the woman, who was a respected doctor in the homeland. The character of Brave Orchid is filled with extremes, which add a comic element to the whole personality of the narrator’s mother.
Another significant personality in ‘The Woman Warrior’ is also a female one. It is Moon Orchid, the narrator’s aunt. Despite the fact that her “useless” personality contradicts with the active determination of Brave Orchid, this character also represents the adherence to Chinese tradition, while staying in America. The inability of Moon Orchid to adjust to the American lifestyle is seen from the beginning, when her character is presented as a contrast to the Chinese-American children, who differ from the woman dramatically. Later on this character presents how the inability to adjust to the new culture can go wrong and destroy one’s life. All the characters in ‘The Woman Warrior’ can be placed within the two main topics of the book: female role in the Chinese society and the complications of being Chinese-American.
The book by Maxine Hong Kingston is located, the same as its’ author, somewhere in-between the two cultures – Chinese and American. On one hand, the author is clearly perceived as a representative of an oriental culture by the mass media and an average reader. On the other hand, the representatives of traditional Chinese communities and those people back in China see this piece of literary work as anti-Chinese, as something that is far from the actual values and ideas of the Chinese people. The whole concept of defining oneself as Asian-American and identifying all the differences that the new form of personal belonging brings plays a notable role in the book. ‘The Woman Warrior’ describes a character that, on the contrary to mother and aunt, is trying to adapt to the new living conditions and society. Instead of preserving the Chinese identity and following traditions the character of Maxine Hong Kingston expresses protests against the rules of her family.
The role of women in Chinese society is one of the prominent topics of Maxine Hong Kingston’s book. From the very childhood the narrator spent time in extremely oppressive surrounding and with the constant fear of “slavery” in the form of wifehood (Frye). In fact, the book is full of misogynistic expressions common in the Chinese society, such as: “There is no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.” (Hong Kingston 46) The narrator’s dislike of the female faith in the Chinese society and the existence of extremely strict rules make her dislike her life so much that sometimes it seems that the author would rather be a boy than a girl. Only the story of Fa Mu Lan helps the narrator to cope with the complicated Chinese-American environment.
Despite the first dislike of the female character in the Chinese community, the narrator at some point faces the need to define her female identity (Frye). This is done not only through the Character of Fa Mu Lan, but also through the personalities of various females, both fictional and real. These include the narrator’s aunt, sister, Chinese girls at school, and even a poet Ts’ai Yen. Therefore, despite all the complications, the author feels the urge to re-define the personality of Chinese-American woman. By studying all the women around and defining the strong character of the female warrior Fa Mu Lan the narrator re-imagines it in the modern American society (Geok-lin Lim 4).
Even though recognized as a significant piece of the Asian-American literature, the book of Maxine Hong Kingston received very different responses. While it was welcomed and supported by the mainstream media, ‘The Woman Warrior’ did not get a positive responds from the Asian-American community (Li). At the same time Sau-ling Wong emphasizes the fact that Maxine Hong Kingston has never had the aim of showing historical truthfulness and in fact the author never had the aim of clear portrayal of Chinese culture. Therefore, those questioning the reality in this book completely miss the author’s aim (Sau-ling Wong 7).
The work of Maxine Hong Kingston is a truly unique piece of literature. Despite all the criticism in untruthfulness and wrong presentation of Chinese culture, ‘The Woman Warrior’ remains the most significant work of the Asian-American literature. The complexity of the author’s character leads to the variety of topics that are explored in the book. The main ones are the place and role of women in Chinese society and the identification of Asian-American people. By mixing fiction and reality Maxine Hong Kingston has created an autobiography that stand out from any lists of literary works.
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