The Woman Warrior Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)

Maxine Hong Kingston

Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

The Woman Warrior is a highly original work of autobiography, mixing as it does myth, legend, fiction, history, and personal reminiscence. Kingston dramatically involves the reader in her own exploration of truth in the stories told to her by her mother and others. Although not written specifically for young adults, the book captures the struggle to define one’s identity and ambitions in the face of family and cultural demands.

In adding the dimension of myth to her autobiography, Kingston brings the collective unconscious into her story of personal formation. The larger-than-life, archetypal figures of myth become characters in her story and are, in turn, transformed by her narrative imagination. In this way, she becomes a shaper of memory, just as she is shaped by it.

Instead of relating her life in a chronological way, as in most autobiographies, she presents it to poetic effect. “Our usual idea of biography is of time-lines, of dates and chronological events,” Kingston has said. “I am certainly more imaginative than that; I play with words and form.” Dreamlike landscapes and elusive figures haunt the book, demanding interpretation.

The Woman Warrior, then, reveals a life in process. The integration that is achieved by the book’s end offers but a challenge to continued creativity. In this way, it can prove meaningful to young people coming to adulthood in a world of change.

As a child of immigrants, Kingston offers a counterpoint to conventionally upbeat chronicles of progress from Old to New Worlds. Kingston questions whether life for the generation born in the New World is necessarily happier than for their immigrant mothers and fathers. First-generation Americans seem more vulnerable to self-doubt than their parents, who are sustained by tradition. Moreover, the preoccupation of Americans with “plastics, periodical tables, t.v. dinners” may feel shallow in comparison with a life that honors mysteries and ghosts.

“I invented new literary structures to contain multi-versions and to tell the true lives of non-fiction people who are storytellers,” Kingston has explained. Interweaving memory and imagination into creative autobiography, Kingston models for young adults a way of actively interpreting who they are and who they are becoming.