“On Discovery,” like many other Kingston stories, utilizes the style of “talk-story,” the Chinese phrase for storytelling. Based on the oral tradition of passing on both family history and Chinese legend to younger generations, talk-story, as developed by Kingston, becomes a complex fusion of many genres—part myth, part history, part memory—all of which combine to form a search for identity, both personal and racial.
In Western culture, the storyteller, revered as the memory and voice of the tribe, recounts tales of bravery, tales that enable the tribe to preserve and perpetuate itself. This important function is, in a patriarchal society, almost exclusively a male role. In Kingston’s immigrant Cantonese society, it is the women who talk-story while the men, isolated by separation from family and culture and oppressed by New World masters who often forbade them to talk, lose their voices and eventually descend into an eerie silence. Kingston encapsules this point masterfully in Tang Ao’s only directly recorded speech when he asks, “What are you doing?” and the old woman replies, “Sewing your lips together.” She is joking, of course, but her answer emphasizes the power and importance of words. To be totally silent is to be truly powerless.
Kingston also underscores the silence of the sojourner heroes by both the choice of title and the structure of China Men, the autobiographical novel in which “On...
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