Maxine Hong Kingston Kingston, Maxine Hong (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Hong Kingston 1940–

Chinese-American autobiographer, journalist, and short story writer. Kingston is best known for her 1976 autobiography, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, which won the general nonfiction award from the National Book Critics Circle. Born to parents who were Chinese immigrants, she grew up experiencing the often painful results of the radical clashes between American and Chinese cultures. Her mother, who was a strong influence on Kingston, wanted her to remain essentially Chinese and instilled in her the superstitions, traditions, and customs of her native country. Many of her stories revolved around the legendary figure of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, whose exploits were in sharp contrast to the traditionally subservient role of the Chinese woman. Fa Mu Lan captured Kingston's imagination, figuring prominently in her childhood fantasies and later in her autobiography. The Woman Warrior is the chronicle of Kingston's confrontation with her dual heritage. She is presently writing further stories of Chinese legend and heroes.

[Rarely does East meet West with such charming results as occur in "The Woman Warrior", a] reminiscence of growing up in a Chinese-American culture where Oriental myth and Occidental reality somehow blended. American-born Maxine Kingston begins by exploring her girlhood dream—nourished by the folklore brought to this country by her mother, Brave Orchid—of becoming Fa Mu Lan, the Woman Warrior of Chinese myth. At the same time, she lives among Americans whom her mother terms "ghosts."… Along with the quirky humor are … myths as rich and varied as Chinese brocade; these are described in prose that often achieves the delicacy and precision of porcelain. An unusual and rewarding book for a specially attuned readership. (p. 72)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the August 9, 1976, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1976 by Xerox Corporation), August 9, 1976.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Woman Warrior is a strange, sometimes savagely terrifying and, in the literal sense, wonderful story of growing up caught between two highly sophisticated and utterly alien cultures, both vivid, often menacing and equally mysterious. Reality in its bewildering complexity is at the heart of it: what appears to our senses, the mind transforms, into a whole set of myths and phantoms (language, number, emotion, relation, abstraction) to become what we perceive as real. Ghosts from the Chinese past may thus be as real—and as unreal—as persons from the California present; and vice versa. Is a parent any the less real to us, less true, because he is dead? It is not the same as not existing. Mrs. Kingston mulls over these mysteries, these paradoxes in this extraordinary book.

William McPherson, "Ghosts from the Middle Kingdom," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1976, The Washington Post), October 10, 1976, p. E1.

Jane Kramer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Woman Warrior"] is a brilliant memoir. It shocks us out of our facile rhetoric, past the clichés of our obtuseness, back to the mystery of a stubbornly, utterly foreign sensibility, and I cannot think of another book since Andre Malraux's melancholy artifice, "La Tentation de l'Occident," that even starts to do this. "The Woman Warrior" is about being Chinese, in the way the "Portrait of the Artist" is about being Irish. It is an investigation of soul, not landscape. Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are the crises of a heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it. (p. 1)

Maxine Kingston writes with bitter and relentless love. Her voice … is as clear as the voice of Ts'ai Yen, who sang her sad, angry songs of China to the barbarians. It is as fierce as a warrior's voice, and as eloquent as any artist's. (p. 20)

Jane Kramer, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1976.

Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exiles and refugees tell sad stories of the life they left behind. Even sadder, sometimes, is the muteness of their children. They are likely to find the old ways and old language excess baggage, especially if their adopted homeland is the U.S., where the race is to the swift and the adaptable. Thus a heritage of centuries can die in a generation of embarrassed silence. The Woman Warrior gives that silence a voice.

Subtitled Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, this astonishingly accomplished first book … haunts a region somewhere between autobiography and fiction. Yet it hardly matters whether the woman who tells (or muses) the book's five stories is literally Maxine Hong Kingston. Art has intervened here. The stories may or may not be transcripts of actual experience. They are, unquestionably, triumphant journeys of the imagination through a desolation of spirit….

Though it is drenched in alienation, The Woman Warrior never whines. Author Kingston avoids rhetoric for a wealth of detail—old customs and legends, the feel of Chinese enclaves transported to the California of her childhood. Even at their most poignant, her stories sing. Thousands of books have bubbled up out of the American melting pot. This should be one of those that will be remembered.

Paul Gray, "Book of Changes," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), December 6, 1976, p. 91.

Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Hong Kingston illuminates the experience of everyone who has ever felt the terror of being an emotional outsider. It seems to me that the best records of the immigrant experience and the bittersweet legacy it bestows upon the next generation fascinate us because of the insights they provide into the life of the family, that mystified arena where we first learn, truly or falsely, our own identities. It should therefore not be very startling—as it was to me—that this dazzling mixture of pre-revolutionary Chinese village life and myth, set against its almost unbearable contradictions in contemporary American life, could unfold as almost a psychic transcript of every woman I know—class, age, race, or ethnicity be damned. Here is the real meaning of America as melting pot.

Kingston alternates the experiences of her parents and their generation, in China and the Chinatowns of California, with her own. In a starving society where girl children were a despised and useless commodity, her mother had become a physician, then joined her long-ago immigrated husband in America, where she was hence to labor in the laundry which was their survival in the terrifying new land. Their children, raised in the aura of the old myths and their parents' fears for their children and themselves, alternated between revering and despising them….

In the book's finest scene, which somehow manages to be both hilarious and devastatingly painful, Kingston's elderly aunt is brought over from China and forced to try to reclaim the now-Americanized husband she had married years before at home. In the traditional style, he had been supporting her from California though he had long ago married another woman. The...

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Miriam Greenspan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kingston reveals to readers the very different world inhabited by her immigrant parents—the world of legends, folklore, customs, and manners of China. She writes, simply and movingly, of the pain of an American-born child who inevitably rejects the expectations and authority of her family in favor of the values of the new land and of her own bond to her mother—a survivor, a woman of enormous strength and vitality. In a rich, poetic, original style, Kingston captures the struggle, the conflict, the bewilderment, and the love that imbue a complex mother-daughter relationship. (p. 108)

Miriam Greenspan, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the January, 1977 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1977). January, 1977.

Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir of a Chinese-American girlhood presents … the female side of growing up in a tradition, perhaps any tradition. Women perform for any society the service of maladjustment that Kingston here brilliantly performs for the society of Chinese immigrants in California. She … (unlike most Chinese-Americans) fulfills an American pattern by moving away from an ethnic tradition the distance required to memorialize and cherish it…. (p. 19)

Like many other women, Kingston does not wish to reject female nature so much as the female condition, and at that she would reserve the female biological destiny…. But of course [there] are the bindings on every woman's feet. In the vivid particularity of her experience, and with the resources of a considerable art, Kingston reaches to the universal qualities of female condition and female anger that the bland generalities of social science and the merely factual history cannot describe.

Women may reject the culture that rejects them, but such brave and rare disassociations are not without serious cost. Kingston is dealing here with the fears and rebellions that recur in much women's writing, often displaced in other ways, and dramatized or actually experienced as suicide, catatonia, hysteria, anorexia—maladies common to many female protagonists, both fictional and alive, from Brontë heroines to Sylvia Plath. Kingston recounts such a gesture of protest in her own life, a period of refusal to play culture's game. (pp. 19-20)

Diane Johnson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books: copyright © 1977 Nyrev, Inc.), February 3, 1977.

Elizabeth Fifer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In autobiography, the told story often is accompanied by the untold one. In Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, the idea of autobiography is accompanied by the vision of the stuttering girl, the woman of whom nothing is known, the girl who refuses to speak, the girl with the cut tongue, the one whose throat hurts, the one who quacks like a duck, and the one who talks so much that she is considered mad. Even as Kingston gives a voice to her own life, she is also offering us their suppressed collective biographies, a record of their lives that she has intuited from her own participation in their defeated silences. To do this, Kingston, an American of Chinese descent, must absorb and synthesize the...

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Linda B. Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this exquisitely written book [The Woman Warrior], Maxine Hong Kingston has given us a picture of the American life of a Chinese-American woman, mediated through the stories and myths that her mother has told her about China. The interweaving of experience, legend, and history, played against the background of two totally different cultures, gives an extraordinary sense of both worlds. Yet the most important contribution of the book is the entrance into the mind and emotions of this complex and fascinating woman.

The book is never didactic. The insights are conveyed not explicitly, but rather implicitly in the web of the stories and incidents she relates….

It is the author's mother who has conveyed to her her sense of her own restricted place as a woman and at the same time told her the legends which feed her ambitions for a full, accomplishing, and contributing life of her own. This paradox forms the center of the book. The woman who relates to her daughter the story of the legendary woman warrior who saves China is the same woman who drives her child to hysteria by repeating Chinese aphorisms…. (p. 190)

This book is remarkable in its insights into the plight of individuals pulled between two cultures, and the position of women in both the United States and China. The reader can only be grateful that Maxine Hong Kingston has found her voice. (p. 191)

Linda B. Hall, "Internal Wars of a Chinese-American Woman," in Southwest Review (© 1978 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1978, pp. 190-91.