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.
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.
["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...
(This entire section contains 172 words.)
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.
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.
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 confrontation is a microcosm of the book's impact: he is a svelte, classy brain surgeon, surrounded by all the American trappings of wealth and prestige; she is a provincial old village woman, and falls back, dumbfounded, at his eerie power…. (p. 39)
A tragic dynamic gets played out here. Taught that our own needs are illegitimate, too many of us repress them and spend our lives serving what we perceive to be the more legitimate needs of others. It is in this way that Kingston's ambivalent responses to growing up in this family and culture evoke the history of women around the world. The author's own early fantasies dwelt on how she is miraculously trained to be a fierce, proud warrior, who liberates the suffering people of the Chinese past from the terrible oppression of the landowners. Only her lover knows that she is, in reality, a woman!
In the book's climax, Kingston, now in high school, lashes out at her mother in an extraordinary, liberating tirade in which she claims at last her own shaky identity. And her mother, who once struggled so valiantly for her own, first denies her feelings and then tries to convey the dangers, real and imagined, which have molded her own attitude toward this beloved, maddening stranger. The gap is too wide, for the teenage Maxine has perceived more of her mother's fear than her love, more of her culture's confines than its richness and beauty. The possibilities of love and forgiveness will have to be postponed for the more immediate necessities: the struggles for autonomy, on the one hand, and assimilation on the other. The depiction of these twin struggles is this memoir's great strength.
The Woman Warrior is not without flaws: much of the exquisite fantasy material comes too early in the book, before we're properly grounded in the author's own "reality," and we can appreciate its full impact only in retrospect. There's often a staccato, jarring quality in transition from one scene to another, and we have to work hard placing ourselves in time and event. Prospective readers should not be discouraged by these minor problems. What is in store for those who read on is not only the essence of the immigrant experience—here Chinese, and uniquely fascinating for that—but a marvelous glimpse into the real life of women in the family, a perception-expanding report for the archives of human experience. Praise to Maxine Hong Kingston for distilling it and writing it all down for us. (pp. 39-40)
Sara Blackburn, "Notes of a Chinese Daughter," in Ms. (© 1977 Ms. Magazine Corp.), January, 1977, pp. 39-40.
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.
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.
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 experience of her two cultures, and come to understand her alienation from American life and the particular cruelty towards women in Chinese culture as two central metaphors for the general human experience. The Woman Warrior thus enlarges on the autobiographical genre, making it include not only the actual events of her own life, but also the reconstructed stories of the past that she can only approach through the powers of a sympathetic imagination.
Starting with the image of the abandoned and suicidal aunt, who gave birth to her illegitimate baby in a pigsty and drowned herself in a well, the book moves to the images of superwomen: the mythic woman warrior herself, Fa Mu Lan, about whom the narrator learns in her mother's chant, and the mother herself, Brave Orchid, a seer who has led two complete lives: a doctor in China and a mother in the United States. These chapters, devoted to strong women, are interspersed with chapters about women who could not cope: her aunt, Moon Orchid, who goes mad after coming to America, and the author herself, a prototypical silent Chinese girl, for whom the act of writing itself constitutes a convincing heroism.
The narrator is a traveler in a world of ghosts—the white Americans, the Chinese Americans who have forgotten their origins, the actual supernatural beings who inhabit the dead and the inanimate—all of whom must be combatted with a special conjuring.
The author's quest, as a half-ghost herself, is both to be accepted by her large and diverse family, and to make sense of the social norms of the Chinese culture, and still to be able to assert her own worth and identity. To do this, Kingston superimposes the heritage of the past on her own historical present with her unique blend of history, myth, Americana, childhood memories, movies, scenes from pre-Revolutionary China (as her mother experienced it), and even a few glimpses of post-Revolutionary China…. (pp. 68-9)
[Her] mother, Brave Orchid, a real shaman, is Kingston's best subject. Brave Orchid haunts her children like a ghost, and like ghosts, they rarely visit, though she longs to know more of their lives, just as they long to understand hers, She "talks-story" so well that her daughter often has trouble sorting out her own reality from her mother's acts of the imagination….
The sections keep retelling the same "talk-story," trying to wind it ever-tighter, to compress it more fully inside a replica of itself, as in a series of Chinese boxes. The last section, "Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is still concerned with not being able to talk—another version of Moon Orchid's story, or the narrator's childhood, the little Chinese girl trying to make herself speak. Linear progression is sacrificed to the continued repetition of the old stories. Yet the lips of the half-ghost not only flesh the old traditions and memories, but give new utterance to them.
This memoir is a poetic, thoughtful, wonderfully subtle reclamation of self, an important book, setting a high standard for autobiography. More than personal history, it is a personal mythology. (p. 69)
Elizabeth Fifer [Lehigh University], in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), January, 1978.
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.