The Woman Warrior | Critical Essay by Bonnie TuSmith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 27 pages of analysis & critique of The Woman Warrior.
This section contains 4,975 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Bonnie TuSmith

SOURCE: "Literary Tricksterism: Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 279-94.

TuSmith has been an professor of English at Bowling Green State University and is the author of All My Relatives: Community in Contemporary Ethnic Literatures. In the following essay, she considers Kingston's narrative strategy in The Woman Warrior.

When an ethnic female writer publishes an "autobiography," she is immediately confronted with inappropriate expectations. As readers we must realize, for example, that neither the Ben Franklin paradigm nor the exotic world of Suzie Wong are valid points of reference for interpreting Woman Warrior. Ultimately, we must read the work on its own terms. In reading Kingston's "autobiography," we must recognize that the writer is a creative artist who consciously uses a strategy of narrative ambiguity to tell her story.

When Kingston says in an interview that literary forms "reflect patterns of the human heart" [Timothy Pfaff, "Talk with Mrs. Kingston," New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1980], she tells us how she views herself as a writer. By connecting form with "heart" rather than "life," she refers to the artist, not the sociologist. For Kingston, artistic form is organic rather than artificial: it is part and parcel of the human spirit. This position directly contrasts with the stated premise of a major study on Asian American literature, which deliberately "emphasize[s] how the literature elucidates the social history of Asians in the United States" [Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, 1982]. When applied to an artist who consciously manipulates form in order to be true to "patterns of the human heart," the belief that a literary text can and should be used to document an ethnic culture seems misguided. Because many critics have made the same assumption, they tend either to blame or praise the author for her naive narrator's interpretation of Chinese American culture.

In Woman Warrior, Kingston uses a narrator who has a child's passion for knowing. What is Chinese and what is American? What is real and what is make-believe? Do the Chinese despise women, or do they see them as potential warriors? Since we have an impressionable protagonist/narrator who feels bombarded by confusing stories in her childhood, this desire for definition is appropriate. However, because the young protagonist singlemindedly pursues either/or options and because her voice dominates the book's first part, the unwary reader is easily lulled by her simplistic pronouncements. Due to her confusion, limited knowledge, desire for absolutes, and total subjectivity regarding people and events, her narration is unreliable.

In an interview, Kingston clearly distinguishes herself from this narrator: "Oh, that narrator girl. It's hard for me to call her me…. She is so coherent and intense always, throughout. There's an intensity of emotion that makes the book come together. And I'm not like that" [Phyllis Hoge Thompson, "This Is The Story I Heard: A Conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston and Earll Kingston," Biography, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1983]. The distinction between the "I" and "that narrator girl" is revealing. The reader must understand that the writer is, in her daily life, neither coherent nor intense, even though her narrative persona epitomizes these traits.

Had Kingston limited her narrative to the protagonist's naive point of view, she might not have advanced significantly from Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945). In contrasting Wong's and Kingston's literary forms, Patricia Lin Blinde categorizes Wong's autobiography with the Horatio Alger paradigm of American success ["The Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Women Writers," MELUS, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1979]. According to Blinde, Wong simply "'repeat[s]' the white world's articulations and expectations as to what Chineseness is or is not." Consequently, autobiography becomes "a public concession as to her place (and by extension the place of Chinese-Americans) in the world and mind of Americans." On the other hand, Blinde says, Kingston belongs to a generation with fewer illusions. The pre-World War II faith in a coherent world, "a world that still believed in the truths of its own imaginative constructs," is no longer possible. In fact, the coherence of Kingston's "narrator girl" is drastically different from that presented in Wong's work. Kingston creates an ambivalent narrator who compensates for her insecurities by reaching for absolutes, while the literary artist transcends her naive narrator's limitations through technique. Before delving into these artistic strategies, however, we must first understand Kingston's definition of autobiography.

Blinde's perception that literary form separates Kingston from Wong is provocative. What does it mean to say that two autobiographies are worlds apart because of their forms? According to Thomas Doherty, autobiography is a literary form particularly suited to Americans' "individualistic and optimistic" self-image. Therefore, Franklin's self-portrait as "an aggressive actor in a society of possibilities" is considered the prototype for "autobiographies in the American tradition" ["American Autobiography and Ideology," in The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert E. Stone, 1981]. Given this definition, ethnic women's stories are anything but "American" autobiographies. The self as a confident actor selecting among various possibilities simply does not reflect the experiences of most women in America. In order to write a prototypical American autobiography, then, the ethnic woman must either conform to the Eurocentric male definition of the genre and produce a seemingly self-effacing, assimilationist work like Fifth Chinese Daughter, or she must subvert and redefine "autobiography" in some way. Kingston's own viewpoint on the subject is revealing. In an essay exposing her reviewers' racist assumptions, she explains: "After all, I am not writing history or sociology but a 'memoir' like Proust." She quotes one reviewer who understood this and said that Kingston was "slyly writing a memoir, a form which … can neither [be] dismiss[ed] as fiction nor quarrel[ed] with as fact" ["Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers," Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam, 1982].

This distinction between autobiography and memoir is crucial to the Kingston controversy. By evoking Proust's massive A la recherche du temps perdu, which Lillian Hornstein calls "an autobiography of the mind" [The Readers Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition, 1973], Kingston challenges the static notion of autobiography in the "American tradition." The Proustian memoir emphasizes fluidity and the presentness of psychological time. Memory is a private code of freely-associated images triggered by seemingly insignificant details in one's environment. As such, the memoir is exploratory. Rather than positing a coherent, already-constituted self which only has to be "revealed" through the autobiographical act, it views identity as fluid and constantly evolving. This alternative understanding of the function of autobiography is particularly suited to women. Unlike their male counterparts' texts, as Leslie Rabine points out, there is no "lost paradise" in Woman Warrior and other ethnic women's "semiautobiographical works" ["No Lost Paradise: Social Gender and Symbolic Gender in the Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston," Signs, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1987]. In addition, since there is no "it" to return to, the absence of an Edenic past actually structures ethnic women's stories. But how can absence provide structure? In place of a linear, backtracking approach based on community-decline and nostalgia, works like Woman Warrior depict continuity through change and creative adaptation.

In identifying her literary form with Proust's, Kingston not only refutes traditional definitions of autobiography and non-fiction but also legitimizes genres such as memoirs, diaries, and journals (all "female" forms, according to some feminist theorists) which have been considered—at least in America—less "literary" than the autobiography. Given the value judgments implicit in issues of literary genre, the publication of Kingston's first book as an autobiography, with "memoirs" in its subtitle, suggests conscious manipulation. As we have seen, the two terms are not synonymous. If Kingston believes she has written an exploratory, quasi-fictive memoir, why did she allow her book to be published as autobiography without qualification? If the general public tends to view autobiography as gospel truth, is Kingston somehow responsible for misleading the reader? After all, the absolutist position implicit in "American autobiography" and the text's dominant narrative voice seem a perfect match. When the narrator tells us that her ethnic culture denigrates women—equating females with "slaves" and "maggots" and thus forcing her to "get out of hating range"—should we not take her word for it? And if we do, can we then conclude that Kingston defends the lone female against her oppressive ethnic community?

To address this question, we might consult Ralph Ellison. "America is a land of masking jokers," he informs us. Franklin posed as Rousseau's Natural Man, Hemingway as a nonliterary sportsman, Faulkner as a farmer, and Lincoln as a simple country lawyer—"the 'darky' act makes brothers of us all" [Shadow and Act, 1953]. Ellison asserts that the smart-man-playing-dumb role is not the unique province of black culture. Rather, "it is a strategy common to the [American] culture," and "might be more 'Yankee' than anything else." The historian John Ward corroborates this point when he identifies Franklin as a social and literary trickster. In The Autobiography, says Ward, when Franklin offers himself as Representative American, he acknowledges his awareness of this self-conscious pose ["Who Was Benjamin Franklin?," Retracing the Past: Readings in the History of the American People, Vol. 1, edited by Gary B. Nash, 1986]. This observation suggests that the prototypical American autobiography already has the markings of an "invented self" and does not provide the "straight goods" which the general public expects from the genre.

If we realize that masking is, in Ellison's sense, an American cultural phenomenon, and that tricksterism is prevalent in American literature, we can then approach a writer like Kingston without misconceived notions of her "difference." Given that autobiography, like any other genre in literature, is an artistic construct, Kingston's ethnicity should not make her work "social history." If we can accept Franklin's pose in this supposedly non-fictional genre, we should be able to read autobiographies by ethnic women writers with the same understanding. Otherwise, our approach is both racist and sexist. The parallel between scholarship on Frederick Douglass and Kingston illustrates this point.

In an enlightening analysis, Henry Louis Gates demonstrates that virtually all of Douglass' biographers have misconstrued their subject by taking the autobiography literally. The self that the famous abolitionist describes in his three autobiographies is a public image carefully crafted to promote his cause [Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, 1987]. As such, it is "fictive" in the sense of "made by design." "Almost never," Gates points out, "does Douglass allow us to see him as a human individual in all of his complexity." In using an intentionally constructed persona as "fact," biographers can only present an external view of their subject, a view which is the conscious manipulation of its trickster creator. In a sense, Douglass and Franklin are Representative Men today because we still believe their autobiographical constructs. While the misreading of both Kingston's and Douglass' autobiographies stems from the same misunderstanding of the nature of literature, Kingston's situation is complicated by the writer's nongreat-man status. If we cannot get quick facts about her ethnic culture from her autobiography, as we can from writers like Wong, then why should we even bother with Kingston?

Yet, from the wide readership that Woman Warrior enjoys, it seems that many people find the work of value. This, we contend, has a great deal to do with its artistry. In devising a narrative strategy of ambiguity which captures her multivariate ethnic reality, Kingston is a "literary trickster" in the best American tradition.

Critics accurately identify her various boundary-crossing strategies in Woman Warrior as ambiguous or ambivalent. Ambiguity plays a prominent role in the text. They miss the mark, however, when they attribute these strategies to the necessity of "bridging two cultures." If we understood that, as they say, "cultures are made, not born" [Dale Yu Nee, "See, Culture is Made, Not Born …," Bridge, An Asian-American Perspective, Vol. 3, No. 6, 1975], we would know that Chinese America as an ethnic culture is not a "bicultural" dualism of either/or possibilities. Rather, it is a new entity which is neither Chinese nor European. Because many people have difficulty with this concept (since we are so used to thinking in stereotypes and polarities), they sort between "Chinese" and "American" along with the naive narrator. As mentioned earlier, the narrator's sorting does not reflect Kingston's worldview; it is an artistic device used to create thematic tension between the female individual as protagonist and the ethnic community as antagonist.

A key element of Kingston's strategy of ambiguity is to offer alternative, often contradictory versions of a story without value judgment. The narrator usually tells us when she invents; however, we must sort through her various "truths." Because we are on shifting sand, a convenient anchor is a naive narrator who seeks absolutes with life-and-death urgency. The young protagonist's desire for easy answers when confronting her mother's "talk-stories" about China reflects the reader's need for firm ground. This is a literary "trick," though. Active participation in the text almost requires a level of confusion like the protagonist's. In an essay on fiction and interpretation, Naomi Schor defines the relationship between "interpreter" (interpreting critic or reader) and "interpretant" (interpreting character in the text) as one of "narcissistic identification" ["Fiction as Interpretation/Interpretation as Fiction," in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, 1980]. When a literary work features an interpretant, such identification makes distance difficult to maintain. In reading Kingston, however, distance is crucial.

In Woman Warrior, the surface discourse is misleading because the struggle between the protagonist and the immigrant community of Stockton is narrated from the protagonist's point of view. This view, as we have said, is naive due to the narrator's limitations. While anti-female attitudes and unusual practices of "the Chinese" are emphasized, limited space is devoted to the cultural mores of European Americans. In addition, the protagonist's white male oppressors are never identified as such; instead, they are given the generic name "boss" and described as "business-suited in their modern American executive guise." Because the narrator identifies her mother's vivid and grotesque stories as Chinese, the reader might conclude that the Chinese are truly barbaric. This unbalanced presentation of cultures should serve as a warning signal to the discerning reader. Why, one might ask, are white male oppressors "bosses" and ethnic male oppressors "Chinese"? In order to understand such seeming distortions, we must examine the text.

In Woman Warrior, verbal articulation is necessary to survival. The protagonist shows how acutely she feels this when she tortures the quiet girl. "If you don't talk," she exclaims, "you can't have a personality." People deprived of speech, as are the various crazy women cited in the text, do not survive. Here is the primary dilemma of the Chinese American experience. It is in America that survival is an issue for ethnic Americans, where deprivation of speech (a direct result of racist laws) leads to a lack of personality and even the lack of will to live. Storytelling is thus an essential skill in a hostile environment, a skill which ensures the survival of the tribe as well as its individual members. To arrive at this interpretation, the reader must piece together various elements in the text, or what might be called the "subtext." What makes Kingston's "memoirs" so slippery is the implied author's refusal to spell out connections for the reader. Words such as "talk-story," "personality," and "survival" are linked by juxtaposition rather than cause-and-effect logic. The reader must fill in the gaps.

Forcing active reader participation is, of course, a prevalent modernist technique. Nevertheless, a major problem for ethnic writers is the audience's lack of knowledge regarding ethnic American histories and cultures. In Woman Warrior, this is problematic since historical information is scattered throughout the text and often is not attached to specific issues. When the narrator tells us that Chinese people are secretive, for example, we might not understand why until the fear of deportation is mentioned. Thus, the reader is expected to suspend judgment and not jump to conclusions as the narrator does. Kingston's technique of ambiguity, then, requires reconstructive reading skills. While illuminating contexts for the story can be found in the text, only the alert reader can make the necessary connections.

Given the memoir's nonlinear form—that is, its achronological ordering—when Brave Orchid declares, "That's what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite," and the naive narrator inserts "It seemed to hurt her to tell me that," readers need to step back and reconstruct an appropriate context for the exchange. We must realize that we are not witnessing a cultural clash; actually, both mother and daughter are Chinese Americans who share a common culture—though of two successive generations—in America. Brave Orchid calls herself Chinese when she wishes to rationalize her behavior. The evasiveness which both the narrator and her mother attribute to the Chinese, as if it were a racial characteristic, is easily explained within the context of Chinese American history. Even the protagonist's grudge against the "emigrant villagers" must be viewed in the appropriate context.

The misogynistic sayings which are repeated throughout the text must be understood in relation to the Chinese bachelor society in America. As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese women were extremely scarce for several generations in this country. Immigration laws toward the Chinese became somewhat more liberal only with the advent of World War II. This historical fact might have contributed to a brand of male defensiveness (a solidified posture against female encroachment) which is unique to the Chinese American experience. In other words, negative male attitudes toward women—at least as the protagonist experiences them—are partially American-made and, as such, cannot be attributed to the Chinese without locating them in their specific social and historical contexts.

Why is Woman Warrior so ambiguous in both its rhetoric and ideology? Some critics attribute the work's ambiguity to Kingston's "bicultural" background. Not all ethnic texts employ ambiguous narrative strategies, however. For Kingston, ambiguity is a conscious choice which has little to do with bridging cultures. In various interviews, she comments on the need to play literary tricks in "nonfictional" works. On a pragmatic level, she wanted to protect her subjects from immigration officers and police: "but what happened," she admits, "was that this need for secrecy affected my form and my style" ["This is the Story I Heard"]. In other words, ambiguity was necessary as a "cover." A second consideration has to do with the attempt to capture oral culture on the printed page.

As an ethnic female writer, Kingston aligns herself with the Chinese oral tradition of storytelling or talk-story. "Oral stories change from telling to telling," she points out. The written word, on the other hand, is static and finite. "That really brothers me, because what would be wonderful would be for the words to change on the page every time, but they can't. The way I tried to solve this problem was to keep ambiguity in the writing all the time" [Arturo Islas, "Maxine Hong Kingston," Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, edited by Marilyn Yalom, 1983]. This structural ambiguity allows us to experience Brave Orchid's changing the story with each telling.

Walter Ong argues that there is no such thing as "oral literature," because "you can never divest the term 'literature' of its association with writing. This association inevitably deforms the study of oral performance" ["Oral Culture and the Literate Mind," in Minority Language and Literature: Retrospective and Perspective, edited by Dexter Fisher, 1977]. Ong warns us against the habit of viewing oral performance as literature manqué. Since Kingston is, above all, a writer, can she be placed in Ong's category of offenders? As she views it, the vitality of her ethnic heritage resides in oral storytelling. The ability to talk-story is equated in both Woman Warrior and China Men with communal survival and affirmation: it gives talkers like Brave Orchid "great power" (Woman). For Kingston, to claim her cultural status, the ethnic female writer must make words "change on the page" in the manner of oral performances. Thus Woman Warrior, a work which is literary in many respects, thematically privileges orality. Here ambiguity is the creative compromise of a literate mind conveying the improvisational immediacy of oral culture.

By maintaining fluidity throughout the text, Kingston assumes a nonparadigmatic stance and challenges the frequently monolithic Western tradition. In Woman Warrior, fluidity between immature and mature perceptions is maintained through two narrative voices: one child, the other adult. "You lie with stories," the child screams at her mother. "I can't tell what's real and what you make up." This accusation suggests that the young protagonist wants certainty in her life. The narrative's conscious, forward thrust seeks clarity—a release from confusing stories and nightmares. This seemingly clear position is undercut, however, by an adult narrator who admits, analyzes, and condones her own fabrications.

After describing in elaborate detail her aunt Moon Orchid's confrontation with her husband, the narrator comments, "What my brother actually said was…." In other words, the story she just told is her own creation. Her next concession—"His version of the story may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs"—implies that the reader has the right to choose among versions of the text. The adult narrator's own position, however, is clearly conveyed through a parable:

Long ago in China, knot-makers tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker.

Why would she have been an outlaw knot-maker? For the mature narrator, simplicity and clarity no longer seem important. Contrary to the "narrator girl's" anxiety about confusing ethnic stories, her unconscious penchant for telling stories "twisted into designs" like complicated knots is now a virtue. The adult protagonist has attained a tolerance for ambiguity.

While presenting herself as an "outlaw," an exile from the Chinese American community in which she grew up, the adult narrator yet seeks a way to return to the fold on her own terms. She had to leave, she claims, because she thought that "the Chinese" despised females. Psychologically and spiritually, however, she has not given up her ethnic community. The cycle of departure and return is, as the narrative shows, a new and welcome possibility for ethnic females. Ultimately, women warriors do not ride off into the sunset.

Structurally, each story of the woman warrior—whether of the legendary Fa Mu Lan, the narrator's mother Brave Orchid, or the narrator herself—tests the potential for reconciliation between the individual and her community. The narrator declares, for example, that both she and the legendary swordswoman have "the words at our backs." That is, if she uses her verbal ability to avenge her oppressed ethnic community, might she not also be loved and admired by her people? The parallel between the two "warriors" seems perfect until we realize that Kingston's Fa Mu Lan story is a Chinese American myth and not Chinese history. In the classics, Fa Mu Lan's parents do not carve words of vengeance on their daughter's back. In Chinese culture, the legend serves as an example of a daughter's filiality toward her parents. Kingston's fantasy tale, on the other hand, emphasizes the hazards of crossing gender boundaries: "Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students." Assertion of womanhood—by secretly having a lover and bearing a child in battle—is made a heroic act. These details do not correspond to legendary Chinese heroines who fulfilled the "neuter" role of warriors without strong sexual identification [Mary Backus Rankin, "The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch'ing," Women in Chinese Society, edited by Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, 1975]. Hence, the narrator/author's "'chink' and 'gook' words," as well as Fa Mu Lan's tattoos and male/female assertions, are creative constructs made in America.

Once we realize that the sense of Chinese historical "truth" conveyed in the "White Tigers" section is an illusion, we can question the narrator's next-formulation in the same chapter. When she declares, "My American life has been such a disappointment," rather than falling into the bicultural trap of counter pointing "Chinese" heroism against an unheroic "American" life, we might ask: what other life does the narrator have? Since she has never had a Chinese life outside her imagination, the word "American" is meaningless and merely designates "reality." By the same token, when the narrator uses the term "Chinese," the reader needs to substitute "illusion." Because the swordswoman myth is mostly a child's wish-fulfillment, it cannot serve as catalyst for change. The "woman warrior" of the book's title is possibly the trickster's first joke.

Kingston herself has stated that Fa Mu Lan is her myth: "But I put ['The White Tigers' chapter] at the beginning to show that the childish myth is past, not the climax we reach for. Also, 'The White Tigers' is not a Chinese myth but one transformed by America, a sort of kung fu movie parody" ["Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers"]. Within the text, the mature narrator exhibits the same awareness when she says: "Perhaps I made him up [the retarded man from her childhood], and what I once had was not Chinese-sight at all but child-sight that would have disappeared eventually without such struggle." In a single stroke, all of the naive narrator's insights are dismissed as "child-sight." The titanic struggle between "Chinese" and "American" is now seen as a made-up story. Given this interpretive reversal, what is left?

Portrayals of women in Woman Warrior seem to alternate between positive and negative depending on the narrative point of view. Both Fa Mu Lan and Brave Orchid are heroic when the naive narrator describes them, as evidenced in the "White Tigers" and "Shaman" sections. These positive portraits of privileged, exceptional individuals suggest that the warrior image is indeed promoted in the book. When we move to the omniscient narrative of the fourth chapter, however, we find a different view of strong women. Just as we gradually realize that Fa Mu Lan exists only as a fantasy, here we view the "real life" warrior as less than perfect. While the episode between Brave Orchid and her sister Moon Orchid is humorous, it also exposes the destructive side of the rugged individualist. In this chapter, Brave Orchid drives her sister insane. She is culpable, the implied author seems to say, because she cannot empathize with those weaker than herself. This negative judgment is periodically inserted into the text from the third-person point of view: "But Brave Orchid would not relent; her dainty sister would just have to toughen up." There is also intrusive commentary: "She looked at her younger sister whose very wrinkles were fine. 'Forget about a job,' she said, which was very lenient of her."

Even though the text embeds the negative aspects of heroic women such as Fa Mu Lan and Brave Orchid, it also includes an alternative community of women with whom the narrator is identified. In the Fa Mu Lan story, "cowering, whimpering women" on "little bound feet" later form a mercenary army of swordswomen called "witch amazons." While these women are described contemptuously from Fa Mu Lan's point of view ("They blinked weakly at me like pheasants that have been raised in the dark for soft meat"), they also present a vivid image of the downtrodden who ultimately prevail. Throughout the text, a string of oppressed, misunderstood women—including the no-name aunt, the witch amazons, Moon Orchid, the quiet girl, various crazy ladies, and the narrator herself with her "bad, small-person's voice that makes no impact"—counterbalances the superwomen. The protagonist waivers between the weak and the strong, as she does between her outlaw status and her ties to the ethnic community. Her fear of insanity causes her publicly to denounce the rejects, the "Crazy Marys" and "retards," of society. On the other hand, she is closely identified with them in the text—she asks her sister, "do you talk to people that aren't real inside your mind?"—and, in contrast to Brave Orchid, exhibits a deep understanding for this segment of society.

Halfway through Woman Warrior, the adult narrator returns home for a visit. The familiar tug-of-war between mother and daughter resumes until the daughter confronts her overpowering mother with the confession, "when I'm away from here, I don't get sick" and Brave Orchid responds with "It's better, then, for you to stay away…. You can come for visits." Then the mother calls her daughter "Little Dog," a term of endearment. In this crucial scene, not only does a mother learn to let go of her child, but the two women establish grounds for mutual respect. This hint of reconciliation is extended to the books' symbolic ending. The final story is a collaboration between her mother and herself, the adult narrator informs us. Rather than the usual vying over which version of a story is "truer," we now have two storytellers enjoying equal time without, as Sidonie Smith puts it, "the privileging of one before the other" [A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation, 1987]. This final juxta-position suggests the recognition and acceptance of human diversity, mutual respect, and communal sharing.

As an ethnic woman writer, Kingston employs the narrative strategies of a "trickster" to tell her tale. This approach allows her to explore a naive narrator's ambivalence toward her mother's confusing stories without equating the narrator's viewpoint with her own. If we recognize that Woman Warrior is a complex work of art and not a social document, we might begin to appreciate Kingston's attempt to make words "change on the page."

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