| Arts & Culture
Rekindle What I Learned from Maxine Hong Kingston
I told Kingston how much her book meant to me as a half-Chinese woman, as a writer. It showed me my own life was worthy of examination, even exaltation.
At first, I was unenthusiastic about reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior . The book had been assigned to all first-years at my high school in Hawaii. I knew from the cover—a blush-colored, close-up photograph of an Asian girl’s fragmented face, only her almond eyes and full lips visible, accompanied by the subtitle Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts —that it would depict a world I already knew: Chinese immigrants and their firstborn American children.
I opened the book and read dutifully, jolted awake by Kingston’s words. “You must not tell anyone, what I am about to tell you,” the narrator’s mother confides in her. “In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”
Kingston had written the book in Hawaii. She had taught, for years, at a private Oahu school not far from my own. It was on Lanai, an island curved like a comma, where she penned those early pages. The town’s bowling alley was closed, the movie theater’s projector broken—so she turned the desk to the wall and started to write.
As I read her words, I experienced a feeling previously unknown to me: recognition. I had always turned to books for pleasure, as portals to other places. Reading The Woman Warrior, for the first time I saw myself on every page and in every word. I understood Kingston’s family’s silence and admired her outspoken defiance. Though I opened the book unwilling, I closed it fully transformed.
In the weird way that books can reassert themselves in your life years later, like a first love you’ve never forgotten, I pulled The Woman Warrior from my shelf last summer. When I realized its fortieth anniversary was approaching, I asked over email to interview Kingston, and was grateful when she agreed.
Before we spoke by phone, I pored over other interviews she had given, articles that were written about her. Time and time again, she encountered the same questions: What’s the importance of silence? Is the book fiction or nonfiction? Why deem it a memoir? Yet beneath every question—beneath wanting to understand Chinese Americans, or how to infiltrate the publishing industry as a minority—I recognized that these interviewers had another impulse: They sought communion. A moment to tell Kingston how she had touched them in a profoundly personal way.
In Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, a book of collected interviews, the introduction notes how “Students, particularly Asian American women, look to her as a model, find themselves in her tales, seek her out with sycophantic regularity.” But Kingston is not without critics. After The Woman Warrior’s publication, she (like David Henry Hwang, Jade Snow Wong, and Amy Tan) received vehement, notorious criticism. Author and playwright Frank Chin argued that she pandered to white audiences and confirmed racist stereotypes.
In her first essay, “The No Name Woman,” Kingston acknowledges the challenges in depicting “authentic” Chinese culture:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing up with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
In other words: How do you understand yourself in a culture that caricatures your Chineseness, and always deems you Other?
My father and his family left Hong Kong by boat and arrived in Honolulu’s sunny harbor in the summer of 1966. My own childhood on the island was distinctly different from his poor upbringing, which he transcended through perseverance and education, rising through the local public schools to Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming a respected surgeon.
Still I was submerged in the vestiges of his youth: the weekends lying about Popo’s apartment in the low-income community of Liliha, not far from where she had raised my father and his three siblings; the mornings I spent clasping her hand, absorbing the stench and squalor and squabbling of Chinatown, while she selected pork baus and inspected leafy bok choy greens for dinner; the afternoons spinning lazy Susans, round and round, during dim sum inside Legend’s Seafood Restaurant.
Then there was bisan, the annual ceremony where we paid respects to our ancestors at the graveyard, deep in Manoa valley. There we lit incense and burned paper money and poured cheap, bitter, biting vodka on my gung gung’s grave: a small, concrete-covered tract of land, framed by untrimmed grass, where he was buried, one month after my father’s arrival in the islands.
What I most longed to hear, what was always absent, were family stories. “If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether flashy or ordinary,” Kingston wrote, “I would have to begin, ‘Remember Father’s drowned-in-the-well sister?’ I cannot ask that. My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life.” My family wayfound in these waters, too, pushing off the muddy banks, navigating around the eddys, shrouding themselves in silence.
If the authors I worshipped before Kingston had offered me escape, they also ingrained the belief that only certain types of stories—namely war-torn, debaucherous, Anglo-European—were worth telling. Maxine Hong Kingston showed me my own life was worthy of examination, even exaltation, as it existed.
Part of The Woman Warrior’s outsized influence hinges on history. In 1976, when the book was published, society had reached an inflection point where racial equality and second-wave feminism commanded cultural attention. Alongside writers like Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and Alice Walker, Kingston crafted empowered female characters while critiquing traditionally feminine ways. Most crucially, she wrote women into history. She seared them into our consciousness: women like herself; women like her nameless aunt; women like her mother, Brave Orchid; women like the warrior Fa Mulan.
The year after I first read her book, my school removed it from the freshman syllabus. “ Mostly it was boys who hated it,” my former teacher said. I considered fate and timing and how my mentor, Hawaiian author Lois Ann Yamanaka, once told me: “Until you see yourself in literature, you don’t exist.”
I didn’t encounter Chin’s criticism of The Woman Warrior until years after I first read the book. His views appear to me, in part, misogynistic, an effort to tear down a female author of the same ethnicity who had achieved more commercial and critical success.
But his critique also taps into a larger issue minority writers face, more or less ad nauseum: the burden of representation, or the idea that a single work can fully and accurately depict a whole culture and all of its members. In May 2016, Kingston discussed this burden at the Los Angeles Public Library with Viet Thanh Nguyen, a former student of hers and author of The Refugees and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer.
“I was called a race traitor, I was called a castrator, I was called a liar, [that] I got my facts wrong,” she said. Despite the praise, the fans, the commercial success, the National Book Critics Circle Award, Kingston couldn’t appease everyone.
“We’ve been so successful at creating this category that Asian American literature is both an opportunity and a constriction,” Viet Thanh Nguyen later told me by phone. While many Asian American authors have been published in the last forty years, Nguyen recognized that many of the themes The Woman Warrior explores—silence, violence, identity, intergenerational tension, the American Dream—are now expected from the publishing industry. And this, he said, “leads to the encouragement of certain kinds of Asian American literature that tends to be more stereotypical or not challenging.”
Kingston herself recalled, years ago, in another interview, how a group of women from UCLA had once approached her after a reading, and asked, “‘Do you know there is a generic Maxine Hong Kingston rejection slip?’ They said that they sent in some writing and the publishers reject them, but on top of that, they advise them to read my work.” In an acceptance speech for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Editorial Award , executive editor Chris Jackson called this the gatekeeping of white culture: an invisible force that simultaneously shapes cultural works — those books ultimately acquired, published, and publicized—and the psyches of writers, creating an internal self-policing that regulates what they permit themselves to create.
The Sympathizer , Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, was initially rejected by thirteen out of fourteen publishers. “Was the book doing something they didn’t expect or felt they couldn’t market?” he wonders of those publishers. For him, it’s hard not to consider that the rigid ideas of what Asian American or Vietnamese literature should be played “some role” in how some of those editors encountered his work.
Kingston has said that she actually intended to write a great American book, following the lineage of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain . In “The No Name Woman,” the book’s first essay about her aunt’s suicide, she took inspiration from another American classic, The Scarlet Letter , viewing the piece “as a discussion of the Puritan part of America, and of China, and a woman’s place.” Through her writing, she has said, she “was claiming the English language and the literature to tell our story”—meaning the story of Chinese Americans—“as Americans.”
Throughout my conversations with Kingston and Nguyen, an unsettling thought nagged at me. I, too, was categorizing them, hoping that they would somehow explain or erase the category of “Asian American Literature” for me. I share my discomfort with Nguyen, and ask if designating literature and authors as “Asian American” instead of American is problematic or bothersome to him.
“I think I’d only find it bothersome if those were the only options offered to me,” Nguyen says. “For most of the last century, people didn’t even know what Asian American literature was, so to assert yourself as an Asian American author was an act of rebellion.”
In my own writing, I rarely consider the burden of representation. Perhaps this is a personal failing, or the only way I can write. Or perhaps the burden of representation is so deeply internalized that it already determines everything I do.
For years, I wrote almost exclusively about my Chinese father’s family: about the photograph I found, the only complete family portrait they took, right before emigrating from Hong Kong to Hawaii; about how I interviewed my popo and obtained her oral history when I was twenty years old, and learned, for the first time, that she had hid beneath her bed when the Japanese invaded her village, that her marriage hadn’t been arranged, and that she never remarried because she still loved her husband; about bisan, the annual ceremony where we celebrated my gung gung’s life, but rarely remembered him through stories.
I studied in Shanghai during my junior year of college, and if you had asked me why, I would have told you: It’s where my father’ s family is from, it’s a place that I should see —but really, I wanted to witness “the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods,” as Kingston wrote. I hoped that China would clarify myself to me, and help me write a book. I took notes and hoped that one day, like Kingston, I might find my story. Instead I discovered that the distance between myself and China was vast, even insurmountable. The country would not clarify myself to me.
Today, I mostly write about culture, fashion, women, and rarely, if ever, about my Chinese family. Sometimes I wonder why. Do I refrain because I’m wary of being categorized as an Asian American writer? Because I hesitate to ask my family about the things they think are unspeakable?
Maybe, if I am honest, the real reason I no longer write about my father’s family is fear: There is so much to misrepresent.
One evening last April, I met Maxine Hong Kingston. She was giving a reading to celebrate The Woman Warrior’s fortieth anniversary, and I found out about the event at the last moment and decided to attend. Near Cooper Union, on the fourth floor of an NYU building, I entered the crowded room hoping, like many, to meet her. The writer Jenny Zhang, NYU professor Pacharee Sudhinaraset , journalist and professor Hua Hsu, and NYU professor Jess Row sat beside her at a table up front.
In person, Kingston is small, slight, and joyous. For the occasion she wore an aubergine sweater and a simple garnet necklace, while her famously silver hair flowed freely behind her. She read passages from the book, her voice quaking but vigorous, and afterwards the panelists reflected on The Woman Warrior’s influence.
Before the wine and hors d’oeuvres, a large birthday cake, finished with colorful frosting depicting The Woman Warrior’s first edition’s cover, was brought out for everyone to consume. Fans formed a serpentine line to meet Kingston, say hello, give praise, and request that she sign their books. Kingston shook hands and intermittently sipped wine. While I waited in line, I debated leaving. Already Kingston had shared her time, her thoughts, her wisdom with me. What more did I want from her? Recognition? Reassurance? Praise? What does anyone seek from the authors they meet, anyway?
But then Kingston turned to me. “Hi!” I exclaimed, as though she knew who I was. I explained how I had her by phone a few months ago. She beamed and clasped my hand. “It’s so good to meet you,” she said. interviewed
I bent at the knees so we were eye-level as we spoke. I told her how much her book meant to me: as an adolescent, as a half-Chinese woman, as a writer.
It is only months after our meeting, while reflecting on Kingston’s importance in Asian American literature and in my own life, that I remember how she told me she is now writing her posthumous work. She admitted that she sometimes feels pressure to be “uplifting” in a sense; that the community expects she write only “nice things about our ethnic group.”
“I’m liberating myself to write anything I want,” she told me. By stipulating that the book won’t be published until one hundred years after her death, she said, “I can let go of that duty [to be uplifting] and I can write. I can put my negative emotions in. I can write my shadow.”