Book review: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Posted June 29, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

Book review:  The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong KingstonThe Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
Published by Vintage on April 1989
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir
Format: Paperback
Pages: 209
Source: my shelves

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The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts was first published in 1975 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.  It was also named by Time Magazine as one of the top nonfiction books of the 1970s.  It is Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir about being raised in California by her Chinese immigrant parents, and it is an interesting blend of nonfiction, Chinese folktales and feminist themes.  Kingston uses the stories of five women, while integrating her own memories of her childhood, to write a book about the ways in which she and other women stood up to traditional, patriarchal Chinese culture.  It is also the story of a young Kingston trying to reconcile the Chinese culture she was raised in, with the American culture that she is also a part of:

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 with stories, from what is Chinese?  What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?

This quote is also a foreshadowing of the way in which Kingston blends fact and fiction within the book.  Before I read The Woman Warrior, I found it interesting that the title very clearly states that the book is a memoir, but that it is listed as Fiction/Literature on the back cover.  How can it be both?  What we discover is that Kingston’s childhood memories are so full of the talk-stories her mother told her, that the lines between what she knows to be true and what her mother has told her are kind of blurred.  When Kingston tells us the story of the legendary woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan (Hua Mulan), she does so in the first person, as though Kingston is the woman warrior in the story.  Throughout the book, we learn that each story she has been told has given her something that she can use to understand her own identity within the two cultures she is a part of.

There are three main themes within The Woman Warrior:  the role of women in traditional Chinese culture, what it means (or how it feels) to grow up as a first generation Chinese-American, and silence/voice.  In the case of the role of women in traditional Chinese culture—women were expected to be obedient, feminine, silent—what I found most interesting was that while Kingston’s mother was giving her the stories of woman warriors (both those in Chinese folktales, and those of herself and her family), she was also telling Kingston that she (Kingston) would grow up to be nothing more than a wife and a slave.  So at the same time that Kingston’s mother was teaching her daughter how to break free from the patriarchy of Chinese culture, she was also confirming the idea that women should remain silent and obedient.  Was she doing this as a kind of reverse psychology?  Did she think that her daughter needed to be a warrior and find her own way to break free from what was expected of her as a Chinese woman?  I don’t know.  But the two very different things she was learning from her mother only added to her confusion as a girl belonging to two very different cultures/worlds.

The whole book really revolved around the theme of silence vs. voice.  The book opens with Kingston’s mother telling her, “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you.”  Not only is Kingston’s mother confiding in her and giving voice to something that should not be spoken of, but now Kingston has put the story down on paper for all of us to read.  In another part of the book, Kingston tells us how her mother cut her tongue’s frenem in order to help Kingston speak more freely, but Kingston believes her mother has done this as a way to keep her silent.  Kingston also shows us how remaining silent about something can have the power to drive a person insane.  Throughout the book we read about how silence and voice are used in different ways:  to oppress, to scare and to shun, but also to subvert, fight back, and to pass along traditional Chinese stories and ideas from one generation to the next.

Although Kingston grew up with these conflicting stories, ideas and cultures, in the end she takes all of the stories she has been told and puts her own spin on them in order to make sense of her identity as a Chinese-American and in order to find her own voice within the confusion these stories created for her.

I really enjoyed the way The Woman Warrior was written; it gave Kingston’s story a very surreal feeling in the way that I would imagine her childhood felt very surreal to her.  Kingston is a wonderful writer and story-teller.  I would recommend this book to those who are interested in traditional Chinese culture and women’s roles within that culture, and to those who are interested in what it is like to grow up as a first generation Chinese-American.  I would also recommend this to anyone who enjoys good memoirs or story-telling.  It is a very good book, and one that I foresee myself re-reading in the future.

Have you read The Woman Warrior?  What are your thoughts?

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(Click here to learn more about Maxine Hong Kingston.  I also found this wonderful interview she gave for the Bill Moyers Journal in 2007, about the work she does with war veterans.  It is definitely worth watching.)

**If you choose to purchase this title–or any others–using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).

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  • Glad you enjoyed the read, Heather. I have read it and taught it in my autobiography writing classes, and the style is difference, but opens the mind as to what autobiography can be. The story of her aunt at the beginning always stayed with me — more disturbing, how similar life and norms were for women in our own culture up through the 1950s. You hit on one of the major themes, which is sharing our stories (which is the heart of what autobiography is all about — but to Kingston, how stories are passed from generation to generation, and what a difference they can make. So listen to your mother! haha
    Sam

    • I am very thankful that my family is full of story-tellers. I have been listening carefully the whole time and I’m glad that I have been able to pass those stories on. Don’t worry, Sam… I always listen to my mother. Haha!

  • Ooh, I’ve had this book on my To-Read list for a while now, but I’ve been putting it off because I wasn’t sure about it. Your review makes it sounds really interesting. I love the idea of mixing the stories in with the biography. I’ll have to go check this out.

    • It was very interesting. I really enjoyed reading it (read it in a day).

  • I read this book about two years ago for class. Initially I didn’t look forward to it and, despite my love of reading, viewed it as a chore. However, as it went on I really got interested in it and enjoyed the style. There were a lot of really interesting themes to think about. I’d also like to re-read it in the future to better appreciate it.