Saturday, March 2, 2013

Maxine Hong Kingston (1940-)

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. 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.
“Don’t let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful.”

Kerber, Linda K. & DeHart, Jane Sherron, Eds. Women’s America: refocusing the past. Oxford University Press, NY, 1995. p.507

Born in 1940, Maxine Hong Kingston grew up in Stockton, California, the eldest of her immigrant parents’ six children. As a child working in her parents’ laundry and attending public school, she experienced the tensions typical of immigrant children caught between their parents’ culture and the dominant culture. Yet the family ideology and gender prescriptions associated with cold war America were, in many respects, a much more benign version of the views her parents had brought with them from China. That Maxine resisted those prescriptions is evident not only in the bitterness with which she would later write about them, but in her decision to enroll in the University of California at Berkeley in 1958 and to become an author.

Here are some excerpts from "No Name Woman," White Tigers," and "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," chaps. 1, 2, and 5 of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). 

"Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos and the heads for delicacies and boil the feet in vinegar for party food, leaving only the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining - could such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a wate enough. My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family...

Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.

In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt's name; I do not know it. People who can comfort the dead can also chase after them to hurt them further - a reverse ancestor worship. The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after her death...

When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talking-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen. Even if she had to rage across all China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family. Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound...

At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story. After I grew up, I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle. Instantly I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.

My American life has been such a disappointment..."

For your consideration:

Maxine's mother gave her mixed messages about the fate of Chinese women. Do these messages merely confuse or do they honestly reflect the dichotomy of society's view of women?

Is it a true dichotomy? The mother/whore, the slave/warrior woman? Or is it possible to be both?

In forcing a choice (between roles) can society/can women ever be satisfied?
Kingston is a Chinese American author and Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1962. She has written three novels and several works of non-fiction about the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the United States.

She has contributed to the feminist movement with such works as her memoir The Woman Warrior, which discusses gender and ethnicity and how these concepts affect the lives of women. Kingston has received several awards for her contributions to Chinese American Literature including the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1981 for China Men.

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