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Maxine Hong Kingston: Mistress of Narration

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As a writer, I wield my voice like an actor affects an accent. My voice is bipolar, sometimes suffering from multiple personalities. I use a different voice every time I want to speak of a different part of me. I use a different voice to speak of my writing than I do to speak of my music. I use a different voice when speaking of my friends than when speaking of my family. I use a different voice when speaking of what is American than when speaking of what is Filipino. My cultural duplicity has created a schism inside of my, a schizophrenia of what I know and what I mean. When I write about myself as a Filipino-American, it compels me to sacrifice American grammatical correctness in order to convey my Filipino meaning. For instance, when speaking of my mother, I can never write completely in English, and I can never write completely as myself. My mother isn’t an entity that can be explained wholly in English, and she’s not an entity that I am entitled to explain myself, so I must tell her story as another, another who would know. In order to make the reader understand, I must at times walk two roads simultaneously, writing neither one way nor the other, but both at the same time. In one moment, I will be fully immersed in the story and in others I will have removed myself completely and begin telling the story as another.

Maxine Hong Kingston manipulates the art of narration as skillfully in this manner, straddling two worlds of language, two points of view, two voices. Kingston uses her voice as an instrument, singing a different song each time she plays it. Her voice sometimes sings her own story, sometimes that of her mother, or of her father. In her memoirs, Woman Warrior, and a collection of essays based on the lives of her male ancestors, China Men, Kingston speaks in different voices to tell the stories of those who came before her. Her many voices, using different ones to speak of her mother, her father, herself in relation to her mother, her mother in relations to China, etc, weave the tapestry of her life. Their stories comprise her own story, her own exploration of what it means to be Chinese, American, and Chinese-American.

Kingston’s narrative style takes on three different tones, never completely staying in the first person. Likewise, her essays are never directly and completely about herself; they’re every exocentric, focusing on Kingston’s relationship to those around her and the elements that influenced her development. She includes the histories of many others within her pieces, using them to express a part of her which her own experiences cannot explain. She is an archaeologist of the self, exploring her past in order to explain her present, digging into what once was in order to understand what she is now. Together, her many voices create for the reader a symphony, discordant thought not cacophonous, of her being. The sounds of her tapestry blend together like street chalks on a rainy day: confusing and overwhelming to comprehend at times, but beautiful nonetheless. She uses her voices to show us the conclusions that she draws about herself, as if she is “talk-storying” her way to self-discovery. After reading each piece, the reader has a better sense of exactly who Kingston is as a Chinese-American female. She uses her voice to explain her cultural identity, to eradicate the confusion that results from being taught America by a Chinese school. Her obsession is trying to “understand what things in [her] are Chinese” (“No Name Woman” 5). Kingston asks “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” (“No Name Woman” 5-6)? She tries to discern what about her life thus has been a part of everyone’s childhood or growth, whether her deprivation was that of poverty or of being Chinese, whether her family’s quirks were insanity or being Chinese. What is Chinese and what is universally? In trying to answer this questions, she develops the same vocal schizophrenia as me. Her voice leaps from hers to her mothers and sometimes merely sways and wavers in between. Her writing is intensely autobiographical, yet she spreads herself widely over a spectrum of omniscience. Her first-person presence within her writing ranges from constant to at times almost nonexistent and undetectable.

Most commonly, she joins her voice with that of another, as in “No Name Woman,” the first piece in her Woman Warrior collection. In this piece, her mother’s voice is spoken through her mouth; the division between them is almost invisible. The first part of the essay is a story which her mother tells her about her allegedly adulterous aunt, villainized and accused of harlotry. The story blames her aunt of being unfaithful to her husband, who was working overseas. After giving birth, she killed both herself and the baby, and her family’s reaction was to simply forget that she ever existed, a posthumous punishment to her soul. Her mother’s aim is simple: Kingston recalls that “whenever she had to warn her [sisters and her] about life, [her] mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested [their] strength to establish realities” (“No Name Woman” 5). “Now that you’ve started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you,” she warns Kingston, “Don’t humiliate us” (“No Name Woman” 5). The story is quintessentially Chinese; overly moral and tragically lacking details of the motives, feelings, and emotions of the ill-fated protagonist.

In her retelling of the story, Kingston uses her American voice to fill in the blanks, to tell the reader what her mother does not. While her mother makes it seem as if what befell her aunt was the disease of frivolity, stupidity, and an overactive sexual drive, Kingston sees her aunt’s demise as a result of the malady of womanhood, a problem she was too weak to overcome. She reasons that “adultery is extravagance,” concluding that her “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” (“No Name Woman” 6). In order to explore a weakness that she, as an American female, does not possess, but cannot explain with her moral and traditional Chinese voice, she uses her American voice. Her American voice allows her to explore the part of the story that she possesses, the part of the story her mother does not see. Her American voice washes her aunt?s guilt away, and with it, the guilt of all Chinese females. In her musings, she mixes history with speculation, facts that her mother has told her and the ideas that growing up American have planted in her head, as she does in the parables that appear in China Men. Similarly, they are stories from old China, but Kingston retells them with an American point of view. The mythical “Women’s Land” goes from being a utopia with “no taxes and no wars” to a place where women who were shamed into prettiness get their revenge on men, subjecting a man named Tang Ao to ear-piercing and foot-binding (“On Discovery” 4-5). By mixing Chinese stories with American points of view, Kingston makes her first statement about herself: that she is the product of that which came before her, other women’s weakness and other women’s shame have contributed to her strength and pride as a Chinese-American female.

Kingston uses a similar manipulation of narrative voice in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Her voice consistently remains in one point of view, but in this piece is it more egocentric. Kingston begins to explore herself as an individual Chinese-American, and not in relation to those who comprise the sum of her being. The majority of the story is told in first person, but at the end she assumes a troubadouresque voice, emulating her mother?s “talk-storying” as she recounts a story she told her. She jumps from speculating actual life in China to telling her story about her grandmother and a Chinese poetess who lived in the second century A.D. “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” is sprawling; Kingston touches on myriad subjects, ranging from her early experiences in elementary school to immigrants to Communism to a perverted, mentally retarded whom she was convinced her parents wanted to marry her off to, in an effort to understand her silence. Silence, she seemed to believe, can only lead to one’s demise, as it did for her no-name aunt, who refused to name the man with whom she slept, instead choosing to remain in an ignoble silence. She believed that she, unlike her aunt, possessed a wild, uncontrollable desire to speak, and that is why her mother cut her tongue. “She pushed my tongue up and sliced the frenum,” because “the Chinese say ‘a ready tongue is an evil'” (163-164). It is only after going on a journey through Kingston’s life and her wrestling with the supposed imposed silence that we understand that Kingston misunderstood her mother’s intentions all along. In the middle of a pseudo-argument during which Kingston tried to prove herself as a rebel to her uninterested parents, her mother finally tells her, “I cut [your tongue] to make you talk more, not less, you dummy” (202). Kingston’s paranoia about her mother and her mutilated tongue, chopped up and torn between two languages and two voices, is the satchel that holds Kingston’s stories, and the end parable, allegorical to Kingston’s relationship with her mother, is the string that holds it closed. The Chinese poetess, Ts’ai Yen, raised her children among barbarians, so they spoke a different language from her and were brought up in a different culture than she was. After Ts’ai Yen left the barbarians to live among her own people again, she brought with her the songs that she wrote in the ‘savage lands,” one of which was “‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well” (209). While the rest of the piece is told in the Kingston “I” so she can investigate the sources of her paranoia and leave us in the dark as she was to her mother?s actual intentions, Kingston leaves behind her “I” at the end again in an effort to universalize. She claims at the end that the silence Chinese-American females grow up with is self-imposed, the product of paranoia. Despite being written for a barbarian reed pipe, Ts’ai Yen’s songs can still be sung on Chinese instruments. Despite raising their children in American, Chinese parents can still have a meaningful impact on their children, like Kingston?s silence complex.

In a variation of the juxtaposed voice technique, she makes the distinction between her voices more apparent, as in “White Tigers” and “Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains.” While the latter essay begins with Kingston speaking in her “I” voice and continues and ends in the third person as she discusses her great grandfather?s life, “White Tigers” is told fully in the first person, however not always in the Kingston “I.” The first half of “White Tigers” is spoken as Kingston imagining herself as Fa Mu Lan, the ancient Chinese Woman warrior forever idolized in American pop culture as the Disney heroine Mulan. By removing the Kingston “I” from the story and completely assuming to Fa Mu Lan “I,” she universalizes the woman warrior experience for all Chinese-American females, putting forth herself and all Chinese-American females as the embodiment of the Chinese female struggle. In the Mu Lan half, before she goes into battle, Mu Lan’s parents “carve revenge on [her] back” before she goes into battle so she would “never forget” their sacrifice (“White Tigers” 34). Her bravery, to disguise herself as a man, go into battle, and defeat the enemy, wins her fame and immortality: her spirit lives on in Chinese females like Kingston. “From the words on my back, and how they were fulfilled, the villagers would make a legend about my perfect filiality” (“White Tigers” 45). After finishing the Fa Mu Lan story, Kingston makes a brusque shift and brings back the Kingston “I.” Immediately after setting up an expectation of “perfect filiality” for the Chinese-American female population, to remember their parents sacrifice, she makes an abrupt break, saying that her “American life has been such a disappointment.” Kingston?s American successes lie in making straight A?s, not joining the imperial army. In articulating her failure to live up to the Fa Mu Lan expectation, She claims that it was “important that I do something big and fine, or else my parents would sell me when we made our way back to China?.You can?t eat straight A?s” (“White Tigers” 45). Thus Kingston makes another important statement about herself: that although she is the product of those who came before her, she is different, and that is what makes her American. In “Great Grandfather from the Sandalwood Mountains,” she attempts to investigate this difference. The end of the first person narrative section of the essay ends with Kingston?s desire, to “discern what it is that makes people go West and turn into Americans,” to “compare China, a country [she] made up, with what country is really out there” (“Great Grandfather” 87). Kingston then launches into a narrative recounting her great grandfather?s experiences as a sugar cane plantation worker in Hawaii, painting the portrait of the original victim of culture shock and duplicity, the original victim of vocal schizophrenia.

In China Men, Kingston moves from self-discovery to social commentary, which in itself is a larger form of autobiography because she narrates the culture in which she grew up, the culture that fostered her growth and development as a writer. Like “Great Grandfather from the Sandalwood Mountains,” most of the pieces in China Men contain almost none of Kingston?s personal voice, a move in effort to expand on the universalizing tendencies of Woman Warrior. In pieces such as “At the Western Palace” in Woman Warrior, where the story is told from her mother?s point of view, the reader learns nothing directly about Kingston, as we do in other stories where Kingston?s personal voice is more active. However, what we do see is “Kingston self-consciously [reading] herself into existence through the stories her culture tells about women” (Smith 57). The reader sees Kingston in Woman Warrior and more broadly in China Men “using autobiography to create identity” and “[break] out of the silence that has bound her culturally to discover a resonant voice of her own” (Smith 57). Kingston finds this voice in Woman Warrior. In China Men, she surrenders it in order to make a broader statement about who she is as a Chinese-American, and who Chinese-Americans are among themselves. China Men is a mix of history and parable, fact and fable. Kingston often uses herself as a narrative springboard, as in “Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains,” opening the pieces in her voices, but never returning, as she does in some of the pieces in Woman Warrior. The use of the third person throughout each piece universalizes the experience in itself; there is no need for a conclusion that seems to deviate from the rest of the piece.

Kingston expands further on the theme of silence in China Men. While in Woman Warrior, she spoke as her mother, in China Men she speaks for her father. Since men are not as prone to “talk-story? as the women of her family are,” Kingston tells their stories for them. She tells her father that she?ll “tell [him] what [she supposes] from [his] silences and few words,” speaking to him in the second person voice. The silence of her male ancestors is similar to the silence the Kingston suffers from. While Kingston?s American musings in “No Name Woman” attempted to explore a psychological history, her musings in China Men aim to explore an actual history, a social genealogy that the men in her family were too ashamed to speak of, as in the same way Kingston felt silenced as she was growing up. “You only look and talk Chinese,” she notices of her father. She asks him, “Do you mean to give us a chance at being real Americans by forgetting the Chinese past?” but she is troubled by her need to understand the Chinese part of her, which is why she wants “to hear the stories about the rest of [his] life, the Chinese stories” (“Father from China” 14-15). The reason for her father?s silence grows evident throughout the book: with all the hardship that he suffered, first in China, then in American, it makes sense that he would want to forget. He worked as a village schoolteacher in China, but fails miserably in trying to capture the minds of the unenthused students. “The students ruined his eating” and “teaching was destroying his literacy.” In fact in the next few pieces, we begin to see why so many Chinese remained silent about their history. As Kingston recounts her great grandfather or Bak Goong?s time working in the sugar plantations in Hawaii in “Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains,” she points out that they were silenced, both by their bosses on the plantation who “had a rule that they not talk at work,” a rule so “absurd” to him that “he thought he must have misheard tones,” but also by their proud families back home, who had such high expectations from the men they sent home, expectations inflated by the salesman- type pitches that the recruiters impressed them with (“Great Grandfather” 99-100). The story ends, as does Woman Warrior, with a break of the silence. Bak Goong and the other China Men at the sugar plantation have a “shout party” (“Great Grandfather” 118) to relieve their “congestion from not talking” (“Great Grandfather” 115) In Woman Warrior, Kingston?s maternal history lives on through her mother?s talk-story. In “Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains,” Kingston reveals how her paternal history lives on. The men decided to have the shout party after hearing Bak Goong tell a story about a man whose shouted a secret into the ground and buried it, only to have it grow up into the grass and carried off by the wind into the ears of all who would listen. After the China Men shout their words into the ground, they “buried their words, planted them” (“Great Grandfather” 118). “Soon the new green shoots would rise, and when in two years the cane grew gold tassels, what stories the wind would tell” (“Great Grandfather” 118).

Summarily, Kingston is of both silences, a paranoid silence she feels was imposed by those who came before her and also a shameful silence imposed by those around her. This is the main concern which Kingston seeks to address with her narrative voice hopscotch: to overcome the silence that she?s been plagued by, and to make certain statements about who she is as a Chinese-American female. “Storytelling?becomes the means through which Kingston confronts those complexities and ambivalences” that come with growing up Chinese-American (Smith 58). Kingston answers the question of “what is Chinese and what is the movies” by storytelling, by writing her books. Kingston?s voice and the many sides of it culminate to “constitute the voice of her own subjectivity, to emerge from a past dominated by stories told to her?into a present articulated by her own storytelling” (Smith 58). Kingston?s collective work is a multifaceted jewel of a history that one can hold up in different lights to see the different stories and how they coalesce into one large body, one Hong, one Kingston, sheathed in the writer that is Maxine. Her work is multi-accented like Eliza Doolittle, and thus we see the whole scope of her being, everything included Chinese-American and the dash in between. She uses the many colors and threads of her voice to weave an understanding of her psyche for the reader, and therefore comes to terms with her own cultural schizophrenia, the bipolar voice and forced silence that being Chinese/American imposed on her. By the end of Woman Warrior, we have a portrait of Kingston as Chinese-American, seeing everything Chinese, everything American, and everything -, instead of just Chinese/American. Her story, on the larger scope, is one of dynamics with no movement, movement but no progression, reaching an end that is by no means a relief. Her voices produce symphonies that end on the dominant chord, waiting patiently for a resolution, an understanding of the self.

Works Cited

Kingston, Maxine Hong. “The Father from China.” China Men. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “The Great Grandfather from the Sandalwood Mountains.” China Men. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “On Discovery.” China Men. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “At the Western Palace.” Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “No Name Woman.” Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
—. “White Tigers.” Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
Smith, Sidonie. “Filiality and Woman?s Autobiographical Storytelling.” Maxine Hong Kingston?s The Woman Warrior. Ed. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: 57-84.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Really great stuff, fascinating, but please kill the “smart quotes” in your word processor (causing all of those weird “A’s”)

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