I picked up Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior at a local used bookstore. As I went through the pages, I noticed that almost every page had extensive annotations in red, green, and black Sharpie. There were brackets, underlines, circles, and notes. The first page had the name of the previous owner, a New York state campus, and a date “1992.” I purchased it. Reading this book, which is subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts,” took longer than a spell at the end of 2016 when I went through a couple in succession. This book took several months. Not because of its length at 209 pages, but because of the author uncompromising method which fights against the signposts we seek in a memoir: an narrator from a future time speaking about the past; a this-then-that chronology; the sketch of the growth of relationships; and all that explanation.
While the subtitle states this book is a collection, it is a memoir. At first, I thought that each story was a segment of the narrator’s life from a different perspective. While it has that in it, each piece starts with the narrator and then segues into another story from or about her aunt, mother, younger aunt: it is storytelling about storytelling. Once all the pieces are read, you start to fill in the gaps a-chronologically but with the guide of context from the collective body of these voices and how they shape and express the narrator’s psyche. I would only realize that the urgency of those annotations from grappling with this maze.
I return to the word uncompromising because Kingston’s vision does not rest. For one, it does not abide by the traditions of Asians in American letters. She sees the transitory state of immigrant not as a recent phenomena, a challenge or fulfillment of to the American ideal, or solely a particular socioeconomic condition, but a state carrying through human history. She does not simply externalize this, but shows through her method how that state also a personal even literary one. It is one thing to be written about and for a story to be told about you. It is one thing even to take advantage of a story for oneself. But only rarely would one wield the power of the immigrant, outsider, or warrior–like the Mulan of this book’s title no less–to bring forth and articulate a new vernacular: true to one’s own and polyglot and American. Here Kingston clasps the hilt.
Book Review: 8/10: A singular memoir that breaks and re-imagines the genre.