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Maxine Hong Kingston burst onto the scene of literary production in 1976 with her bestselling book The Woman Warrior, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

In this autobiography, Kingston narrates her experience growing up as a Chinese-American woman who must not only search for an identity but must also learn to carry the burden of her family's secrets. This silence plays an important part in shaping Kingston's attitude, behavior, and character. Indeed, the struggle against silence forms the very core of the book. Women, striving to find a voice in the midst of the turbulent feminist movement, related--whether they were Chinese-American or not--to this important theme.

Kingston uses the story of her aunt, No Name Woman, to show us the cumbersome weight of the family secrets. In a story reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, No Name Woman gives birth outside of wedlock and, wracked with shame, throws herself into the family well.

Kingston's mother, also full of shame, commands her daughter not to tell anyone the story of her aunt: "Don't tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She was never born." No Name Woman tainted the family name, so her family punishes her by erasing her from memory.

Of course, Kingston's mother tells her daughter this story to warn the girl of the results of sexual promiscuity and of bringing shame upon the family. To Kingston, however, the story is much more than a cautionary tale. It is one of the secrets she must carry as part of her, a reason to live in silence. By taking part in her aunt's punishment (by remaining silent, erasing the trace), unfortunately, Kingston also punishes herself by silencing her own voice.

Even years later, as a grown woman, Kingston is afraid to tell secrets, fearful of the repercussions:

My aunt haunts me--her ghost drawn to me because now, after
fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though
not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always
means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide,
drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always
very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair
hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a

Although Kingston does not literally take her aunt's place, she does wrestle with the same burden of secrecy and silence. In telling the story of her aunt in a book, however, Kingston has struck a balance between silence and revelation. She finds a space between the two by writing the story instead of speaking it.

Ghosts are not the only things suppressing Kingston's voice, however. A lack of understanding from others also grieves Kingston when she tries to speak. Never encouraged to give voice to her thoughts and opinions, she becomes terrified of speaking aloud.

When she speaks in school, for example, Kingston only receives misunderstanding in return: "I remember telling the Hawaiian teacher, 'We Chinese can't sing 'land where our father died.' She argued with me about politics, while I meant because of curses." Kingston, misunderstood again and again, learns to keep quiet. By repressing her voice, she forms a protective barrier around herself, which places her in a space entirely separate from the culture that undermines her sense of self-worth. Although silence is a lonely and miserable escape, Kingston decides it is better than the humiliation she expects when she speaks.

When in the American community, Kingston is misunderstood; in the Chinese community, she feels that her voice is merely a commodity used for her mother's benefit. Her mother forces her to translate to non-Chinese speakers, a process which usually results in our narrator's embarrassment. Her mother simply does not understand the differences between American and Chinese culture.

In one especially humiliating moment, Kingston is forced to go to the local drugstore in order to demand candy as reparation for a misdelivered package. She tries to explain to her mother that the people who work at the drugstore do not understand the old Chinese superstition, but her mother dismisses her arguments and forces her out the door. Kingston states:

You can't entrust your own voice to the Chinese either; they want to
capture your own voice for their own use. They want to fix up your
tongue to speak for them. "How much can you sell it for?" we have
to say. Talk the Sales Ghosts down.

Kingston is angry with the Chinese community for using their children as translating instruments. At her mother's insensitive command, the daughter has become a stammering mediator between a culture that cannot understand her and another that refuses to validate her voice as her own.

Although she is resentful of being used, Kingston accepts her fate silently. She loses her will in the face of her mother's constant commands, and the role as translator becomes the daughter's identity as she loses her voice--drowned out, as it were, by the demands of others.

In addition to the heavy role she must play for her family, Kingston must also shoulder the burden of secrets that her culture places upon her. She exclaims that she "hated the secrecy of the Chinese." The silence she lives with creates a constant "pain in [her] throat." Kingston finally decides that she wants to be rid of the silence and prepares a speech for her mother, but her mother has neither the patience nor the sensitivity to listen to her daughter:

"I can't stand this whispering," she said looking right at me,
stopping her squeezing. "Senseless gabbings every night. I wish
you would stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering,
making no sense. Madness. I don't feel like hearing your

Kingston's sense of identity and self-worth swirl down the drain of her mother's selfishness. Once again, our narrator's attempts to speak out and fight the silence that smothers her are met with coldness and hostility. Kingston becomes more estranged from her mother and frustrated with herself.

Although Kingston becomes powerless in the face of her controlling mother, the daughter's resentment and pent-up anger find release with another silent Chinese girl. Kingston, in fact, sees herself reflected in this reserved and socially awkward peer.

I hated the younger sister, the quiet one. I hated when she was the
the last chosen for her team and I, the last chosen for my team. I
hated her for the Chinese doll hair cut. I hated her at music time for
the wheeze that came out of her plastic flute.

Kingston's disgust with her own fears and insecurities causes her to lash out at the girl in frustration, demanding that she speak. Our silent narrator has become a bully, a role that only increases her own self-hatred.

Fortunately and finally, the cumulative effect of these experiences push Kingston over the edge, and she decides to break free of the social forces that constrain her:

I'm going to college. And I'm not going to Chinese school anymore.
I'm going to run for office at American school, and I'm going to join
clubs. I'm going to get enough offices and clubs on my records to
get into college.

Fed up with being strangulated by silence, Kingston rebels and is able to find her voice in her desire to escape. Emboldened by anger and frustration, she finally relieves the pain in her throat by speaking her mind.

By the end of the book, Kingston has become the "woman warrior" of the Chinese legend. Her self-assurance is her shield, and her voice is her sword. With these weapons, she is able to defeat her adversary--a past full of secrets and a society that demands silence.

Herein lies the secret of The Woman Warrior's incredible success. Women in the 1970s, wading through the second wave of the feminist movement, needed and craved the very role model that Maxine Hong Kingston provided.

March 2002

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