The value given to words is a shared experience between the storyteller and the receiver; both must be open to the story for it to have impact. Oral stories are often overlooked as part of our collective human story and are relegated to the margin as legends or fairytales. The bulk of recorded oral stories pertain to what colonizers considered important. Indigenous and outlier stories disappeared. Such stories are lost to history because no one pays attention to them. One important, yet neglected, corner of oral studies are the stories of the untouchable—the women. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is a memoir about oral traditions, Chinese talk-stories, and immigrant families. Throughout this account, Kingston pits legend against reality in the exploration of her mother’s China. This book is hard to pin down in a genre because it is a memoir/autobiography/dance of ghosts; there are moments when the narrator is storyteller, memoirist, and then there are flights of fancy into unexplored realms. By the end of the story, it is hard to tell what’s real from fiction. Kingston’s use of “talk-story” or oral stories along with the push and pull of expectations and realities is one reason why The Woman Warrior works.
Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strengths to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America. (5)
The best talk-stories, like the ones Kingston’s mother told her, are meant to entertain but also instruct. The Woman Warrior begins with the story of an ancestor who was untouchable because she had a child out of wedlock (4). It is a taboo for the family to even acknowledge the woman existed, but Kingston tells the story to illuminate the darkness that surrounds stories that people would rather not tell. Kingston’s mother told her the story and added a teaching lesson:
“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.” (5)
Women rarely discuss menstruation and men don’t want to talk about it. I call the things we don’t want to talk about but everyone knows about “Ghost Words.” In fact, I’ve only come across a few books on the topic of menstruation—most of the information out there comes from companies trying to sell maxi pads, tampons, or reusable pads. When Kingston got her first menses, her mother taught her not to get pregnant out of wedlock. This evokes the idea that what happens behind closed doors—like women having their periods—is a taboo topic. It happens to half the population of the world, but no one wants to discuss it. Kingston brings it up first thing because we are all part of that “invisible world” and it a female universal.
Ghost words revolve around the history of women. History books were written by patriarchal men because they could read and write and only taught others like them, so we have few accounts of what life was like for women in the past. Kingston writes:
When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-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. (18)
I got goosebumps because what she says is a reflection of our human story—until recently, women were only allowed to be wives or slaves; although there could have been many, we only know of a few swordswomen. Kingston uses scraps of legends like “The Ballad of Mulan” to inspire the legend of “White Tigers” in her memoir (19-53). All girls imagine themselves to be something amazing, and only later when their mothers tell stories and home economics teachers make them burn cakes do they realize reality is very different from talk-story. Again, Kingston touches on a female universal.
One thing that both delights and befuddles me is Kingston’s ghosts. All people who weren’t born or follow Chinese ideas are considered ghosts in her mother’s eyes (108). This makes me step back because I have never explored a concept that foreign before. It makes me think that I am a ghost. To Kingston’s mother, I am just a walking talking ghost. That’s unsettling and it made me connect deeper with the book because women walk through history books like ghosts—they are there in theory, but rarely on the page. We are all ghosts with ghost words in the end.
Four Stars. I loved it!
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1989. Print.