I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes (WW 29)
Though we could easily be misled to think the only Woman Warrior in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is the character of Fa Mu Lan, the fabled woman who trained as a warrior, dressed as a man and triumphed in battle to save her family and village, all the women in the book are warriors in their own way.
Kingston shares the story of her aunt, left behind by her husband in China, who was raped and became pregnant. The village turned on her for the shame of having an illegitimate child and, after having given birth to it, she drowned herself and the child in the village well in a spite suicide. This is a ghost that haunts Kingston’s youth for many reasons, but telling her story in the book shows that she too was a woman warrior.
Kingston’s mother, a midwife, doctor and shaman in China, who lost two children and survived the bombings of Japan before she came to the U.S. to join her husband and start a whole new life and family in Stockton, California, was a woman warrior.
Kingston decides she would need to grow up to be a woman warrior as well.
“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. It was a woman who invented white crane boxing only two hundred years ago….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 to 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” (WW 19-20).
Then there is the story of another aunt, Moon Orchid, whose husband never sent for her. Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, finally sends for her but Moon Orchid cannot integrate her new life in the U.S. The reality that her husband remarried and started a whole new life and family in Los Angeles and never intended to send for her shatters her carefully crafted life of denial and she ends up in a mental asylum crafting yet again her own reality. Also a woman warrior.
“Brave Orchid visited her sister twice. Moon Orchid was thinner each time, shrunken to bone. But, surprisingly, she was happy and had made up a new story. She pranced like a child. ‘Oh, Sister, I am so happy here. No one ever leaves. Isn’t that wonderful? We are all women here. Come. I want you to meet my daughters.’ She introduced Brave Orchid to each inmate in the ward—her daughters. She was especially proud of the pregnant ones”(WW 160).
Kingston’s writing is a mixture of memoir, nonfiction, fiction, magical realism. It’s hard to tell which is which as she weaves her tales, intertwined and interconnected, layers of realities, her life. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, the title of her 2011 book, also a quote from Thoreau’s Walden, written in verse when she was turning 65, is a reflection, a continuation, the perfect style for the age 65.
A broad margin. What is a broad margin? Wide width, time to think, time to absorb, time to experience, time to open, open to other, open to what was, what is, what could be. Peace.
“I can accumulate time and lose
time? I sit here writing in the dark—
can’t see to change these penciled words—
just like my mother, alone, bent over her writing,
just like my father bent over his writing, alone
but for me watching. She got out of bed,
wrapped herself in a blanket, and wrote down
the strange sounds Father, who was dead,
was intoning to her. He was reading aloud
calligraphy that he’d written—carved with inkbrush—
on his tombstone. She wasn’t writing in answers.
She wasn’t writing a letter. Who was she writing to?
This well-deep outpouring is not for
anything. Yet we have to put into exact words
what we are given to see, hear, know.
Mother’s eyesight blurred: she saw trash
as flowers. ‘Oh. How very beautiful.’
She was lucky, seeing beauty, living
in beauty, whether or not it was there”(BM 4).
Past permeates present, realities blur, one life experience blots with, into and onto another. Writing continues after death. Blurring the lines brings clarity. Such is the work of Maxine Hong Kingston. Such treasure. Such jewel. She leads the reader on a stream of consciousness journey through all the strata of herself and time and history.
“Now to the hillside with a willow stream
That’s a graveyard. This stone like a door
marks the grave of Fa Mook Lan*,
Warrior Woman. Over Wittman’s shoulder,
I can read each word of her name.
‘She killed herself,’ says the monk.
‘She hung herself.’ No. No.
Why? I can’t believe it. Why?
‘The emperor heard: The mighty general was a woman
in disguise, a brave and beautiful woman who’d gone
to war as a man. He sent for her to be a wife.
She refused, and he placed her under house arrest.
She killed herself at home.’ No. No.
She can’t be the Fa Mook Lan who’s
the woman warrior I told about, we all
tell about. Many women named for her”(BM 127).
She is looking over the shoulder of the character Wittman she created for a previous novel, named after Walt Whitman. She is seeing this through the lens of a fictional character she created in a subsequent book she is writing, and yet, is it truth? A truth hard to digest?
An American girl born in Stockton, California. A teacher at UC Berkeley. A successful American author. An English teacher. An ally of Vietnam vets. An outspoken critic of the Bush administration. An advocate for peace. An enemy of war and all things war. An activist and member of anti-war Code Pink. Arrested in a March on Washington over the 2001 invasion of Iraq.
“We were a bouquet of pink roses.
How can it be that all the cops are men,
and all for Peace women? I can’t live
in such a world. I don’t want to keep
living out the myth the men fight
and women mother” (BM 141).
To her arresting officer:
“. . . I talked-
story, ‘D’you know what I’m working on now?
I’m writing a Book of Peace. Once
in old China, there were books—reveries—
about how to end war. Those books were burned,
their authors’ tongues cut out. My dream
is to write such a book for our time’” (BM 148).
Which she did: The Fifth Book of Peace.
Daughter of immigrants, her ancestors permeate her writings, woven in and out of the stories, sometimes ghosts, sometimes heroines, sometimes memories, sometimes tragedies, the stories of the ones who came, who never returned to the homeland, I am so sorry I never returned, I meant to come home, her own journeys to her parents’ homeland, meeting cousins still there, finding endings of stories she had written, altered, different, finding scenes from old stories that proved they could not have been true, that well is too shallow for anyone to have drowned in, wondering if the enemies of her aunt are still her enemies, if the curse caused by her aunt drowning herself in the village well is still on her.
“…this well in front of the temple.
My aunt killed herself, and she killed the baby,
in this well. I looked down into it,
but did not see a very deep hole. Did not see the eye that reflects stars.
The water came to the top of the well; it seemed
to be drawn up through porous stone but
inches away, ankle-deep. My aunt
with the baby couldn’t possibly have jumped
into a well this shallow, and drowned…”( BM 169).
Multifaceted reality, information, memory, intergenerational, historical, fantastical, hopeful, dreadful. I want to die, I want to kill myself. Fa Mook Lan killed herself.
These tapestries are gifts and jewels. They are the truth of life: contradiction, stories rewritten, history coopted, trauma never leaving. We, the ones living, containing all of this within us, this unique American experience for all of us whose ancestors came here from somewhere else. So many stories, so much to contend with, and yet we are warriors, forging forward on behalf of and in spite of our ancestors, their lives, their sins, yet called by the land that owns us far away. We are the warriors who must pave the way for the next ones and Maxine Hong Kingston certainly leads the way.
“Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits inside America…
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to your 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?”(WW 5-6)
Kingston won The National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for The Woman Warrior and The American Book Award for China Men in the category of nonfiction in 1980. She is also the author of Tripmaster Monkey, a novel (1989), The Fifth Book of Peace (2003,) To Be The Poet (2002), I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011), as well as many poems, short stories and articles.
“…Punishment be over. Suffering be over.
Is that it then? Wet my hands in the well
water—the bowl like the well, and my wet face
like my sinful aunt’s. Perhaps the well water
is being offered innocently, I the only one
who remembers the past, and believes in history’s
influence. And believes ritual settles scores.
My husband by my side blessing himself as if
with the holy water of his youth stands in
for the rapist/lover. Forgiven. Curse lifted.
War over”(BM 171).
Maxine Hong Kingston is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
*Kingston changes the spelling to Fa Mook Lan in subsequent books based on updated information.
Hong Kingston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior, Vintage, N.Y. 1975.
Hong Kingston, Maxine. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life,Vintage: N.Y. 2011.