Maxine Hong Kingston: Literary Warrior

By David ShankboneOwn work, CC BY 2.5, Link

Maxine Hong Kingston’s appropriately titled magic
realism autobiography, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a
Girlhood Among Ghosts, came out in the bicentennial year,
1976. It was perfect timing because Kingston’s story is
an American story and a rebellion as well. Her tale of a
Chinese American girl coming of age in California won
the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and set off a wave
of writing by women of color; suddenly Maxine was a
literary shero at thirty-six years old. Her subsequent book
China Men won the same award in 1980, while her 1989
debut novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book thrilled both
readers and critics.

Born in 1940 to Chinese immigrants who ran a Stockton,
California, gambling house, Maxine got her name from
a very successful blonde patron of their establishment.
When some shady fair-weather friends swindled the
Hongs out of the gambling business, they operated
a laundry that employed the whole family, including
Maxine and her five sisters and brothers. It was a life
with a lot of drudgery, but Maxine was able to attend the
University of California on eleven scholarships. Intending
to study engineering, she quickly switched to English
literature. Upon graduation, she married a white man,
Earl Kingston.

Throughout her childhood, Maxine Hong Kingston
struggled with being left out of the books she read. There
were no stories of Chinese Americans in the Stockton
library, and very few that featured girls. “In a way it’s
not so terrible to be left out,” she said years later in the
Los Angeles Times, “because then you could see at a very
early age that there’s an entire motherlode of stories that
belong to you and nobody else.”

The girl in Woman’s Warrior had her tongue snipped by
her mother in accordance with the superstition that it
would allow her to speak many languages. (In Ami, Audre
Lorde relates having undergone the same frenum cutting)
Juxtaposed with the mundane school and laundry work
of Maxine’s childhood in The Woman Warrior are fantastic
imaginings of a girl unfettered by chores and mere reality.
Kingston cycles through her mother’s women ancestors
and speaks frankly of Chinese folk antifemale expressions
such as “When fishing for treasures in the flood, be
careful not to pull in girls” and “There’s no profit in
raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.”

Perhaps, then, it is little wonder that Kingston has come
under the strongest attacks from those within her own
culture. Several Chinese men have gone after Maxine,
criticizing her for everything from her creative license
with Chinese legends to her marriage to a white man.
Playwright and activist Frank Chin, on behalf of Chinese
American male pride, has issued the most vicious and
vitriolic assault on Kingston’s Woman Warrior, derogating
it as “kowtow” and “persona writing.” Chin also lays
siege to her persona as an example of “Ornamental
Orientalia,” calling her “a false goddess” created by “the
worship of liars.”

Clearly, Kingston stuck a nerve with the power of her
writing, touching on the critical issues of race and gender
in a way that has caused it to become “the book by a
living author most widely taught in American universities
and colleges,” notes former Poet Laureate Robert Hass. In
Warrior Woman, Kingston’s protagonist’s inner battle rages
silently within the confines of her mind—race, gender,
spirit, identity, straddling the duality of a culture that
devalues girls at the same time the legends say “that we
failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be
heroines, swordswomen.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

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