Misconstrued Narratives and the Search for A Role Model in No Name Woman
Maxine Hong Kingston’s No Name Woman explores the life of Kingston’s aunt, who had a child out of wedlock in rural China. As she doesn’t know the exact circumstances of her aunt’s story, she’s forced to imagine different versions of her aunt’s narrative. Her ultimate goal is construct a vision of her aunt that she personally identifies with, but her interpretations also present the issues that arise from stories created without possession of all the facts. Kingston tries out multiple interpretations to find one that allows her to see her aunt as a figure in whom she can relate, but in doing so her interpretations, and the lack of concrete fact and cultural context she has access to, can allow the aunt’s story to be misconstrued.
The varied interpretations of the aunt’s story stem from Kingston’s desire to see her aunt as someone with whom she can personally relate. Kingston is the product of two cultures, who feels neither wholly Chinese nor wholly American: she explains how her mother’s behavior is that of a Chinese woman, complete with “screams in public libraries or over telephones” (13), but she has tried to make herself American in spite of the Chinese environment in which she’s been raised, by “walking erect… and speaking in an inaudible voice” (13). She attempts to construct an identity for her aunt that also places the aunt at a crossroads between two worlds: she envisions her as someone who maintained her appearance in spite of the fact that “on a farm near the sea, a woman who tended her appearance reaped a reputation for eccentricity” (10). After thinking about the environment where her aunt lived, however, she reconsiders and decides that because “a woman combing her hair hexes beginnings, my aunt rarely found an occasion to look her best” (11), but in spite of that, “commonplace loveliness was not enough for my aunt. She dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days of New Year’s” (11). She is willing to change her interpretations as she takes into account outside context and how realistic her interpretations are in light of that context, but she still searches for signs that her aunt was an outlier like her amidst those stories that she deems more “accurate”.
Kingston’s identity as someone stuck between cultures, however, plays a significant part in the potential misconstruction of her aunt’s story. As she is the child of immigrants and wasn’t born in China herself, she experiences some distancing from her culture, and that lack of knowledge can lead her to incorrect interpretations of her aunt’s legacy. Everything she knows about Chinese culture comes from what she has been told; she finds herself wondering “how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family… from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” (6). She also discusses her own personal physical expression and how she struggles with “making attraction selective” (Kingston, 8), so that she’s attractive only to the Chinese boys in her school. Kingston has difficulty reconciling her Chinese and American identities so that she can remain true to her Chinese heritage, a heritage which she doesn’t have a full and complete understanding of, while still accounting for her American upbringing, and that lack of clear knowledge regarding either culture aids in further distorting her aunt’s story: such a story requires cultural context that Kingston does not have. While Kingston’s identity as a product of two cultures is her primary motivation for trying to learn the truth about her aunt and construct the most realistic interpretation of her story possible, in order to depict her aunt as an outlier with whom she can relate, her multicultural identity acts as a hinderance as well as an inspiration. Her lack of complete access to Chinese culture aids in the wrongful interpretation of her aunt’s narrative, because she possibly neglects important aspects of Chinese culture.
The shame the aunt’s story brought her family, as a result of cultural taboos, allows her narrative to be forgotten in the larger context of the narrator’s family, which bars Kingston from accessing information about her and motivates her to unveil her story. The aunt’s story is in danger of disappearing from family records entirely; when Kingston’s mother tells her the story, she prefaces it by saying that she “must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you” (3). Her mother only broaches the topic because Kingston has gotten old enough that she herself can get pregnant; the story is introduced as a cautionary tale. She quickly establishes what she knows to be the truth in sharing what her mother told her and then delving into her own interpretations. She shares for certain only be that her aunt had an illegitimate child, that her actions caused a raid on their family home, and that the aunt killed herself and the baby in shame. This rendering of her as nothing but a cautionary tale and a story of disgrace prevents her from being seen as a person at all: she is reduced solely to what she did and the shame she brought her family, and any other memories the family may have of her are erased from memory because Chinese cultural values render her actions disgraceful. Her own family rejected her; Kingston explains that “my mother spoke about the raid as if she had been there, when she and my aunt, a daughter-in-law to another household, should not have been living together at all” (8). Her aunt was chased from her in-laws’ house and forced back home because her actions were so despicable in the eyes of her husband’s family. Without solid fact, the aunt’s story could likely disappear beneath a sea of possible interpretations and “what if’s”, where her actual experience is completely lost. The fear of disappearing is one that Kingston imagines her aunt to have had in the moments before giving birth and committing suicide: she imagines that “the black well of sky and stars went out and out and out forever; her body and and her complexity seemed to disappear… an agoraphobia rose in her, speeding higher and higher… she would not be able to contain it” (16). The aunt is terrified of slipping into her surroundings to never be found again, a fear that’s legitimized by the way her family treats her following her death: their answer to the problem she brings is to completely ignore the fact that she ever existed. Kingston alone “devotes pages of paper to her” (19) in an attempt to honor her memory and to create a relatable figure, but the taboo surrounding the story blocks her from crucial information and, as a result, leads to speculations that can harm her aunt’s legacy.
Kingston searches for the most accurate interpretation of her aunt’s story she can find, but her interpretations can damage her aunt’s legacy by potentially ignoring important aspects of her story. She reverses her belief that her aunt was sexually promiscuous when she realizes that she “[doesn’t] know any women like that” (10). She is willing to acknowledge that she doesn’t have all of the information required to construct a definite story, and adjusts her interpretations as she takes into account additional information, but she still searches for a person similar to herself, and says that “unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help” (10). Kingston explores the possibility that her aunt was raped, that “women in the old China did not choose” (7) and that her aunt’s rapist was likely an everyday, predatory presence in her life. While this is absolutely a possibility, considering Kingston’s knowledge of Chinese culture, this possibility cannot be regarded as a certainty because of Kingston’s lack of access to her aunt’s full story. The same is true for Kingston’s speculation that her aunt chose the father of her child in an act of sexual autonomy, that she chose “warm eyes or a soft voice or a slow walk… a line, a brightness” (9), and that her aunt was “wild” and “kept rollicking company” (9). While the idea that Kingston’s aunt was sexually promiscuous and chose a partner of her own free will is as valid as the idea that she was raped (while one option may better fit into traditional Chinese culture, as there is no solid factual information on the subject, both options are possible), both interpretations can deeply damage the aunt’s story and any struggles that she may have faced. The issue does not lie in which story is true and whether Kingston presents any story as truth; it lies in how varying interpretations can wrongfully depict the aunt’s experiences. If she was raped, painting her as sexually promiscuous can hurt her memory by undermining the physical and emotional violence she experienced and the way she was punished for it. If she slept with her baby’s father of her own volition, painting her as a rape victim undermines her sexual autonomy in a society where a sexually free woman would have been condemned, therefore discrediting her choice and any struggles she may have faced because of it. As Kingston searches for an explanation that both seems accurate to her and allows her to see herself in an aunt, she explores possibilities that could damage her aunt’s legacy and discredit struggles that she faced.
Maxine Hong Kingston provides multiple interpretations of her aunt’s story in No Name Woman as she attempts to see herself in the mysterious dead woman, but those varying interpretations, stemming from a lack of concrete information regarding her aunt’s situation and a lack of direct experience with Chinese culture, damage the aunt’s narrative even more than it already has been by her family. The taboo surrounding her story prevents it from being told, forcing instead multiple interpretations that can incorrectly depict her experience and erase her from the pages of family history. In her search to find an ancestor in whom she can relate, Kingston’s interpretations of her aunt’s story depict what can happen when a narrative is misconstrued.
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Maxine Hong Kingston’s No Name Woman explores the life of Kingston’s aunt, who had a child out of wedlock in rural China. As she doesn’t know the exact circumstances of […]