The Woman Warrior: Silence And Voice
Published in 1976 as a work of nonfiction, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by an American-Chinese woman writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, is comprised of multiple personal stories interwoven with elements of classical Chinese myths and several “talk stories[footnoteRef:1]” Kingston utilizes to highlight her matriarchal lineage. After rereading the novel, I figure out that it is not just the distinct binary opposition between Chinese and American culture that permeates the memoir, but that Kingston also draws on an abundant reservoir of family influences spanning a multi-generational lineage. Accordingly, the question I’d like to raise here is why does the narrator of The Woman Warrior, Maxine, react with such violence towards her silent American-Chinese classmate, the “quiet girl” in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”? Historically, if silence among the early Chinese immigrants was of necessity to survive in America, now voice plays an increasingly significant role in the new generation of Chinese Americans to demonstrate their existence, to obtain personality, and to form a new identity. Therefore, I will respond to the question from two perspectives, one is personal from the confusion on Maxine’s cultural identity to be more American-like or to keep the Chinese identity, while the other is from the familial distinction among different generations. In my opinion, it is Maxine’s memories of her inability to communicate fluently in her childhood and her mother’s “oppression” that trigger her violent behaviors to the “quiet girl”, which prevents her progression from becoming an assimilated American girl and drags her back into the previous confusion of her identification again. [1: ]
In the last chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, there is a violent and intense scene involving Maxine’s bullying a silent American-Chinese girl with whom Maxine wants to be more American-like rather than Chinese. Indeed, Maxine and that “quiet girl” share some similarities throughout their lives, with Maxine wanting to destroy these overlapping parts. The similarity between Maxine and the silent girl is reflected in the passage, “she had no friends of her own but followed her sister everywhere…I hate the younger sister, the younger one. I hated her when she was the last chosen for her team and I, the last chosen for my team…wheezes that came out of her plastic flute” (173). This scene reveals that both Maxine and that silent girl follow the sister most of the time, serving as the last choice for the team and with some Chinese characteristics even like the hair style. The silence of that girl is an irritant to Maxine, which corners her in the bathroom one day and, in a disturbing scene, pulls that quiet girl’s hair, pinches her cheek, and verbally goads her to talk (179). However, vicious though she is to that “quiet girl”, Maxine cannot stop crying herself in those intense behaviors as “Sniffling and snorting, I couldn’t stop crying and talking at the same time…It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, doing the worst thing I had yet done to another person. ‘I’m doing this for your own good,’ I said. ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone I’ve been bad to you. Talk. Please talk.’”(181). Actually, Maxine wants to be more American-like, while this girl’s silence keeps reminding her of the traditional Chinese quiet culture, so that she has strongly violent and intense reactions, meanwhile suggesting Maxine’s struggle on her self-recognition as “I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl’ (166) which demonstrates that she equates her awkward inability to express herself with part of her dual cultural identity like most of the Chinese girls. Silence for Maxine also becomes a shared oppressor when she torments that quiet girl for not speaking, though she seems to relentlessly torment that poor girl initially, becoming a mutual oppression eventually as “Her sobs and my sobs were bouncing wildly off the tile, sometimes together, sometimes alternating” (181). Tormenting that silent girl is an action brought on by the frustrations and inabilities of Maxine to grasp her own ethnic and cultural identify and the shared oppression at last is possibly intended to be Maxine’s internalization of the torment that she is responsible for and which mirrors her own internal turmoil. Nevertheless, there exists a great difference between Maxine and the silent girl that Maxine is willing and does her utmost to be a real member of the American community, while that “quiet” classmate acts as an extreme example of partial American-Chinese girls who keep silent all the time without any strong desire to speak up as an American woman might be expected. Through the conversation Maxine has given to her quiet classmate as “You’re going to pay for this…That’s all you are if you don’t talk. If you don’t talk, you can’t have a personality. You’ll have no personality and no hair. You’ve got to let people know you have a personality and a brain. You think somebody is going to take care of you all your stupid life? You think you’ll always have your big sister?” (180), Maxine has already realized the significance of not keeping silent any longer as what the traditional Chinese immigrants mostly used to do but her surroundings annoyingly keep reminding her of the “silence” culture. However, although there are some differences between them, the impact of differences is minor, because similarities have overwhelmed Maxine greatly.
In addition, as what has been told by Maxine at the beginning of the last chapter, her mother cut off her tongue when she was young so she would not be tongue-tied, but cutting off does not necessarily help because she still has “a terrible time talking” (164), following the scene that both other American-Chinese children and herself are not able to utter even simple words naturally as “If my mother was not lying she should have cut more…A dumbness—a shame—still cracks my voice in two…It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my broken voice come skittering out into the open”(164-5). Due to Maxine’s mother’s useless cutting her tongue off and the silent images in the “talk stories” from her mom, Maxine struggles more between speaking out loud and keeping silent. Moreover, sometimes she hardly believes her mother (171) because both myths and facts make up her mom’s telling and she pushes Maxine to compulsively act in a certain way with contradict cultures.
The clashes depicted in the last chapter between Maxine and that silent girl imply different cultural expectations and identities, rendering a larger paradox compared with traditional Chinese values and the American’s. This novel also highlights American-Chinese females’ voices, ending up with breaking silence, especially breaking females’ silence, which is tightly related to acknowledging female influence and female power. In addition, there’s also an emphasis on the voices of second-generation Chinese Americans, who are “afraid of losing her identity, of being erased or unhinged-as her two aunts have been respectively erased and unhinged-through silence” (Cheung 1988, 164). From this perspective, Kingston represents the newly emerging voice of the Asian American minority which is struggling to establish its place and identity in America.
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1976
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Published in 1976 as a work of nonfiction, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by an American-Chinese woman writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, is comprised of multiple personal […]