The “Problem” with The Woman Warrior
Many reviewers and the public embraced The Woman Warrior soon after its publication, but Chinese-Americans received it with mixed emotions. As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong sums up nicely: “A number of Chinese-American critics have repeatedly denounced The Woman Warrior, questioning its autobiographic status, its authenticity, its representativeness, and thereby Kingston’s personal integrity” (Wong 248). As expected with most ethnic autobiographies, Maxine Hong Kingston’s work gives an insight of Chinese and Chinese American culture while assessing cultural struggles. Wong describes that some critics believe “an ethnic autobiographer should be an exemplar and spokesperson whose life will inspire the writer’s own people as well as enlighten the ignorant about social truths” (Wong 258). At the same time, according to Jeffrey F. L. Partridge, “many Asian American readers also expect fictional portrayals to reflect positively on their community” (Partridge 53). These expectations allow unforgiving critics like Frank Chin to voice their discernable discontent with the work.
Evident from the numerous debates, The Woman Warrior has elicited many “cultural mis-readings” that even Kingston, herself, addresses in her essay, “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers.” In the response, Kingston clarifies the intentions of her memoir and explains that she wrote the book with her audience in mind – herself (Skandera-Trombley 162). Yet, in the same essay, Kingston attacks critics for misinterpreting the work only she fully understood. If so many critics and readers have misunderstood Kingston’s objective in The Woman Warrior, why is the piece so difficult to get right?
The Woman Warrior has a distinct quality in that it incorporates the oral tradition technique. Kingston blends fictional stories and her factual life so cohesively that many readers may have trouble distinguishing between the two. However, it is because of this quality that causes common misinterpretations – in Wong’s words, “the social effects of admitting fictionalization into an autobiographical work” (Wong 250). Wong also references Katheryn Fong who bluntly states the issue: “The problem is that non-Chinese are reading your fiction as true accounts of Chinese and Chinese American history” (Fong 67). Therefore, Wong makes the conclusion that the “‘problem’ is seen to rest ultimately on the readers not the author” (Wong 250) and later re-emphasizes that “only a careless reader” (Wong 267) would misunderstand the piece. However, that is surely not the case. Although Kingston may not be the typical “Chinatown tour guide” that Wong presents or one defined by Partridge, Kingston definitely includes numerous accepted stereotypes. Whether coincidence or not, these clichéd characteristics only echo typical generalizations about the Chinese and will continue to invite mis-readings. Though Kingston should not be condemned for her personal interpretation and creative style, the writing and implications of The Woman Warrior do not adequately communicate Kingston’s intended purpose.
In his essay “What Is an Ethnic Author?” Partridge delineates the common functions of an ethnically Chinese author based on Michel Foucault’s theory of an author’s role outlined in the article “What Is an Author?” In his analysis, Partridge concludes “four functions unique to Chinese American literature” that the ethnic author tends to “amplify”:
(1) the reader’s expectations of communal representation; (2) the reader’s belief in, or demand for, culturally authentic representations; (3) the reader’s awareness of, or demand for, a correlation between the author and his/her ethnic culture; and (4) the reader’s desire for an authentic tour guide into the culture. (Partridge 74)
These “ethnicity-based” expectations color countless readers’ interpretations of the ethnic piece whether the reader realizes it or not (Partridge 49). Many times, readers will assume the common themes an ethnic author will touch upon such as identity, cross-cultural connections, or whatever expected issues within a particular culture. In light of these “expectations,” it is not surprising that The Woman Warrior has received such negative responses. With the reader’s customary approach and Kingston’s ambiguous intentions, the book can be easily misread.
Focusing on Partridge’s last function, though, Wong defends Kingston by differentiating Kingston’s role from the “tour guide” position found in a number of autobiographies written by Chinese-born and American-born autobiographers. She argues that many of the authors spend time explaining customs and background history while addressing their audience as “you.” Some include a plethora of descriptions and plot details regarding Chinese customs and festivities. Most importantly, Wong believes that these Chinese-born writers “are conscious of their role as cultural interpreters who can obtain a measure of recognition from whites for the insider’s insight they can offer” (Wong 264).
Instead, Wong contends that Kingston refuses the role of the cultural guide because “Kingston does not attempt to cover her trails, as any self-respecting cultural guide would” (Wong 270). When Kingston describes Chinese customs, she speaks of it with “fragmentary and haphazard evidence” (Wong 267). Instead of an expert tone like other pieces, Kingston constantly expresses her frustration in attempting to understand her culture. Wong then considers Kingston’s charges of using “distortions”: these inaccurate accounts reveal the author’s disconnect from her background. She refers to Deborah Woo who also believes “cultural ignorance itself is part of what is authentic about the experience” (Wong 268). In addition, she adds that fictionalization and altering stories portray Kingston’s endeavor to apply meaning and lessons to her own life. Lastly, Wong argues, “It is, in fact, essential to recognize that the entire Woman Warrior is a sort of meditation on what it means to be Chinese American” (Wong 268). She further defends Kingston’s inclusion of cultural generalizations as the author’s way of experimenting with her cultural place and uses these “threads” to weave a larger tapestry “for her own use” (Wong 269).
Wong asserts, “Only a careless reader…would be able to conclude that Kingston’s stance in The Woman Warrior is that of the trustworthy cultural guide” (Wong 267). However, how is that true? Though Kingston rightfully refuses to be a cultural guide, she still has a responsibility to communicate that all her manipulations and story telling are “for her own use.” Because Kingston does not sufficiently establish her intended purpose, readers will continue to mis-read and attribute the protagonist as a tour guide. In her analysis of defining Kingston’s work between reality and fiction, Barbara Ruth Rodriguez mentions, “interpretation of the autobiography depends to some extent on the fulfillment of the contract made between reader and author” (Rodriguez 107). Kingston never clearly makes this “contract” in the first chapter, which usually shapes the reader’s expectations for the rest of the piece. Instead, “No Name Woman” encourages Partridge’s four qualities to solidify and causes misguidance throughout the whole piece. Though “No Name Woman” reveals Kingston’s defiance of familial traditions and expectations, as the first chapter, it already introduces many Chinese stereotypes including silence, obedience, and male favoritism. Her aunt’s story serves as a medium to define the piece as an autobiography; however, it does not make a distinction between pieces of cultural representation through self and a work of simple self-exploration. Kingston does portray her confusion with her cultural identity – asking, “how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?” (5). However, she addresses these concerns to all “Chinese-Americans” and not just as an inward question. In “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” Kingston even states that she addresses the rhetorical questions to Chinese Americans at the beginning of the book (Skandera-Trombley 163). She also includes somewhat of a preface at the end of “No Name Woman,” yet it does not conclude to foreshadow more uncertainty or frustration that requires further self-reflection. Rather, in her last sentence, she makes a cultural comment about “the Chinese” as a group. Kingston does not dispel any assumptions that the piece may be a typical ethnic autobiography.
This flaw has created so many issues for the work that Kingston even acknowledges this aspect herself by changing her horizon of expectations. In an interview with Timothy Pfaff, Kingston admits, “The mainstream culture doesn’t know the history of Chinese Americans” (Skenazy and Martin 15), and in China Men, she includes “cultural context and historical background within her narrative…to fill in gaps of knowledge in her perceived readers” (Partridge 5). Though the explanations of culture and history were included due to her frustration with the “ignorance” of her “mainstream” audience, the information helps guide readers towards Kingston’s intentions. When Partridge later asks Kingston whether she still feels misunderstood, she says, “By the time China Men had come out, it was more the case that reviewers were understanding it” (Partridge 3).
If the author herself already recognizes the issue in her own writing, Wong’s argument – stating that the fault in misinterpretations belongs to the reader – does not seem as convincing. Even though readers may be more receptive and educated now in Asian American culture, certain problems still exist because they are inherent to The Woman Warrior. The stereotypes in the work perpetuate mis-readings and cultural generalizations. Since Kingston does not specifically define the composition’s purpose, the mentioning of typical stereotypes only affirm the perceptions of Chinese culture. Kingston writes, “The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence” (5). Fong highlights this passage and disapprovingly expresses, “That’s an awfully stereotypically caricature of Chinese in America: silent, mysterious and devious” (Fong 67). Because Kingston never supplies the reason behind such a claim, the statement only feeds into the Chinese stereotype. The reoccurring silent characteristic appears multiple times in the text. Even when Kingston invents the history of her aunt, she considers the silent and obedient Chinese woman. The first vision of her aunt displays a character who has been “commanded” to lie with a man who was not “much different from her husband” because “they both gave orders: she followed” (7). Her aunt then obediently gives “silent birth” by keeping “the man’s name to herself throughout her labor and dying; she did not accuse him that he be punished with her” (11). Instead of envisioning characteristics atypical to Chinese stereotypes, Kingston just has to include the common perception of a Chinese woman. In the explanation of her own silence, Kingston also observes that other Chinese girls did not speak, however, she decides that she “knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl” (166). By declaring such a statement, Kingston generalizes the silence to be a cultural quality and not just the individual girls themselves.
Male favoritism is another common Chinese stereotype that is heavily portrayed in the work. Fong calls Kingston out for over exaggerating the “recurring them that girl children were unworthy in Chinese families” (Fong 68). Kingston writes demeaning passages, comparing girls to “cowbirds,” “geese,” and “slaves.” She notes that Chinese emigrants would say, “You know how girls are. ‘There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls’” ( 46). The thought is degrading, however, when Kingston adds, “You know how girls are” before the comment, the opinion seems to be accepted by everyone in the community because they already “know.” On the following page, Kingston declares, “There is a Chinese word for the female I – which is ‘slave.’ Break the women with their own tongues!” (47). In these particular lines, Kingston’s comment does not refer to herself, but instead, addresses the whole Chinese culture because she is criticizing the language – a unifying cultural element. And the Chinese word that Kingston describes does not even exist. Critics debate the substantiality of this claim, but evidence has yet to be found. If it is an empty statement in a supposedly non-fiction piece, The Woman Warrior clearly directs attention to the “male importance” stereotype. In addition to these broader comments though, Kingston does elaborate on the discrimination in her own family, referring to anecdotes in which her great-uncle refuses to take the girl children out (47) and when her cousins’ great-grandfather dehumanizes them to “maggots” (191).
Even though Kingston applies these stereotypes to her personal life, she does not effectively remind readers that her story reflects only one perspective. Because of reader expectations and “mainstream ignorance,” many perceive the work to culturally represent all Chinese individuals. Fong explains, “If those are [Kingston’s] personal experiences and [her] readers understand that those are [her] individual experiences, that’s fine. However, since there are so few works by Chinese Americans being published… the definitions of Chinese America presented by [Kingston]…become the only recognized ones” (Fong 68).
Suppose Wong is correct in believing that “only a careless reader” would misinterpret Kingston’s intentions. In “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” however, Kingston criticizes a variety of critics, American and Asian American alike. If so many readers of Kingston’s audience have mis-read the work, then Wong is proposing that all those individuals were “careless” readers. Yet, that does not seem logical. In the response, Kingston mostly addresses non-Chinese critics, even remarking, “I have a horrible feeling that it is not self-evident to many Caucasian Americans why these reviews are offensive. I find it sad and slow that I have to explain” (Skandera-Trombley 96). Towards the end of her response, Kingston summarizes, “The artistically interesting problem which the reviewers are really posing is: How much exposition is needed?” (Skandera-Trombley 162). And that is the heart of the issue in The Woman Warrior. Kingston complains about giving “boring exposition” about information accessible through research, but the exposition needed in the piece is a concrete conveyance of her purpose. An author cannot expect her readers to understand her writing completely without any subtle guidance of the work’s objective. Since Kingston claims her audience as herself, how can anyone outside that “audience” be expected to fully navigate the course of the book? If according to Wong, a “careless reader” is someone who does not understand the author, then only one reader would be considered a “careful” reader – Kingston herself.
Kingston claims that The Woman Warrior is her own “individual artistic vision” (Skandera-Trombley 101). As with any work of art, however, multiple interpretations and subjective opinions will always exist unless the artist clearly communicates her intentions. Kingston does not clearly guide the piece; therefore, readers without prior knowledge of the book will continue to mis-read the work due to common expectations of the ethnic autobiography. Additionally, the portrayal of common cultural stereotypes will only invite more misinterpretations and critical debates regarding the implications of the piece. Because of how Kingston wrote the autobiography, it will remain a work of discussion and controversy. If The Woman Warrior remains a quintessential piece in the cannon of American literature, students will continue to be the most susceptible to mis-readings. Students commonly have “ethnicity-based” expectations, usually nurtured by other famous ethnic works and the instructors’ guided teaching. However, regardless of the reader’s expectations and his or her literary merit, The Woman Warrior will always be misinterpreted because the fault lies in the writing, not in the reader.