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A poetics of women's autobiography

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  • 1. A Poetics of Womens AutobiographyMarginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation SIDOrilE SMITH INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS Bloomington and Indianapolis
  • 2. This book was brought to publication with the assistance of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. © 1987 by Sidonie Smith A l l rights reservedNo part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying andrecording, or byktiy iijf6 rrnati,ffn storage^an^iretrleVSl s;ystem, without l ;permission infwrftitjg from the,publisher. T h e Association o.f American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition. Manufactured i n the United States of America L i b r a r y of C o n g r e s s Cataloging-in-Publication Data Smith, Sidonie. A poetics of womens autobiography. Bibliography: p. Includes index. 1. English prose literature-—Women a u t h o r s — History and criticism. 2. Autobiography—Women authors. 3. Women—Great B r i t a i n — B i o g r a p h y — H i s t o r y and criticism. 4. Self in literature. 5. Marginality, Social, i n literature. 6. Women and l i t e r a t u r e - Great Britain. 7. Kingston, Maxine Hong. Woman warrior. PR756.A9S65 1.987 8ao.9492 86-45990 TSB.N 0-253-34505-7
  • 3. corroriTSAcknowledgments be I Theoretical Considerations :1. Autobiography Criticism and the Problematics o f Gender 32. Renaissance H u m a n i s m and the Misbegotten M a n : A Tension o f Discourses i n the Emergence o f Autobiogr ap h y 203. Womans Story a n d the Engenderings o f Self-Representation 44 I I Readings4. The Book of Margery Kempe: T h i s Creatures Unsealed Life 645. T h e Ragged Rout o f Self: Margaret Cavendishs True Relation and the Heroics o f Self-Disclosure 846. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke: T h e Transgressive Daughter and the Masquerade o f Self- Representation 1027. H a r r i e t Martineaus Autobiography: T h e Repressed Desire o f Life like a Mans 1238. Maxine H o n g Kingstons Woman Warrior: Filiality and Womans Autobiographical Storytelling 150Coda 174Notes 177Index 203 i
  • 4. Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman Warrior 151 sense o f "self" and the communitys stories o f selfhood, Kingston self-con- EIGHT sciously reads herself into existence t h r o u g h the stories her culture tells about women. Using autobiography to create identity, she breaks d o w n the hegemony o f f o r m a l "autobiography" and breaks out o f the silence that has b o u n d her culturally to discover a resonant voice o f her own. Furthermore, as a w o r k coming f r o m an ethnic subculture, The Woman Warrior offers the Maxine H o n g Kingstons occasion to consider the complex imbroglios o f cultural fictions tha^t s u r - r o u n d the autobiographer who is engaging two sets o f stories: those t>f the Woman Warrior dominant culture and those o f an ethnic subculture with its o w n traditions, its o w n unique stories. As a Chinese American f r o m the w o r k i n g class, Filiality and Womans Autobiographical Storytelling Kingston brings to her autobiographical project complicating perspectives on the relationship o f woman to language and to narrative. Considered by some a "novel" and by others an "autobiography," the five It is hard to write about my own mother. Whatever I do write, it is my story I am narratives conjoined u n d e r the title The Woman Warrior are decidedly five telling, my version of the past. I f she were confrontations w i t h the fictions o f self-representation and w i t h the a u t o - to tell her own story other landscapes biographical possibilities embedded i n cultural fictions, specifically as they would be revealed. But in my landscape or interpenetrate one another i n the. autobiography a woman w o u l d w r i t e . 1 hers, there would be old, smoldering For Kingston, then, as f o r the woman autobiographer generally, the herme- patches of deep-burning anger. neutlcs o f self-representation can never be divorced f r o m cultural represen- — A d r i e n n e Rich, Of Woman Born tations o f woman that delimit the nature o f her access to the w o r d and the articulation o f her o w n desire. N o r can interpretation be divorced f r o m her orientation toward the mother, who, as her point o f origin, commands the tenuous negotiation o f identity and difference i n a drama o f filiality thatSince H a r r i e t Martineau wrote her autobiography i n 1856, many hundreds reaches t h r o u g h the daughters subjectivity to her textual self-authoring.o f women have contributed the story o f their lives to the cultural heritage. Preserving the traditions that authorize the old way o f life and enable herWriters, artists, political figures, intellectuals, businesswomen, actors, a t h - to reconstitute the circle o f the i m m i g r a n t community amidst an alien e n -letes—all these and more have marked history i n their own way, both as they vironment, Kingstons mother dominates the life, the landscape, and thelived their lives and as they wrote about t h e m . A tradition so r i c h and various language o f the text as she dominates the subjectivity o f the daughter whopresents a challenge to the critic o f twentieth-century autobiography. There writes that text. I t is Brave Orchids voice, commanding, as Kingston notes,is m u c h to be written about the works; indeed, studies o f twentieth-century "great power" that continually reiterates the discourses o f the c o m m u n i t y i nautobiography are beginning to emerge. Articles now abound. I do n o t want maxims, talk-story, legends, family histories. As the instrument n a m i n gto conclude this study o f womens autobiographies without attention to a filial identities and commanding filial obligations, that voice enforces thecontemporary work; b u t I also realize that there are many choices that would authority and legitimacy o f the old culture to name a n d thus control thehave served m y critical purposes. Nonetheless, f o r me at least, no single work place o f woman w i t h i n the patrilineage and thereby to establish the erasurecaptures so powerfully the relationship o f gender to genre i n twentieth- o f female desire and the denial o f female self-representation as the basis oncentury autobiography as Maxine H o n g Kingstons Woman Warrior. which the perpetuation o f patrilineal descent rests. Yet that same voice gives shape to other possibilities, tales o f female power and authority that A n d so i t is fitting to conclude this discussion o f womens autobiography seem to create a space o f cultural significance for the daughter; and thew i t h The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, which is, quite very strength and authority o f the material voice fascinates the daughtercomplexly, an autobiography about womens autobiographical storytelling. because i t "speaks" o f the power o f woman to enunciate her o w n represen-A postmodern work, i t exemplifies the potential f o r works f r o m the m a r g i n - tations. Hence storytelling becomes the means t h r o u g h which Brave O r -alized to challenge the ideology o f individualism and w i t h i t the ideology of^ chid passes on to her daughter all the complexities o f and the ambivalencesgender. Recognizing the inextricable relationship between an individuals150
  • 5. 152 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman Warrior 153about b o t h mothers and daughters identity as w o m a n i n patriarchal c u l - pened to her could happen to you. D o n t humiliate us. You w o u l d n t like toture. 2 be forgotten as i f you had never been b o r n . T h e villagers are w a t c h f u l " (5). Storytelling also becomes the means t h r o u g h which Kingston confronts , Kingston thus situates the origins o f her autobiography i n her recollectionthose complexities and ambivalences. I n dialogic engagement w i t h her o f the story her mother used to contextualize the m o m e n t o f transitionmothers w o r d , she struggles to constitute the voice of her own subjectivity,. ineradicably m a r k i n g female identity and desire. T h a t event, as i t proclaimsto emerge f r o m a past dominated by.stories told to her, ones that inscribe • womans sexual potency, proclaims also womans problematic placementthe fictional possibilities o f female selfhood, into a present articulated by 1 w i t h i n the body social, economic, politic, and symbolic. While her body, the 4her o w n storytelling. H e r text reveals the intensity o f that struggle t h r o u g h - locus o f patrilineal preservation, will be contracted out to male authority toout childhood and adolescence a n d the persistance of those conflicts i n h e r - serve as the carrier o f legitimate sons and o f the order those sons p e r p e t u -ent i n self-authoring well i n t o adulthood; for, n o t only is that effort the ate, i t w i l l always r e m a i n a potential source o f disruption and disintegrationsubject i n the text; i t is also dramatized by the text. I n the first two n a r r a - i n the community: I t may provide no sons f o r the line of descent; or i t maytives she re-creates the stories about women a n d their autobiographical.. entertain strangers and thus introduce illegitimate children and an a l t e r n a -possibilities passed on to her by her mother: first the biographical story of . tive genealogy into the order. Should a daughter opt f o r the latter (unfilial) 5no-name aunt, an apparent victim and thus a negative model o f female life alternative, warns the mother, the patriarchal order w i l l w o r k efficiendy toscripts, and then the legendary chant o f the w a r r i o r woman Fa M u L a n , an punish her transgression o f the contract, e l i m i n a t i n g her body a n d nameapparent heroine and positive model. B u t as she explores their fates, K i n g - . f r o m the w o r l d o f things a n d o f discourse. Kingstons aunt has suffered thisston questions the very basis on which such distinctions are predicated. fate: H e r family, like the villagers, has enacted its own cleansing r i t u a l ; andUncovering layer by layer the dynamics and the consequences o f her m o t h - Kingstons mother has perpetuated the r i t u a l i n the very way she tells theers interpretations as they resonate w i t h the memories of her past, the story. T h e aunts name remains unuttered; and her interpretation of eventsdaughter, as she too passes them on to posterity, circles a r o u n d them, is sacrificed, w i t h i n the mothers text, to concern f o r the villagers actions.critiquing them, m a k i n g t h e m her own. N e x t she reconstructs out o f the Only her body assumes significance as itreveals the sign o f its transgression,autobiographical fragments o f Brave Orchids o w n Chinese experience a as i t plugs u p the family well.biography o f her mother, discovering by the way the efficacies o f powerful T h e mothers cautionary tale at once affirms and seeks to cut off thestorytelling for the w o m a n who has fallen i n status w i t h her translation to daughters kinship w i t h a transgressive female relative and her unrepressedanother culture. I n the f o u r t h piece, an elaborate fabrication played o n sexuality, Kingston acknowledges the effectiveness of that strategy by r e - 6actual events, she becomes even more keenly attentive to all a u t o b i o g r a p h i - vealing later i n the narrative that f o r a l o n g time she accepted her motherscal and biographical representations, i n c l u d i n g her own. L o o k i n g back to interpretation and kept her counsel, thereby colluding i n the perpetuationthe beginnings of her o w n struggle to take a voice, she traces i n the final o f b o t h her own silencing a n d the erasure o f her aunts name:narrative the origins o f her o w n hermeneutics. T h e apparent line o f p r o g -ress, which as i t ends returns us to the beginning, becomes effectively a I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers socircle o f sorts, a textual alternative to the constricting patriarchal circle frail that "aunt" would do my father mysterious harm. I have thought that myKingston has had to transgress. family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the Mnspeople even here. But there is more to this silence: they want me to" You must n o t tell anyone, m y mother said, what I am about to tell you. I n participate in her punishment. And I have. (18)China your father ha d a sister who killed herself. She j u m p e d into thefamily well. We say that y o u r father has all brothers because it is as i f she Now, however, at the m o m e n t o f autobiographical w r i t i n g , Kingston resistshad never been born. " W i t h that interdiction o f female speech, uttered i n 3 identification w i t h m o t h e r a n d father by breaking the silence, r e t u r n i n g tothe name o f the father, Kingstons mother succinctly elaborates the c i r c u m - the story that marked her entrance into sexual difference "and constitutingstances o f the sisters suicide. T h e concise maternal narrative concludes w i t h her o w n interpretation o f events. She comes to tell another story, seeking toforceful injunctions and p o w e r f u l maxims inscribing the filial obligations of name the formerly u n n a m e d — t h e subjectivity o f her aunt. As she does so,daughters i n the patriarchal order: " Donffet y o u r father know that I told ghe imagines her aunt i n a series o f postures toward that excess o f sexualityyou. H e denies her. N o w that you have started to menstruate, what hap- ^signified by the growth o f h e r womb. Initially dismissing the probability t
  • 6. 154 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman Warrior 155that "people who hatch their own chicks a n d eat embryos and the heads for b i r t h i n the p i g s t y — " t o fool the jealous, pain-dealing gods, who do notdelicacies a n d boil the feet i n vinegar f o r party food, leaving only the gravel, switch piglets" ( 1 6 ) — a n d then by k i l l i n g herself and her c h i l d — " a childeating even the gizzard l i n i n g — c o u l d . . . engender a prodigal aunt" (7), w i t h no descent line w o u l d not soften her life but only trail after her,she imagines her aunt the victim o f rape, fearful, silent, and vulnerable ghostlike, begging her to give i t purpose" (17). From one p o i n t o f view,before her victimizer. B u t she suspends that narrative line, apparently d i s - then, the aunt enacts on her own body and her o w n alternative genealogicalsatisfied w i t h its unmitigated emphasis on female powerlessness- and w i l l - . text the punishment o f the tribe, f u l f i l l i n g her filial responsibilities to herlessness. B e g i n n i n g again, Kingston enters h e r aunts subjectivity f r o m a n - circle by eliminating the source o f contamination f r o m its center andother perspective, p r e f e r r i n g to see her as a w i l l f u l w o m a n after "subtle thereby restoring i t to its unbroken configuration. She thus returns/to theenjoyment." Contemplating this posture, she finds herself increasingly silence that defines her condition and her identity. From another p o i n t o faware o f the gaps i n her mothers tale, which motivate her to ask fur ther view, however, the aunts suicide continues her rebellion i n a congeries o fquestions o f the story a n d to piece together an alternative textual geneal- ways. First, she brings back with her to the center o f her natal circle the 10ogy. 7 two loci of greatest p o l l u t i o n i n Chinese c u l t u r e — t h e moments o f b i r t h and Instead o f i m a g i n i n g her aunt as one o f "the heavy, deep-rooted women" d e a t h . Second, by j u m p i n g back into the c i r c l e — t h e family well—-she 11who "were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for r e t u r n i n g " (9), contaminates, i n a recapitulated gesture o f disruption, the water that l i t e r -and thus as victim, she imagines her as a w o m a n attuned to "a secret voice, a ally and symbolically promises the continuance o f patrilineal descent andseparate attentiveness" (13), truly transgressive a n d subversive. T h e f r u i t o f the symbolic order i t nourishes. T h i r d , she takes w i t h her the secret ofher w o m b becomes the m a r k exposing the priority o f her desire f o r sex-, paternal origins, never revealing the name o f the father. Saving the fathersuality a n d autobiographical inscription. Indeed, the expansion of her very face, she paradoxically erases the paternal trace, betraying i n yet anotherbody and o f her sense o f her own authority to define herself ultimately way the fundamental fragility o f undisputed paternal authority. Finally, bychallenges the ontological roots o f her c u l t u r e — " t h e real"; f o r publicized w i t h h o l d i n g f r o m her natal family the name of the offender whose actionsfemale subjectivity points to the fundamental vulnerability o f the pa- have caused such disgrace, she denies t h e m the means to recover face bytrilineage by exposing i t as a sustained fiction. T h e alternative genealogy 8 enacting their own revenge on the v i o l a t o r . T h u s , while she seems to 12thus engendered breaks the descent line, subverting the legitimacy o f male capitulate before the monolithic power o f the order against w h i c h she hassuccession that determines all lines i n patriarchy—descent lines, property transgressed, Kingston envisions her as a "spite suicide," an antiheroinelines, and lines o f texts. " T h e frightened villagers, who depended on one 9 whose actions subvert the stability o f an order that rests o n the m o r a lanother to maintain the real," writes Kingston, "went to m y aunt to show imperatives o f filial obligations, i n c l u d i n g sexual repression. H e r very s i -her a personal, physical representation o f the break she had made i n the lence becomes a p o w e r f u l presence, a female weapon o f vengeance. T o -roundness. Misallying couples snapped off the future, w h i c h was to be ward the end o f this imaginative portrait, Kingston returns once again toembodied i n true offspring. T h e villagers punished her for acting as i f she her mothers tale by repeating the earlier r e f r a i n : " Dont tell anyone youcould have a private life, secret and apart f r o m t h e m " (14). had an aunt. Your father does n o t want to hear her name. She has never been b o r n " (18). Yet while Kingston repeats her mothers words, she does While her j o u r n e y across the boundaries that circumscribe the p a - so w i t h a critical difference. U n l i k e her mother, she engenders a story f o rtriarchal order takes the aunt into the u n b o u n d e d spaces o f self-representa- her aunt, fleshing o u t the narrative and i n c o r p o r a t i n g the subjectivity p r e -tion, Kingston acknowledges also that this "rare urge west" (9) leads her viously denied that woman. I n d i v i d u a l i z i n g her mothers cautionary andinto the vast spaces o f alienation, fearfulness, and death. Expelled f r o m the impersonal tale, she transforms i n the process both her aunts text a n d herfamily circle, her aunt becomes "one o f the stars, a b r i g h t dot i n blackness, aunts body f r o m a m a x i m (a mere vessel to h o l d patriarchal signifiers) intow i t h o u t home, w i t h o u t a companion, i n eternal cold and silence" (16). a "life." Moreover, she ensures that she herself becomes more t h a n a mereWhile the endless n i g h t proposes limitless identities beyond the confining vessel preserving her mothers maxims, however deeply they may be e m -borders o f repetitious patriarchal representations, i t promotes the "agora- bedded i n her consciousness. For the story of this "forerunner," her "urgephobia" attending any move beyond the carefully prescribed boundaries of west" and her agoraphobia, becomes a piece i n the puzzle o f her o w n erasedancestral, familial, and community paradigms o f female self-representa- and erasable identity: "Unless I see her life branching into mine, she givestion. Overwhelmedt>y the vast spaces o f possibility, the aunt returns to the me no ancestral help" ( t o ) . A n d so, the filiations of her o w n story stretchgenealogical source, reestablishing hef cultural "responsibility" by giving* t
  • 7. 156 A POETICS-OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n W a r r i o r 157 backward to her aunts, and the filiations o f her aunts story stretch forward text; a n d her memories a n d stories may only be fictions too. T h i s maternal to her own, as the two lives interpenetrate, crossing narrative boundaries i n trace, disruptive o f the patriarchal order, may be potentially as threatening the text as Kingston interweaves her childhood experiences i n the i m m i - to Kingston as i t was to her aunt. Indeed, she may be the c h i l d — " i t was grant community encircling her w i t h the imaginative biography o f her probably a girl; there is some hope o f forgiveness f o r boys" (18)-—that her aunt. aunt takes w i t h her to the grave. Ultimately, the f u l l , the "real" story o f Kingston retrieves her aunt f r o m the oblivion o f sexuality repressed and w o m a n may lead to madness and to self-destruction rather t h a n to l e g i t i - textuality erased by placing her i n " a n alternative narrative: the line of mate self-representation. matrilineal descent to which she traces her origins and t h r o u g h which she gives voice to her subjectivity. Like her aunts before her, this transgression Kingston i n the second piece engages another o f her mothers representa- o f the injunction to filial silence challenges the priority of patrilineal de- ;:| tions o f female autobiography, a story f r o m w h i c h she learned that Chinese scent. A l l o w i n g her imagination to give voice to the body o f her aunts text, girls "failed i f we grew u p to be b u t wives and slaves." Here she does not Kingston expresses i n her o w n way the excess o f narrative (textuality) that distinguish i n quotation marks the words o f her mother; rather, she moves links her intimately to that earlier excess o f sexuality she identifies i n her ;| directly to her own elaboration o f Fa M u Lans c h a n t . B u t she goes f u r - 13 aunt. Indeed, her aunt becomes her textual "child," product o f the fictions ther, a p p r o p r i a t i n g n o t only the chant but also the very body o f that l e g e n d - t h r o u g h w h i c h Kingston gives " b i r t h " to her, and, by the way, to herself. ary w o m a n warrior: T h e identities o f w o m a n w a r r i o r and o f w o m a n n a r r a - H e r story thus functions as a sign, like her aunts enlarging belly, publiciz- . ; | : tor interpenetrate u n t i l biography becomes autobiography, u n t i l Kingston i n g the potentially disruptive force o f female textuality and the matrilineal and Fa M u L a n are o n e . T h r o u g h this fantasy o f mythic identification, the 1 4 descent o f texts. adult daughter inscribes an autobiography o f "perfect filiality" t h r o u g h O n the level o f her mothers tale, then, the o r i g i n a t i n g story o f Kingstons . ;j! which she fulfills her mothers expectations and garners her mothers u n - autobiography testifies to the power o f the patriarchy to command t h r o u g h $ qualified love. Simultaneously, this "life" enables her to escape confinement mothers the silence o f daughters, to name and to unname them, and in conventional female scripts and to enter the realm o f heroic masculine thereby to control their m e a n i n g i n discourse itself. O n another level the :| p u r s u i t s — o f education, adventure, public accomplishment, and fame. opening piece displaces the mothers m y t h w i t h the daughters, thereby | Ironically, however, Kingstons mythical autobiography betrays the on- subverting the interpretations on which patrilineal descent and filial r e - tological bases on which that love, power, and compliance w i t h perfect sponsibilities are predicated and establishing a space i n which female desire filiality rest, and self-representation can emerge. Yet Kingston concludes w i t h a w o r d of • T h e woman w a r r i o r gains her education beyond the engendered circle of caution: c o m m u n i t y and family i n a magical, otherworldly place where male and female difference remains undelineated. H e r educators are a h e r m a p h r o - My aunt haunts m e — h e r ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of ditic couple beyond childbearing age whose relationship appears to be one neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into o f relative equality; and the education they offer encourages her to forge an houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on -i identity, not t h r o u g h conventional formulations o f womans selfhood, b u t her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself i n the drinking water. The t h r o u g h a close identification w i t h the creatures o f nature and the secrets o f Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a natural space. I n such a space female sexuality, signaled by the onslaught 15 substitute. (19) of puberty, remains a " n a t u r a l " event rather t h a n a cultural p h e n o m e n o n situating the girl i n a constellation of attitudes toward female p o l l u t i o n and As the final sentence suggests, the identification may not be fortuitous, for contamination. Nonetheless, that education, while i t appears to be l i b e r a t - autobiographical journeys a n d public self-representations are problematic ing, presupposes Fa M u Lans total identification w i t h the desires o f her adventures f o r daughters to pursue. Kingston does n o t yet know her aunts family, ubiquitously present even i n its absence. For instance, she passively, name; and the subjectivity she has created f o r her remains only another watches i n the g o u r d as her o w n wedding ceremony takes place despite her1 interpretation, a fiction. Nor, by implication, can she be sure that she will absence, the choice o f husband entirely her parents prerogative. U l - ever know the t r u t h about her own past; Hei^name is never uttered i n the timately, woman can be trained as w a r r i o r only i n a space separate f r o m 3
  • 8. 158 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman Warrior 159 family; b u t she can enter that space only because her sacrifice to the circle is •- - •= tation, they legitimate the very structures m a n creates to define himself, the basis on which her education takes place at all. Consequently, her em- % including those structures that silence w o m e n . 1 8 powerment does n o t threaten to disrupt the representations o f the pa- , J: T h e heroic figure o f Fa M u L a n thus represents a certain k i n d o f w o m a n triarchal circle; o n the contrary, i t serves b o t h the family a n d the discourse ,J warrior, a culturally privileged "female avenger." Embedded i n Kingstons o f gender. % fantasy autobiography, however, lies a truly subversive "story" o f female W h e n she returns home, Fa M u L a n takes her place, not as "woman," but empowerment. I m a g e d as tiny, foot-bound, squeaky-voiced w o m e n d e p e n - as extraordinary w o m a n — a s , that is, m a n : " M y parents killed a chicken and dent on male authority for their continued existence, the wives o f w a r r i o r s , steamed it whole, as i f they were welcoming home a son" (40). As surrogate. /? barons, and emperors who h a u n t the interstices o f the textual landscape son, she replaces her father i n battle, eventually freeing her community are, i n one sense, conventional ghosts. Yet those apparently erased ciphers f r o m the exploitation a n d terrorization o f the barons. Yet she must do more become, i n another sense, the real female avengers: than enact the scenario o f male selfhood. She must erase her sexual dif- ference and publicly represent herself as male, a "female avenger" mas- • ,; Later, it would be said, they turned into the band of swordswomen who were a querading i n mens clothes and hair styles. A n d while her sexual desire is , mercenary army. They did not wear mens clothes like me, but rode as women not repressed altogether, as i n the case o f the virginal Joan o f A r c to w h o m in black and red dresses. They bought up girl babies so that many poor families Kingston alludes, i t must r e m a i n publicly unacknowledged. H i d d e n inside •% welcomed their visitations. When slave girls and daughters-in-law ran away, her armor and her tent, h e r "body" remains suppressed i n the larger com- people would say they joined these witch amazons. They killed men and boys. I n r u n i t y . I t also bears the marks o f her textual and sexual appropriation by 16 ;J| myself never encountered such women and could not vouch for their reality. (53) m a n : " N o w when I was naked, I was a strange h u m a n being indeed-—words. carved on my back and the baby large i n f r o n t " (47). T h e lines o f text on her Such "witch amazons" are figures o f all that is unrepressed a n d violent i n back are not her own creation: T h e y are the words by which the father has . ;| ways b o t h sexual and textual, i n the narrator herself as well as i n the social inscribed his law on her body, w o u n d i n g her i n the process. A n d her belly is order. Wielding unauthorized power, they do n o t avenge the wrongs o f f u l l o f a male heir whose b i r t h w i l l ensure the continuance o f the pa- fathers and brothers; they lead daughters against fathers and sons, slaying trilineage she serves i n her h e r o i s m . Finally, a n d most telling, the n a r r a - 17 the source o f the phallic order i t s e l f . Moreover, they do so, n o t by m a s k - 19 tives closure asserts the ultimate limitations o f the warrior womans auto- :•• ing, b u t by aggressively revealing their sexual difference. Paradoxically, Fa biographical possibilities. Fa M u Lans story breaks roughly into two parts: :- M u L a n has liberated the women who subvert the order she serves, j u s t as the narratives o f preparation and public action. I t thus reinscribes the Kingston the n a r r a t o r has released the r u m o r that subverts the story she traditional structure o f androcentric self-representation, driven by a linear- tells. causal progression. Once the revenge carved on her back has been enacted, Kingstons memories o f the real, rather t h a n mythical, c h i l d h o o d also however, b o t h her life as w o m a n w a r r i o r a n d her autobiography end. H a v - subvert the fiction she has created out o f her mothers expectations. J u x - i n g r e t u r n e d home to unmask herself and to be recuperated as publicly taposing to this autobiography o f androcentric selfhood another self-repre- silenced wife and slave, she kneels before her parents-in-law: " Now my Q sentation that undermines the priority o f the fantasy o f "perfect filiality," public duties are finished. . . . I w i l l stay w i t h you, doing f a r m w o r k and .;j Kingston betrays Fa M u Lans story as a fragile fiction only coterminous housework, and giving y o u more sons" (53—54). T h e r e is n o t h i n g more to ,i w i t h the words that inscribe it as m y t h . A n d the j a r r i n g texture o f her be said by her a n d o f her. recollected e x p e r i e n c e — i t s nervous, disjointed, unpoetic, frustrated Fa M u Lans name, u n l i k e the name o f no-name aunt, is passed o n f r o m ||, prose—calls into question the basis f o r the seamless elegance a n d almost- generation to generation, precisely because the lines o f her story as woman Jf mystical lyricism o f Fa M u Lans poetic autobiography. warrior a n d the lines o f her text as w o m a n autobiographer reproduce an :j Kingston recalls the repetition o f commonplace maxims that deny female androcentric paradigm o f identity and selfhood a n d thereby serve the s y m - significance ("Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds"; " W h e n you raise girls, bolic order i n "perfect filiality." Since b o t h life and text mask her sexual youre raising children f o r strangers"; "Girls are maggots i n the rice"); the difference and thereby secure her recuperation i n the phallic order by ** t pressures o f a language that conflates the ideographs representing the inscribing her subjectivity a n d her selfhood i n the law o f the same represen- * female " I " and "slave"; the images " o f poor people snagging their n e i g h - - t
  • 9. 160 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n Warrior 161 bors flotage w i t h l o n g flood hooks and pushing the girl babies o n down the doctor, the scrolls stimulate biography because they announce public river" (62). A l l these signs and stories o f her culture equate her identity as achievements, a life text readable by culture. T h e y also announce to the " g i r l " w i t h failed filiality and engender i n her a p r o f o u n d sense o f v u l - daughter another mother, a mythic figure resident i n China who resisted nerability and lack. T h u s she remembers how she tried to fulfill her filial the erasure o f her own desire and who pursued her own signifying self- obligations i n the only way imaginable to her: She works at being a "bad" hood. I n her daughters text, Brave O r c h i d becomes a k i n d o f "woman g i r l — f o r , as she asks, "Isnt a bad girl almost a boy?" (56). She rejects the warrior," whose story resonates w i t h the Fa M u L a n legend: b o t h wonien traditional occupations o f femininityV refusing to cook, breaking dishes, leave the circle o f the family to be educated f o r their mission a n d both screaming impolitely as maxims are mouthed, defiantly telling her parents r e t u r n to serve their community, freeing i t t h r o u g h many adventures f r o m friends that she wants to become a lumberjack, b r i n g i n g home straight As, those forces that w o u l d destroy i t . B o t h are fearless, successful, admired. those signs f r o m another culture o f her extraordinary public achievements. Kingstons biography accretes all varieties o f evidence testifying to her She adopts, that is, the c u l t u r a l postures o f a "son" by generating signs mothers bravery and extraordinariness. Portrayed as one o f the "new imitative o f male selfhood. B u t her efforts to be the phallic woman do n o t w o m e n , scientists who changed the rituals" (88), Brave O r c h i d bears the earn the love and acceptance o f her mother and community, as they do Fa "horizontal name o f one generation" that truly names her rather than the M u L a n . A n d so her experience gives the lie to that other autobiography: p a t r o n y m signifying womans identity as cipher silently b o n d i n g the pa- Everywhere the legend is betrayed as a misleading fiction. 20 trilineage. Thus Kingstons awe-filled n a r r a t i o n o f her mothers c o n f r o n t a - I n the end, there remains only one residual, locus o f identity between tion w i t h the Sitting Ghost takes on such synecdochic proportions i n the Kingston and Fa M u L a n : " W h a t we have i n c o m m o n are the words at o u r text: " M y mother may have been afraid, b u t she w o u l d be a dragoness (my backs. T h e ideographs for revenge are report a crime and report to five totem, y o u r totem). She could make herself n o t weak. D u r i n g danger she families. T h e r e p o r t i n g is the v e n g e a n c e — n o t the beheading, not the g u t - fanned out her dragon claws and riffled her r e d sequin scales and u n f o l d e d ting, but the words. A n d I have so many w o r d s — c h i n k words and gook her coiling green stripes. Danger was a good time f o r showing off. L i k e the words t o o — t h a t they do n o t f i t o n my skin" (63). H e r appropriation o f the dragons living i n temple eaves, m y m o t h e r looked d o w n on p l a i n people pen, that surrogate sword, and her public inscription o f the story o f her who were lonely and a f r a i d " (79). T h e ensuing battle between w o m a n and own childhood among ghosts become the r e p o r t i n g o f a c r i m e — t h e crime ghost unfolds as a p r i m a l struggle w i t h the dynamics and the r h y t h m s of an o f a culture that w o u l d make n o t h i n g o f her by colonizing her and, i n so attempted rape. A physically powerless victim o f the palpably masculine doing, steal her authority a n d her autobiography f r o m her as her mothers presence who "rolled over h e r and landed bodily on her chest" (81), Brave legend w o u l d do. I n the tale the forces o f exploitation remain external to O r c h i d is initially unable to challenge his strength. B u t she ultimately p r e - her family; but i n her own experience they r e m a i n internal, endemic to the vails against the Boulder, defeating h i m w i t h the boldness o f her w o r d and patriarchal family whose existence is founded o n the colonization and e r a - the power o f the images she voices to taunt h i m into submission a n d cow- sure o f w o m e n i n service to the selfhood o f men and boys a n d whose ardice. Such fearlessness and verbal c u n n i n g characterize subsequent a d - perpetuation is secured t h r o u g h the mothers w o r d . By simultaneously e n - ventures the daughter invokes: the coexistence w i t h ghosts and strange acting and critiquing that legendary story o f female power, Kingston m a n - monsters p o p u l a t i n g the countryside t h r o u g h which she travels o n her way ages to shatter the complacencies o f cultural myths, problematic heroines, to administer to the sick; the bargain she drives w i t h the slave dealer; her and the illusory autobiographical possibilities they sanction. By "slaying" response to the b i r t h of monster babies; and her bold orientation toward the stories o f men and boys and phallic women warriors, she allies herself food. 2 1 w i t h the true female avengers o f her tale. Fa M u L a n may have denied her Embedded i n the daughters representation o f her mothers e x t r a o r - identity w i t h such women; Kingston does not. dinariness, however, lies another, a palimpsest that tells o f her mothers preoccupation w i t h autobiographical interpretation. Even m o r e i m p o r t a n t Whereas the first two narratives explore the consequences o f Kingstons than the story of Brave Orchids confrontation w i t h the Sitting Ghost is the. appropriation o f her mothers stories, the t h i r d goes t h r o u g h the stories to re-creation o f her narrative o f the encounter. Skillful i n creating compelling, the storyteller herself. T h r e e scrolls f r o m China serve as the originating stories o f her experience, Brave O r c h i d makes o f the ghost a vividly locus o f this biography o f her m o t h e r pieced tdgether w i t h " a u t o b i o g r a p h i - % ominous antagonist, thereby a u t h o r i n g herself as powerful protagonist. cal" fragments. Texts that legitimate her mothers professional identity as 14 t Such i m a g i n g ensures the emboldening o f her presence i n the eyes a n d
  • 10. 162 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n Warrior 163imaginations o f the other w o m e n (and o f her daughter): " I am brave and woman who embodies the threat o f uncontrolled female sexuality and s u b -good. Also I have bodily strength and control. Good people do n o t lose to versive alliances between w o m e n — a l w a y s strangers w i t h i n the c o m m u -ghosts" (86). Kingston also suggests that her mother secured the same n i t y — a n d the enemy outside.admiration i n other ways. By studying i n secret, "she quickly built a r e p u t a - A l l these tales f r o m her mothers past, by r e i n f o r c i n g the representationt i o n f o r being brilliant, a natural scholar who could glance at a book and o f w o m e n as expendable, resonate w i t h Kingstons sense o f displacement i nknow i t " (75). R e t u r n i n g to her village, she "wore a silk robe and western her family and i n the i m m i g r a n t c o m m u n i t y i n America, her confusionshoes w i t h big heels"; thereafter she maintained that posture by never about her sexuality, and her fears o f her own "deformities" a n d " m a d -dressing "less elegantly t h a n w h e n she stepped out o f the sedan chair" (go). nesses." T h e y leave h e r with f o o d that suffocates her, a voice tnat/squeaksBy avoiding treatment o f the terminally i l l , she ensured that her powers as on her, and nightmares that h a u n t the l o n g nights o f childhood. T h e y also,doctor were magnified. I n linguistic and behavioral postures, Brave Orchid^ complicate Kingstons sense o f identification w i t h her m o t h e r by betraying*orchestrates her public image, inscribes, that is, her own autobiography as the basis on which her tales o f extraordinariness are founded, that is, theextraordinary woman. powerlessness o f ordinary w o m e n and children and their cruel and insensi- T i r e mothers mode o f self-authoring complicates the daughters effort to y tive victimization, even at the hands o f Brave O r c h i d herself. I n fact, i n herreconstruct her mothers biography. Brave Orchids stories about China self-representation Kingston identifies herself w i t h the "lonely and afraid,"become the only archival material out o f which Kingston can create that ; a victim o f her mothers stories, and thus no true heroine after her mothers"life"; and yet the stories are already "representations" or "fictions" o f her model. Paradoxically, her mother, the shaman w i t h the power o f w o r d andexperiences before she reaches an America where she is no doctor, where food, has, instead o f inspiring her daughter to health and heroism, madeshe works daily washing other peoples laundry or picking f r u i t and vegeta- the daughter sick, hungry, vulnerable, fearful.bles i n the fields, where she is no longer w o m a n alone b u t a wife and I n the closing passage o f this t h i r d narrative, Kingston re-creates hermother, where she is no w o m a n w a r r i o r dressed elegantly i n silk. "You have__ most recent encounter w i t h her m o t h e r and, t h r o u g h i t , her c o n t i n u i n gno idea how m u c h I have fallen" (90), she confesses and therein suggests" resistance to her mothers victimizing presence. Ironically, the scene r e -the efficacy o f stories a n d storytelling as means to preserve her extraor- capitulates the earlier scene o f her mothers biography. T h e dark bedroom,dinariness. Significantly, the dynamics o f the mothers fate recall those o f Fa the late h o u r recall the haunted r o o m at the medical school. H e r e BraveM u Lans: Adventures concluded, b o t h r e t u r n to the home o f the husband O r c h i d is herself the ghost who w o u l d continue to h a u n t her daughter: " M yas wife a n d slave, there to become the subject o f w o n d e r f u l tales o f an mother w o u l d sometimes be a large animal, barely real i n the dark; then sheearlier glory i n a faraway place. w o u l d become a m o t h e r again" (118). Like Brave O r c h i d before her, K i n g - Kingstons narrative, as i t interpenetrates her autobiography w i t h her ston grasps the only weapon effective i n overcoming that ghost-—-the wordsmothers biography, reveals how problematic such stories can become for ..." w i t h which she resists her. I n the syncopated r h y t h m o f statement andthe next generation. F r o m one point o f view, they can be exhilarating, $j rebuttal, she answers her mothers vision o f things w i t h her own, c h a l l e n g -creating i n children the admiration that is so apparent i n Kingstons text. i n g unremittingly the power o f her m o t h e r to control interpretations. SheB u t f r o m another, they generate confusions and ambiguities, since as a 7j| also offers an alternative representation o f her mother i n this closing scene,child Kingston inflected the narratives w i t h her o w n subjectivity, attending ^ p o r t r a y i n g her as an old woman, tired, prosaic, lonely, a w o m a n whoseto another story w i t h i n the text o f female heroism. For Brave Orchids tales illusions o f r e t u r n i n g to China have vanished, whose stories have becomeo f bravery and exoticism are u n d e r w r i t t e n by an alternative text o f female peevish, repetitious. I n creating a p o r t r a i t o f her mother as neither fearlessvulnerability and victimization. T h e story elaborating the purchase o f the nor exotic, the daughter demystifies Brave Orchids presence and diffusesslave girl reaffirms the servile status o f w o m e n and actually gives legitimacy ; j | the power o f her w o r d .to Kingstons fears her parents w i l l sell h e r when they r e t u r n to China. The For all the apparent rejection o f her mother as ghost, the final passagestories o f babies identify femaleness w i t h deformity and suggest to the points to a locus o f identification between mother and daughter and adaughter the h a u n t i n g possibility that her m o t h e r m i g h t actually have p r a c - momentary rapprochement between the two. I n saying goodnight, K i n g -ticed female infanticide. T h e story o f the crazy lady, scurrying directionless Z stons mother calls her Little D o g , a name o f endearment u n u t t e r e d f o ron b o u n d feet, encased i n the mirror-zstudded headdress, caught i n her own many years, and, i n that gesture o f affection, releases her daughter to beself-destructive capitulations, dramatizes communal fear o f the anomalous" who she will, As a result, Kingston experiences the freedom to identify w i t h
  • 11. 164 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n W a r r i o r 165her; for, as the daughter makes evident i n her biography, her m o t h e r b e - house, describing what they do, repeating what they say, asking what theirfore her had strayed f r o m filial obligations, leaving her parents behind i n words mean. While there is something delightfully childlike, curious, andpursuit o f her o w n desire; " I a m really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both o f naive about that n a r r a t i o n o f other peoples lives, there is a more p r o f o u n dus b o r n i n dragon years. I a m practically a first daughter o f a first daughter" sadness that a w o m a n in. h e r sixties, u n f o r m e d and infantile, has n o a u t o -(127). A t this m o m e n t o f closure, Kingston affectionately traces her geneal- biography o f her own.ogy as w o m a n and w r i t e r to a n d t h r o u g h her m o t h e r i n a sincere gesture o f W h e n her husband rejects her, giving his allegiance to his Chinese-Amer-filiality, acknowledging as she does so that her autobiography cannot be ican wife, who can speak English and aid h i m i n his w o r k , he denies the veryinscribed outside the biography of her mother, j u s t as the biography of her ontological basis on which M o o n Orchids selfhood is predicated a n d e f -mother cannot be inscribed outside her own interpretations. M o t h e r and fectually erases her f r o m the lines o f descent. H e also undermines w i t h hisdaughter are allied i n the interpenetration o f stories and storytelling, an negation o f her role what autobiographical representations she has m a n -alliance captured i n the ambiguous reference o f the final sentence: "She aged to create f o r herself. " You became people i n a book I read a l o n g timesends me o n my way, w o r k i n g always and now old, dreaming the dreams ago" (179), he tells the two sisters, dramatically betraying the elusiveness o fabout s h r i n k i n g babies and the sky covered w i t h airplanes and a Chinatown the "fictions" on which M o o n O r c h i d has sustained her identity as first wife.bigger than the ones here" (127). As the motifs-of the final pages suggest, Once having been t u r n e d into a fairy-tale figure f r o m a time l o n g past, thisb o t h mother and daughter are w o r k i n g always a n d now old. w o m a n loses the core o f her subjectivity and literally begins to vanish: She appears "small i n the corner o f the seat" (174); she stops speaking becauseI n the f o u r t h narrative Kingston does not take the w o r d o f her m o t h e r as the grounds for her authority to speak have been u n d e r m i n e d — " A l l sheher. point o f narrative o r i g i n . She w i l l reveal at the inception o f the next d i d was open and shut h e r m o u t h w i t h o u t any words c o m i n g o u t " (176);piece that the only i n f o r m a t i o n she received about the events narrated i n later she stops eating, r e t u r n i n g to Brave Orchids home "shrunken to thethe f o u r t h piece came f r o m her brother t h r o u g h her sister i n the f o r m o f an bone." Ultimately, she vanishes into a w o r l d o f madness where she createsabrupt, spare bone o f a story: "What m y brother actually said was, I drove repetitious fictions, variations on a story about vanishing w i t h o u t a trace.M o m and Second A u n t to Los Angeles to see Aunts husband whos got the T h u s she fantasizes that Mexican "ghosts" are p l o t t i n g to snatch her lifeother w i f e " (189). O u t o f a single factual sentence, Kingston creates a f r o m her, that " they w o u l d take us i n airplanes and fly us to Washington,complex story o f the two sisters, Brave O r c h i d and M o o n O r c hid. She D.C., where theyd t u r n us into ashes. . . . d r o p the ashes i n the w i n d ,admits that "his version o f the story may be better t h a n mine because o f its leaving no evidence" (184). T h e tenuousness, evanescence, and elusivenessbareness, n o t twisted into designs" (189); b u t the "designs" to which.she o f identity press o n her so that everywhere she sees signs (sees, that is,alludes have become integral to her autobiographical interpretations. evidence o f the legitimacy o f her o w n interpretations) that alien males threaten to erase her f r o m the w o r l d , leaving n o trace o f her body as her I n Kingstons designs M o o n O r c h i d , like Brave O r c h i d i n "Shaman," husband has left no trace o f her patrilineal existence. T o protect herself sheembodies h e r name: She is a flower o f the m o o n , a decorative satellite that withdraws into the "house" o f her sister, that edifice that has supported herrevolves a r o u n d and takes its definition f r o m another body, the absent construction o f an identity as first wife. T h e r e she literally makes o f thehusband. M u t e to her own desire, attendant always on the w o r d o f her house what i t has always been m e t a p h o r i c a l l y — a l i v i n g coffin—-windowshusband, she represents the traditional Chinese wife, a woman without shut and darkened, "no air, no light," a n d she makes o f storytelling itself aautobiographical possibilities. "For thirty years," comments her niece, "she l i v i n g coffin. As Brave O r c h i d tells her children, " The difference betweenhad been receiving money f r o m h i m f r o m America. B u t she had never told m a d people and sane people . . . is that sane people have variety w h e n theyh i m that she wanted to come to the U n i t e d States. She waited f o r h i m to talk-story. M a d people have only one story that they talk over a n d over"suggest i t , b u t he never d i d " (144). Unlike Brave Orchid, she is neithei (184). Only after Brave O r c h i d commits her to a mental institution does sheclever n o r shrewd, skilled n o r quick, sturdy n o r lasting. Demure, self-effac- find a new fiction to replace the o l d one, a renewed identity as " m o t h e r " toi n g , decorative, tidy, r e f i n e d — s h e is as gracefully useless and as elegandy the other women ("daughters") who can never vanish. I n the end the storycivilized as b o u n d feet, as decoratively insubstantial as the paper cutouts she o f vanishing w i t h o u t leaving a trace becomes the only trace that is left o fbrings her nieces and nephews f r o m the old country. H a v i n g little subjec- h e r , an impoverished autobiographical absence.tivity o f her own, she can only appropriate 3s her own the subjectivity o) tothers, spending her days f o l l o w i n g nieces a n d nephews t h r o u g h the 4 / H e r mother Kingston now represents, n o t as the "new w o m a n " o f "Sha-
  • 12. 166 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hung Kingstons W o m a n Warrior 167man," but as a traditional w o m a n intent o n preserving her family f r o m unlike M o o n O r c h i d , she is willful, h a r d w o r k i n g , clever, intelligent, shrewd,h a r m by maintaining the o l d traditions against the erosions o f A m e r i c a n stubborn, "brave"-—all those qualities that have enabled her to cope w i t hculture. T h r o u g h the conventions o f speaking (Chinese), eating, greeting, and to survive i n her translation to another cultural landscape. Moreover,chanting, storytelling, she keeps China drawn a r o u n d her family i n a l i n - she can always fabricate another story, as she does when she urges herguistic and gustatory circle. M o r e particularly, she seeks to preserve the old children to sabotage any plans her husband, now i n his seventies, m i g h tfamily constellation and, w i t h it, the identity o f woman. Thus, f r o m Brave have to marry a second wife. Nonetheless, other women are victimized byOrchids "Chinese" perspective, her sister is a first wife, entitled to certain her words, their autobiographical possibilities cut off.privileges and rights, even i n A m e r i c a Yet, i n her allegiance to the old T h r o u g h the "designs" i n "At the Western Palace," Kingston confrontstraditions o f filial and affinal obligations, Brave O r c h i d becomes s h o r t - explicitly the problematics o f autobiographical "fictions." B o t h M o o n O r -sighted, insensitive, and destructive. She succeeds only i n m a k i n g other chid and Brave O r c h i d serve as powerful negative models f o r the perils o fwomen (her niece, who remains trapped i n a loveless marriage; her sister, autobiography. M o o n O r c h i d , bereft o f the husband who defines her placewho dies i n a mental institution) unhappy, sick, even mad; a n d she does so a n d who sets the limits o f her subjectivity w i t h i n the structures o f thebecause, failing to anticipate j u s t how misplaced the traditions and myths patrilineage, succumbs to an imagination anchored i n no-place, an i m a g -have become i n the new w o r l d , she trusts her w o r d too well. T h e stories she inative rootlessness threatening Kingston herself. Overwhelmed by r e -tells create illusions that fail o f reference to any reality. petitious fantasies, her aunt vanishes into a w o r l d where alien males c o n - T h e story o f the Empress o f tire Western Palace is a case i n p o i n t . " A l o n g tinually plot to erase her f r o m existence, a preoccupation that resonatestime ago," Brave O r c h i d tells her sister o n the drive to Los Angeles, w i t h Kingstons chi l dhood fears o f leaving no culturally significant a u t o - biographical trace. A woman o f no autobiography, M o o n O r c h i d cannot "the emperors had f o u r wives, one at each p o i n t o f the compass, a nd they lived find a voice o f her own, or, rather, the only subjectivity that she finally i n f o u r palaces. T h e Empress o f the West w o u l d connive f o r power, b u t the voices is the subjectivity o f madness. Brave O r c h i d , too, serves as a p o w e r f u l Empress o f the East was g o o d a n d k i n d a nd f u l l o f light. You are the Empress negative model. She w o u l d write a certain biography o f her sister, patterned o f the East, a n d the Empress o f t h e West has i m p r i s o n e d the Earths E m p e r o r after traditional interpretations of the identity of a first wife. I n preserving i n the Western Palace. A n d y o u , the good Empress o f t h e East, come o u t o f the her interpretations, however, she victimizes other w o m e n by failing to make d a w n to invade her l a n d a n d free the E m p e r o r . You must break the s t r o n g spell a space i n her story f o r female subjectivity i n unfamiliar landscapes, by she has cast o n h i m that has lost h i m the East." (166) r e m a i n i n g insensitive to her sisters fears and desires, as she remains i n s e n - sitive to her daughters desires. Giving her unquestioning allegiance toT h e m y t h , however, is an inappropriate text t h r o u g h which to interpret language, she fails to recognize the danger i n words, the perils inherent i nM o o n Orchids experience. T h e Empress o f the West is not conniving; the the fictions that b i n d .E m p ero r does not wa nt freeing; and the Empress o f the East cannot break the spell. Moreover, f o r all Brave Orchids forceful narratives o f the p r o - I n the end Kingston, too, has created only a fiction, an elaborate story outjected meeting a m o n g M o o n O r c h i d , the husband, and the second wife, the of the one sentence passed by her brother t h r o u g h her sister; a n d she, too, actual scene is pitifully humorous, squeezed as i t is i n the backseat o f the must beware the danger in-words as she constructs her stories o f those other car. " W h a t scenes I could make" (146), she tells her sister; b u t the only women, more particularly her mother. T o a certain extent she seems to do scenes she makes are i n her fantasies o f t h e m (and her daughter the story- so i n this f o u r t h narrative. For all the negative, even h o r r i f y i n g , aspects o f teller is the one w h o actually makes the scene). T h o u g h she is not entirely Brave Orchids fierce preservation and M o o n Orchids repetitious fantasies, speechless when they confront M o o n Orchids husband, she is obviously both women come across i n this section as fully h u m a n . H e r mother, es- awed by the wealthy, successful, a n d m u c h younger man, and by the p r e s - pecially, does so; and that is because, releasing her m o t h e r to be her own sure o f his young, efficient wife. Kingston creates a Brave O r c h i d bested i n character, under her own name "Brave O r c h i d , " rather than as "my m o t h - the game o f fictionalizations. T h e husband has t u r n e d the two sisters into er," the daughter penetrates her mothers subjectivity w i t h tender ironies characters f r o m a book read l o n g ago, a devastating recapitulation o f their, and gentle mercies. I n d o i n g so, she effaces her own presence i n the text as efforts to t u r n h i m into the fictional Emperor. While the power of her character, her presence i m p l i e d only i n the reference to Brave Orchids myths to help define a n d situate identities has been eroded by another "children." U n l i k e her mother, then, who does not imagine the contours o f cultural tradition, Brave O r c h i d herself has n o t been destroyed because, her sisters subjectivity, Kingston here tries to t h i n k like her mother a n d her t
  • 13. 168 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n W a r r i o r 169aunt. Yet even as she creates the fullness of her m o t h e r out of her w o r d , she ston remembers yelling at her. " You are a plant. Do you know that? Thatsrecognizes the very fictionality o f her t a l e — i t s "designs" that serve her own all y o u are i f you dont talk. I f you dont talk, you cant have a personality.hermeneutical purposes. She, too, like her mother w i t h i n her story, n e g o t i - Youll have no personality a n d no hair. Youve got to let people know youates the w o r l d by means o f the fictions that sustain interpretations a n d have a personality a n d a p r a m . You think somebody is going to take care o fpreserve identities. I n the persistent reciprocities that characterize K i n g - you all your stupid life?""(210).stons storytelling, her m o t h e r becomes the product o f her fictions, as she Yet, while the girl stands m u t e before the screaming Kingston, they bothhas been the product o f her mothers. weep profusely, w i p i n g their snot o n their sleeves as the seemingly frozen scene wraps them b o t h inits embrace. Kingston remembers feeling someKingston represents i n the final piece, "A Song f o r a Barbarian Reed Pipe," comfort i n establishing her difference f r o m the girl, taking p r i d e i n herher adolescent struggle to discover her own speaking voice a n d a u t o b i o - dirty fingernails, calloused hands, yellow teeth, her desire to wear black.graphical authority. This drama originates i n the m e m o r y o f her mothers B u t the fierceness w i t h w h i c h she articulates her desire for difference onlyliterally cutting the voice o u t o f her: "She pushed m y tongue u p and sliced accentuates her actual identity w i t h the nameless g i r l : B o t h are the last onesthe f r e n u m . O r maybe she snipped i t w i t h a pair o f nail scissors. I dont chosen by teams; both are silent and " d u m b " i n the American school. A nremember her d o i n g it, only her telling me about it, b u t all d u r i n g childhood exaggerated representation o f the perfect Chinese girl, this girl becomes aI felt sorry f o r the baby whose m o t h e r waited w i t h scissors or knife i n h a n d m i r r o r image o f Kingston herself, reflecting her own fears o f insubstan-for i t to c r y — a n d then, whe n its m o u t h was wide open like a baby birds, cut" tiality and dumbness (symbolized for her i n the zero intelligence quotient( i g o ) . Notably, Kingston remembers, n o t the actual event, but the r e c o n - that marks her first-grade record). I n the p u l l i n g o f the hair, the p o k i n g o fstruction o f the event i n language, a phenomenon testifying to the power of the flesh, Kingston captures the violence o f her childhood insecurity andthe mothers w o r d to constitute the daughters history, i n this case her self-hatred. Striking the Chinese-American girl, she strikes violently at hercontinuing sense o f confusion, horror, deprivation, and violation. H e r own failure to take a voice a n d at all her mothers p r i o r narratives o f femalemother passes on a tale o f female castration, a rite o f passage analogous to a voicelessness. Tellingly, her aggressive attack o n that m i r r o r image e v e n t u -clitoridectomy, that w o u n d i n g o f the female body i n service to the c o m m u - ates, n o t i n the girls utterance o f her name, but i n Kingstons eighteen-nity, p e r f o r m e d and thereby perpetuated by the m o t h e r . I t is a ritual that 22 m o n t h illness, which ensures that she indeed does become like the otherresults i n the denial to woman o f the pleasure o f giving voice to her body and girl. Confined to bed, isolated inside the house, she is literally silenced i nbody to her voice, the pleasure o f autobiographical legitimacy a n d authority. the public space, a fragile a n d useless girl. Attended always by her family, she too becomes a plant, a n o t h i n g . Ironically, she says o f that time: " I t was I n her re-creation of the confrontation w i t h the Chinese-American girl i n the best year and a h a l f o f m y life. N o t h i n g happened" (212). T h e a d m i s -the bathroom o f the Chinese school, Kingston evokes her childhood c o n f u - sion betrays the tremendous relief o f n o t h a v i n g to prove to people she hassion about speechlessness: "Most o f us," she comments, "eventually f o u n d "a personality and a b r a i n , " the powerful enticement o f succumbing to thesome voice, however faltering. We invented an American-feminine speak- implications of her mothers narratives and her cultures maxims, the c o n -i n g personality, except f o r t h a t one girl who could n o t speak up even i n fusing attractiveness o f not having to find a public voice, of n o t sti-ugglingChinese school" (200). A k i n d o f surrogate home, the Chinese school w i t h shame.functions as the repository o f old traditions and conventional identitieswithin the i m m i g r a n t c o m m u n i t y ; and the bathroom is that most private of For, as her narrative recollection reveals, taking a voice becomes c o m p l i -female spaces—only for girls, only f o r certain activities, which, as i t locates cated by her sense o f guilt. She is ashamed to speak i n public w i t h a voicethe elimination o f matter f r o m the body, ultimately becomes associated w i t h like those o f the i m m i g r a n t w o m e n — l o u d , inelegant, unsubtle. She isfemale p o l l u t i o n and shame. I n that space, Kingston responds cruelly, even ashamed to speak the words her mother demands she say to the druggistviolently, t o the female image before her, a b h o r r i n g the girls useless f r a g i l - ghost because she considers her mothers words, as they exact complianceity: her neat, pastel clothes; h e r China-doll haircut; her tiny, white teeth; w i t h traditional beliefs, to be outdated. She is ashamed to keep the sameher baby-soft, fleshy s k i n — " l i k e squid out o f w h i c h the glassy blades of k i n d o f silences and secrets her m o t h e r w o u l d keep because such secretsbones had been pulled," "like tracing paper/onion paper" (206). Most o f all, command her duplicity before the teachers she respects...For all these r e a -she abhors her "dumbness," f o r this girl, who cannot even speak her name sons she w o u l d n o t speak like her m o t h e r (and Chinese women) i n heraloud, is ultimately w i t h o u t body or text. " Youre such a n o t h i n g , " K i n g - Arrterican environment; but her own efforts to take the appropriate A m e r i - t
  • 14. 170 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons W o m a n Warrior 171can-feminine voice fail, and that failure too gives her cause f o r shame. I n m o t h e r cuts her tongue by refusing to acknowledge the daughters storiespublic her voice becomes "a crippled animal r u n n i n g on broken legs" (196), as legitimate: " I cant stand this whispering, she said l o o k i n g r i g h t at me,a duck voice; her throat "cut[s]" off the w o r d ; her m o u t h appears " p e r m a - stopping her squeezing. Senseless gabbings every night. I wish you w o u l dnently crooked w i t h effort, t u r n e d down o n the left side and straight on the stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering, m a k i n g no sense. M a d -r i g h t " (199). H e r face a n d vocal chords continue to show the signs o f her ness. I dont feel like, hearing your craziness" (233). I n response, Kingstonp r i o r castration, the physical m u t i l a t i o n a n d discomfort that m a r k her r e l a - swallows her words, b u t only temporarily. T h e tautness o f her vocal cordstionship to language and to anv_public enunciation o f subjectivity. increasing to a breaking point, she later bursts the silence, u t t e r i n g i n a T h e landscape o f her childhood, as she reconstructs it, reveals the u n d e r - cathartic m o m e n t the text o f her inner life before her mother. Finally, thisl y i n g logic i n Kingstons failure to overcome her symbolic disability. Seeing girl takes o f voice, albeit i n great confusion, and thereby authors a vision,a r o u n d her the h u m i l i a t i n g representations o f woman, hearing words such^ textualizes her subjectivity, a n d legitimizes her own desires. She embarks,as "maggots" become.synonyms for "girls," suspecting that her mother that is, on the autobiographical enterprise, articulating her interpretationsseeks to contract her o u t as the wife and slave o f some young m a n , perhaps against her mothers.even the retarded boy w h o follows her a r o u n d w i t h his box f u l l o f p o r - I n this battle o f words, mother and daughter, products o f differentnographic pictures, she negotiates a nightmare o f female victimization by cultural experiences, systems o f signs, and modes o f interpretation, speakadopting the postures o f an unattractive girl, the better to foil her mothers _ two different "languages" and inscribe two different stories—graphicallyefforts and to forestall h e r weary capitulation. Cultivating that autobio- ^ imaged i n the sets o f quotation marks that delimit their separate visions andgraphical signature, she represents herself publicly as the obverse o f her <f betray the gap i n the matrilineage as the circle of identity, o f place andmothers image o f the charming, attractive, practical young girl by becom- ;|; desire, is disrupted. Unable to understand the mother, u n w i l l i n g to identifyi n g clumsy, vulgar, bad-tempered, lazy, impractical, irreverent, and stupid i | w i t h her, the daughter woul d, i n ironic reciprocity, cut off her mothers" f r o m reading too m u c h " (226). She becomes, that is, a k i n d o f fiction; and |j : w o r d : " I dont want to listen to any more o f your stories; they have nothe psychic price she pays f o r orchestrating such a public posture is high. logic. T h e y scramble me up, You lie w i t h stories. You wont tell me a story andPublicly appearing as the " d u m b " and awkward girl, she does n o t earn the ;?| then say, T h i s is a true story, o r This is j u s t a story" (235). B u t her mothers affection and respect o f her family and community. Moreover, she must ;g reluctant a d m i s s i o n — " We like to say the opposite" (237)—forces Kingstonconvince herself o f the reality o f her m i n d by constantly attending to the j f to question, at the m o m e n t o f their origin, h e r own interpretations and thus grades she earns i n the A m e r i c a n school, those signs, unrecognized i n her the " t r u t h " or "fictiveness" o f the autobiography she w o u l d inscribe t h r o u g h Chinese culture, that signal her access to other discourses. She remains j | > her memories o f the past. As a result, the y o u n g Kingston comes to recognize " d u m b " i n another sense, f o r she recognizes even i n childhood that "talking ; the relativity o f t r u t h , the very elusiveness o f self-representation that drives and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity," i n that ?fg the autobiographical enterprise. " H o C h i K u a i " her m o t h e r calls her; and, "insane people were the ones who couldnt explain themselves" (216). Since ;|g ; even to the m o m e n t i n her adult life when she writes her autobiography, she she cannot give voice to her subjectivity except by indirection and dis- ; | | cannot specify, can only guess, the meaning o f the name her m o t h e r gaveher simulation, externalizing i n an awkward masquerade the text o f publicly • jgf f r o m that culture she w o u l d leave behind. I n the end she can only try to unexpressed desires, she finds commonality w i t h the anomalous women decipher the meaning o f her past, her subjectivity, her desire, her own name: such as Pee-A-Nah a n d Crazy Mary, who retreat into imaginary worlds, % J | " I continue to sort out whats j u s t my childhood, j u s t my imagination, j u s t my there to haunt the outskirts o f the i m m i g r a n t community and the imagina- * | ; family, j u s t the village, j u s t movies, j u s t l i v i n g " (239). tions o f its children. M T h e culmination o f this struggle w i t h voice comes when Kingston finally W Kingston closes The Woman Warrior w i t h a coda, r e t u r n i n g i t to silence afterattempts to "explain" her silenced guilts, the text o f which lengthens daily, . | | telling two brief stories, one her mothers, one hers. She starts w i t h theand to represent her repressed desires to her mother, believing that by : r | former: "Here is a story my mother told me, n o t when I was young, b u td o i n g so she will establish some grounds f o r identification a n d overcome :|^ recently, when I told her I also talk-story. T h e beginning is hers, the ending,h e r p r o f o u n d isolation a n d dumbness: " I f only I could let my m o t h e r know , | | mine" (240). Notably, her mothers story is now a gift. Passed f r o m onethe list, s h e — a n d the w o r l d — w o u l d become more like me, and I would ; || : ; storyteller to another, i t signals the mothers genuine identification w i t h thenever be alone again" (230). Recapitulating the earlier castration, h e r ^ daughter. Yet the two-part story also functions as a testament to difference,
  • 15. 172 A POETICS OF WOMENS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman W a r r i o r 173the simple juxtaposition o f two words rather than the privileging of one storytelling Kingston can create the total identification o f m o t h e r andbefore the other. Here, at last, Kingston lets her mothers w o r d stand w i t h - daughter as they both become Tsai Yen, w o m a n poet.out resisting it. I n that final j u x t a p o s i t i o n o f two stories, Kingston asserts the grounds o f H e r mothers story, set i n the China o f the previous generation, presents identification w i t h her mother, affirming continuities rather than d i s j u n c -Kingstons grandmother as a w i l l f u l and powerful w o m a n who, convinced tions i n the l i n e . She is her mothers daughter, however m u c h she may 2 4"that our family was immune to h a r m as long as they went to plays" (241), distance herself geographically and psychologically, learning f r o m her the,loves to attend theater performances. U n f o l d i n g i n the ironies o f the u n e x - power and authority that enable her to originate her own storytelling. Caf-pected, the contingencies o f opposites, the absense o f linear logic, the story r y i n g o n the matrilineal trace, she becomes like her mother a mistress o f theis emblematic o f Brave Orchids individual narrative style and vision, o f the w o r d i n a culture that w o u l d privilege only the lines, textual a n d genealogi-kinds o f stories she tells. I t speaks both o f the h o r r i f y i n g vulnerability of cal, o f patrilineal descent. W i t h her text she gives historical " b i r t h " to 25women and o f their fierce and c o m m a n d i n g power; and i t tells o f the power Brave O r c h i d , creating f o r her a textual space in the genealogical record,of art to sustain the continuity o f life a n d the power o f interpretations to and she gives " b i r t h " to herself as the daughter who has passed t h r o u g h thet u r n adversity and victimization to t r i u m p h . T h r o u g h her "gift," mother body and the w o r d o f the mother.places daughter i n the line o f powerful "Chinese" w o m e n whose source ofinspiration and whose very survival i n the midst o f vulnerability lie i n thew o r d of the creative imagination. Kingston follows her mothers words w i t h what she imagines m i g h t be thestory on the stage at one o f those performances. T u r n i n g toward ratherthan resisting her Chinese roots, she takes as her protagonist a Chinesepoet who lived i n the second century. Forced to live among barbarians for 23twelve years, d u r i n g which time she bears two children who cannot speakChinese, Tsai Yen remains isolated beyond the boundaries that sustain hersense of place and identity. Nonetheless, she eventually discovers that evenbarbarians make music o f life and longing, reflecting civilized, rather thanmerely primitive, sensibilities. I n the midst o f cultural difference, the poetfinds a commonality o f experience and subjectivity t h r o u g h the language ofart, which enables her to give voice to her own desire f o r self-representationand, i n doing so, to j o i n the circle o f humanity. Eventually, Tsai Yen isransomed, r e t u r n i n g to her home "so that her father would have H a ndescendants" (243); but the more momentous " b i r t h " she contributes toposterity is the song o f sadness, anger, and w a n d e r i n g created out o f herexperience i n the alien land. Speaking o f h u m a n yearning, i t "translateswell" t h r o u g h the generations and across c o m m u n a l boundaries. U l t i -mately, the story of Tsai Yen, the woman o f words, is the tale o f BraveOrchid, who finds herself hostage i n the barbarian land o f America whereeven her children, b o r n like Tsai Yens among the aliens, cannot "speak"her native language, cannot understand her. Yet the tale is simultaneouslythat of Kingston herself, whose sense o f alienation is doubly complicated,since, as a product of two cultures, she remains outside the circle o f both.M o t h e r and daughter sing the songs o f sadness, loneliness, and displace-ment, finding their c o m m o n sustenance i n the w o r d . Thus t h r o u g h hei

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