A poetics of women's autobiography


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A poetics of women's autobiography

  1. 1. A Poetics of Womens AutobiographyMarginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation SIDOrilE SMITH INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS Bloomington and Indianapolis
  2. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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,