The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

 

Do not mistake this story of an immigrant Chinese family with those you find in a high school summer reading syllabus. Since its publishing in ’76, The Woman Warrior has been lauded as a feminist book, and it is easy to spot Kingston’s influence in today’s writing; ideas of motherhood, what it means to menstruate, judgement on female virtue. But there is more than just the feminist perspective. It is an awareness of stories and how they tie us together, through narratives that span time, space, myth, and memory.

Along with genetic coding, humans pass down cultural norms, customs, beliefs, and legends. Through evolution we have learned to adapt to new environs, and physical changes to suit causes readily accepted (Remember why we have tailbones, anyone? Wisdom teeth? Out, out and update.) Yet, letting go of the human narrative seems harder. Not all customary perceptions are 'good', yet sometimes it is perpetuated through this leniency we have towards ‘cultural heritage’. Interweaving generational stories that come and go like daydreams, Kingston reminds us of the nature and power of oral history: of its malleability. In fact Kingston stresses, as in the case with the ‘crazy’ aunt, if the “talk story” remains the same, it is proof that our grasp on reality has slipped away from us. To cultivate identity is the act of curating the “talk story.” It is an active process. It is the responsibility of the listener to sort through the stories of cultural inheritance and let go of traditions that oppress.

It is not a coincidence that this book has been recommended to me by two of the fiercest women I know. There is such quiet passion in these warriors; and if you love them, you kindle, if you are foolish you burn, and if you are heartless you (try to) put out their flames. For Jamie and Kath, aka mummy K, thank you for sharing this book with me.

 

“Not many women got to live out the daydream of women – to have a room, even a section of a room, that only gets messed up when she messes it up herself. The book would stay open at the very page she had pressed flat with her hand, and no one would complain about the field not being ploughed or the leak in the roof. She would clean her own bowl and a small, limited area; she would have one drawer to sort, one bed to make.”

“Before we can leave our parents, the stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.”

“I had worked the soil, which is its flesh, and harvested the plants and climbed trees, which are its hairs. I could listen to its voice in the thunder and feel its breathing in the winds, see its breathing in the clouds. Its tongue is the lightening. And the red that the lightening gives to the world is strong and lucky – in blood, poppies, roses, rubies, the red of feathers of birds, the red carp, the cherry tree, the peony, the line alongside the turtle’s eyes and the mallard’s. In the spring when the dragon awakes, I watched its turnings in the rivers.”

 

by Johanna Airth

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