Seizing Power from 'The Woman Warrior'

Book Cover: "The Woman Warrior"
Diana Abu Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent won the PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction; the Christian Science Monitor named it one of the 20 best novels of 2003. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz, was a PEN/Faulkner Award nominee; her newest is Origin, a thriller with a phenomenally intuitive fingerprint expert for a heroine. hide caption

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Back, back, before I'd found Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Jamaica Kincaid or any of the other shining writers who lit an early path for me, there was Maxine Hong Kingston.

I was still in high school, steeped in the words of Anglo men like Faulkner, Cheever and Updike. Wonderful writers, their stories rich and vibrant. But it seemed at the time that all writers must have lived in the same grand and tightly guarded house. There were locks on every door and window. How could someone like me — a girl from a mixed-race immigrant family — ever be allowed inside?

One day, when I was in 10th grade, I was combing the shelves of a little local bookstore at the mall and stumbled across a pretty, slender book called The Woman Warrior.

I flipped through it, curious. What was this? A novel, a collection, a memoir? I'd never encountered a book that made up so many of its own rules before. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts begins with the familiar words: "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you ...'" It goes on to tell the story of a pregnant, adulterous woman who is terrorized by her village, and it ends with her drowning in a well. The story traces the links of what it's like for those of us who live between identities.

Raised in an Arab-American family, I knew what it meant to feel both proud of my heritage and yet ashamed by the scent of garlic in my lunch. I was a stranger everywhere, neither fully Arab nor fully American. Hong Kingston understood this wild strangeness, using a kind of oral narrative — Chinese-American "talk-stories" — to address the brutality of family, the terror of women imprisoned by the bonds of tradition.

Reading her, I felt an electrifying jolt of recognition. This was the desire of a young girl for a voice, a sense of her own power. The final segment of the book, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," contains among its other recollections a terrifying and thrilling passage in which the narrator preys on another little girl, attempting to bully her into speaking:

You're going to talk, (I said, my voice steady and normal, as it is when talking to the familiar, the weak, and the small. ) I am going to make you talk, you sissy-girl.

She pinches the girl, twisting her flesh, until they're both reduced to sobs, neither of them understanding the brutal intensity of the moment. I was captivated by this sadistic power: I'd never read or experienced anything like it before.

I loved the deliciousness of eavesdropping on such dark secrets, but more, I loved that she was brave enough to write about such things, to tell the truth of her own experience.

Hong Kingston's voice edges between poetry and barely controlled rage throughout this work. I found it to be at once compelling, alien, and true. It would take years before I read anything like an Arab-American novel, but The Woman Warrior was my first inkling that there were many kinds of stories in the house of literature.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'The Woman Warrior'

Cover Image: 'The Woman Warrior'

"You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.

"In 1924 just a few days after our village celebrated seventeen hurry-up weddings—to make sure that every young man who went 'out on the road' would responsibly come home—your father and his brothers and your grandfather and his brothers and your aunt's new husband sailed for America, the Gold Mountain. It was your grandfather's last trip. Those lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbye from the decks. They fed and guarded the stowaways and helped them off in Cuba, New York, Bali, Hawaii. 'We'll meet in California next year,' they said. All of them sent money home.

"I remember looking at your aunt one day when she and I were dressing; I had not noticed before that she had such a protruding melon of a stomach. But I did not think, 'She's pregnant,' until she began to look like other pregnant women, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her black pants showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband had been gone for years. No one said anything. We did not discuss it. In early summer she was ready to have the child, long after the time when it could have been possible.

"The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was to be born the villagers raided our house. Some were crying. Like a great saw, teeth strung with lights, files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing the rice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water, which drained away thought the broken bunds. As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks. The people with long hair hung it over their faces. Women with short hair made it stand up on end. Some had tied white bands around their foreheads, arms, and legs.

"At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Then they threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths – the roosters, the pigs, a last great roar from the ox. Familiar wild heads flared in our night windows; the villagers encircled us. Some of the faces stopped to peer at us, their eyes rushing like searchlights. The hands flattened against the panes, framed heads, and left red prints.

"The villagers broke in the front and the back doors at the same time, even though we had not locked the doors against them. Their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared the blood on the doors and walls. One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in red arcs about her. We stood together in the middle of our house, in the family hall with the pictures and tables of the ancestors around us, and looked straight ahead.

"At that time the house had only two wings. When the men came back, we would build two more to enclose our courtyard and a third one to begin a second courtyard. The villagers pushed through both wings, even your grandparents' rooms, to find your aunt's, which was also mine until the men returned. From this room, a new wing for one of the younger families would grow. They ripped up her clothes and shoes and broke her combs, grinding them underfoot. They tore her work from the loom. They scattered the cooking fire and rolled the new weaving in it. We could hear them in the kitchen breaking our bowls and banging the pots. They overturned the great waist-high earthenware jugs; duck eggs, pickled fruits, vegetables burst out and mixed in acrid torrents. The old woman from the next field swept a broom through the air and loosed the spirits-of-the-broom over our heads. 'Pig.' 'Ghost.' 'Pig,' they sobbed and scolded while they ruined our house.

"When they left, they took sugar and oranges to bless themselves. They cut pieces from the dead animals. Some of them took bowls that were not broken and clothes that were not torn. Afterward we swept up the rice and sewed it back up in the sacks. But the smells from the spilled preserves lasted. Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.

"Don't let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful."

Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world of emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America.

The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.

Excerpted from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston © 1975, 1976. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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