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Seizing Power from 'The Woman Warrior'

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Seizing Power from 'The Woman Warrior'

Seizing Power from 'The Woman Warrior'

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Now on to larger reading matters in our summer series, You Must Read This." Here is Arab-American writer, Diana Abu-Jaber.

DIANA ABU: Back, back. Before I've 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 that time 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?

W: 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 ends by her drowning in a well.

The story traces the lengths 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. Hong Kingston understood this wild strangeness.

Reading her, I felt an electrifying jolt of recognition. This was the desire of 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 are going to talk. 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 the sadistic power. I'd never read or experienced anything like it before. I love the deliciousness of eavesdropping on such dark secrets. But more, I love 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.

NORRIS: Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the forthcoming book, "Origin," as well as "Arabian Jazz." There's an excerpt from "The Woman Warrior" and more recommendations at npr.org. Search for summer books there. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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