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.
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.