Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried a set of interconnected stories, and also a book I'm supposed to teach in my eleventh-grade American Lit class this year. They are similar, too, in the way that they say all plots are either "a fish out of water" or "a stranger comes to town." That old canard is really too clever by half: whether you're the fish or the stranger depends on your perspective. O'Brien's soldiers are all fish, in a world that they fear and cannot understand, but the characters of Kingston's memoir are strangers, grappling with the transition from China to America over many generations.
Kingston structures the stories in a way that is both chronological and relational: The first story, "No Name Woman," is about a Chinese aunt who committed suicide whom Kingston never met, the next about her mother and father, and so on until the final story, about Kingston's own experiences as a Chinese-American in California. "No Name Woman" is the most famous, I think, because it's the only one I had read before. It's a remarkable story, about a woman whose house is destroyed by her neighbors in a small Chinese town because she has become pregnant out of wedlock. The baby is a product of rape, but no one knows this, and it wouldn't matter; the instability of the family and community that a fatherless child represents is, for the villagers, reason enough to enact a harsh punishment. When the woman drowns herself and her baby, Kingston remains equivocal:
Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.
What impresses me about Woman Warrior is its complexity. We are horrified by the actions of the villagers in "No Name Woman," and Kingston doesn't ask us to excuse them, but she does ask us to understand them in a way that is difficult. It also enables her to depict such an act of cruelty as deeply ingrained within rural Chinese culture, and at the same time write a story like "At the Western Palace," which depicts the tragic consequences when that culture is lost or abandoned. In that story, Kingston's aunt (this time on her mother's side) comes to America after decades of separation from her husband, who immigrated long ago. But her husband is married to another woman, and in California, the rights she would have as a "first wife" over her rival are not, cannot be honored. There's some great humor in this story, mostly Kingston's mother's absurd encouragements to her sister--she imagines her walking in the husbands house, and declaring the children he had with his second wife to be her own, as would have been in the case, it seems in China--but the depiction of this aunt, for whom there really is no place in this new existence, is deeply sad.
About half of my students are East Asian, and most of these are Chinese-American, many from first-generation families. I'm a little bit fearful to read this book with them--am I supposed to educate them on the finer points of Chinese culture?--but excited to see how they connect with these stories.