The Red Couch: The Woman Warrior Introduction

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In March of 1999, over 20 years after her publication of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts in 1976, I had the honor of attending a campus lecture by Maxine Hong Kingston at the state college I attended as an undergraduate. The morning of Kingston’s lecture, I attended a mandatory session at the daycare I worked at which was focused on watching out for signs of abuse in very young children. In this workshop, we were encouraged to share with parents the concept of “surprises, not secrets.” This concept teaches children that “surprises are fun, but this family doesn’t keep secrets.” The idea is that if they asked to keep a secret that is unsafe, they will know to share and ask for help because surprises are cast in a positive light and secrets are not.

I remember this training with such clarity because four hours later, during the question and answer session, Kingston said that she was not quite sure it was fair for parents to ever ask children to keep family secrets. I was startled that she was arguing a similar concept to the one I learned that morning. Her declarative seemed to rub many audience members the wrong way. Several people asked follow-up questions after making it clear that they found her statement to be hyperbolic.

Kingston did not back down. I recall her saying something to the effect of:

“Secrets fester in families like ill-treated wounds.”

Secrets and silence saturate The Woman Warrior like bacteria permeate infected wounds, even though it is a story of a writer finding her own voice. The Warrior Woman begins with a mother’s admonition to her daughter to be silent:

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

The antidote Kingston gives for this festering wound of secrets and silence is story. Even story, however, although powerful, is not a sure thing in America where the rules of the old world no longer applied, and where ghosts and stories take on a life of their own.

The middle ground of America

The narrator of The Woman Warrior—whom most assume is Kingston herself— is a Chinese-American girl growing up with immigrant parents. Each of the five sections in the book includes stories told by Brave Orchid, the narrator’s mother, and is followed by the narrator’s retelling of those same stories.

One of the aspects that makes The Woman Warrior a tricky book to navigate is an aspect that also makes it exhilarating. It does not follow genre rules at all. It’s a memoir, a novel, a manifesto, a fantasy, a folktale, and an autobiography. It is not fiction, but that does not mean that it is nonfiction.

One of the criticisms of Kingston’s book from other Asian American writers has been that she mischaracterized China and Chinese culture by using worn stereotypes. Kingston, in her defense, argues that she never meant the book to be read as nonfiction or memoir. She thought it was obvious that she was sketching a fantasy, thus creating a China that existed in the narrator’s head, not in the real world, because the narrator, as a first-generation American, only knows China through her mother’s stories.

“Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America. . . When you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?”

The narrator is trapped in the dangerous middle ground that is all too familiar to the children of immigrants. She feels the tension between American culture and her parents’ culture—neither of which claims her and her sister. She is ashamed of her parents who do not speak English well, but she also struggles with English. She does not understand the rituals and metaphors her parents find culturally powerful.

“How can Chinese keep any traditions at all? They don’t even make you pay attention, slipping in a ceremony and clearing the table before the children notice specialness. The adults get mad, evasive, and shut you up if you ask. You get no warning that you shouldn’t wear a white ribbon in your hair until they hit you and give you the sideways glare for the rest of the day. They hit you if you wave brooms around or drop chop-sticks or drum them. They hit you if you wash your hair on certain days, or tap somebody with a ruler, or step over a brother whether it’s during your menses or not. You figure out what you got hit for and don’t do it again if you figured correctly. . . I think that if you don’t figure it out, it’s all right. Then you can grow up bothered by neither ghosts nor deities. Gods you avoid won’t hurt you. I don’t see how they kept up a continuous culture for five thousand years.”

The narrator does not understand the social, historical, and political context to the upheaval that shaped her ancestors’ lives. The narrator is entrusted with her mother’s story and the stories of other women in her family in China, but experiences that trust as untenable weight. Ultimately, the middle ground of America is neither “here” nor “there” for the narrator. She has no way of understanding how to interpret the trauma in the stories her mother tells her. She has no way to understand her own trauma.

Ghosts

Avery Gordon in Ghostly Matters claims, “The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening.” Using ghosts to explore trauma, memory, family, and history is common in many cultures. The ghosts that appear in The Woman Warrior are sometimes lost women in the family mistreated and not remembered because they were women:

“Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on & 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.”

At other times, the ghosts are vehicles through/by which diasporic trauma is articulated. In the last section of the book, the narrator says:

“Sometimes I hated the ghosts for not letting us talk; sometimes I hated the secrecy of the Chinese. ‘Don’t tell,’ said my parents, though we couldn’t tell if we wanted to because we didn’t know.”

America is described as a ghost country. Brave Orchid often says that things are different in this ghost country. This is simply a fact.

“America has been full of machines and ghosts–Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. . . We were regularly visited by the Mail Ghost, Meter Reader Ghost, Garbage Ghost. Staying off the streets did no good. They came nosing at windows–Social Worker Ghosts; Public Health Nurse Ghosts; Factory Ghosts recruiting workers during the war (they promised free child care, which our mother turned down); two Jesus Ghosts who had formerly worked in China. We hid directly under the windows, pressed against the baseboard until the ghost language so that we’d almost answer to stop its voice, gave up. . . The Hobo Ghosts and Wino Ghosts took peaches off our trees and drank from the hose when nobody answered their knock.”

How do you learn to live with ghosts instead of running from them? This is not a question that Brave Orchid can help her children explore; she is too traumatized by her own ghosts.

The figure of the woman warrior

The title of the book comes from the Chinese myth of Fa Mu Lan. Disney remade this myth into a Westernized story of empowerment. The narrator of The Woman Warrior explains how the story of Fa Mu Lan has symbolized the power of warrior women in Chinese culture:

“At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story. After I grew up, I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle. Instantly, I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, giving me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up to be a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.”

The warrior woman grew up with these kinds of painful sayings:

The families are glad to be rid of them. Girls are maggots in the rice.

It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.

When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls.

What do you do when your culture says that you are worth less simply because you were born a particular gender? What do you when you do not want to belong to this culture but you do not know how to reject it either?

You are not your mother; her story is not your story

Although the narrator’s life is flooded with her mother’s stories, she herself finds it difficult to discover her own voice and her own stories. She is completely silent in school when she is expected to use English. Her sister does not speak at school either and when the girls do speak, their voices were not strong and healthy.

“It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. “Louder,” said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl. . . My sister sounded as if she were trying to sing through weeping and strangling. . . When it was my turn, the same voice came out, a crippled animal running on broken legs. You could hear splinters in my voice, bones rubbing jagged against one another.”

The narrator finds her voice when she differentiates her story from her mother’s. And by this, as a way of concluding here, I am suggesting that the theory of family systems can help us enter into the complex narrative of this text.

The final vignette of the books begins with these two sentences:

“Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine.

Family systems theory asserts that trauma does not just happen to one member of the family. When one individual in the family unit is hurt, everyone is hurt because no individual is unconnected across the emotional ecology of a family. The trauma of immigrants running from violence is transferred to their children within the emotional system of the family even though the parents refuse to answer their children’s questions about their flight.

And in this theory, there is both conscious teaching and learning of information often re-lived through story and there is also unconscious programming of emotional reactions and behaviors. Both impact individuals a great deal, but the unconscious programming can be particularly insidious because individuals cannot see easily see it.

Healing begins when individuals start to recognize that they do not have to be the same as their parents, and when they work to replace the old stories and behaviors with new healthier ones. The narrator finds her voice. She ends the story on her own terms.

Come back on Wednesday, November 28 for our discussion post and join our Facebook group to discuss the book throughout the month.

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Joy Howard

Joy Howard

Joy A. J. Howard is a Writing and Professional Development Coach for marginalized/under-represented people in higher education, ministry, and community leadership arenas. Her coaching helps clients be more productive, less stressed, and to establish life-long practices that lead to satisfaction and happiness even in times of great personal stress and national difficulty. You can learn more about her beliefs here: www.joyajhoward.com. Joy lives in West Philadelphia with a husband who studies fire ecology and a sister who is a graphic designer. They are active in an inclusive, affirming, Jesus-Centered neighborhood church called Mosaic. As a family, they host a ministry of shared meals in their home called “Supper Club,” as well as a ministry of respite and community called “Restore.” Joy is an avid letter writer, just like her Grandma was. She loves coffee, pens, and stationary.
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