The Woman Warrior
by Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior could be seen as Kingston's negotiation of her relationship with her mother, Brave Orchid. That's something a lot of us can relate to, right? Through Kingston's writing, we see her grappling with different memories of her mom. How can her main role model be both a courageous fighter of ghosts and a person who puts an ad in the paper to marry off her daughters?
We have a hard time making up our minds about Brave Orchid too. Brave Orchid opens the novel with the demand: "You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you" (1.1). Immediately, we get the idea that there's a lot to know about Brave Orchid, and also there's a lot that we don't know, a lot that remains secret to Kingston and to us. We might wonder what her memoirs would be like, since we can pretty much bet that her life has tons of private stories that even her daughter doesn't know about. This multi-sidedness to Brave Orchid once again shows us the power of story-telling; it is only through Kingston's stories that we know anything of her mom. Who knows what we might learn about her if we heard more stories.
Well, let's consider some of the sides of Brave Orchid we do see. When she tells Kingston never to tell the story about the nameless aunt, we see how she not only guilt trips, but also how she participates in the unfair treatment of women. This understandably creates complicated emotions within Kingston. On the one hand, her mother is an independent woman who fought ghosts, earned her medical degree, healed refugees, and taught her daughter the power of talk story. Yet on the other hand, Brave Orchid has imposed certain traditional Chinese expectations on her daughter just because she's a girl. You see how Kingston might think that's unfair? Why should Kingston feel oppressed for being a Chinese (American) woman by the main Chinese woman in her life?
Of course, we must also consider where Brave Orchid is coming from and why she might consider her lessons worthwhile. First of all, we learn early on that Brave Orchid is a very practical person. Kingston writes that Brave Orchid "will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home from the fields and eats food left for the gods" (1.13). That is, if it's not broke, why fix it? It's better to use what is there and make the most of it. In this sense, perhaps Brave Orchid feels it's her duty as a parent to tell her daughter how to live a relatively easy life. That is, in order to survive in America, you should stand up straight because people will not think twice about your posture. If you limp, however, like Kingston does just for kicks, then you probably won't be seen as normal and people will judge you for it. Of course, we know that Kingston doesn't want to be normal; she's bored and frustrated with what it means to be normal. Her values are just different from her mom's.
At the same time, it's clear that Kingston's knack and love for storytelling comes straight from Brave Orchid. Kingston learns to tell stories from her mom; she not only inherits stories and memories, she inherits the storytelling. When you look at it that way, Brave Orchid is pretty awesome. This thought of how storytelling is inherited makes it extra poignant that Kingston shares these family stories with us; she's passing on her family tradition.