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Analysis

What’s Up With the Ending?

Maxine Hong Kingston concludes the book with a separate section beginning with one of her mother's stories. Kingston's grandma loved to watch operas in China, making it a family tradition to go out and watch live theater, even if it meant leaving their unwatched home vulnerable to bandits. Kingston transitions from her mom's talk story to her own: she likes to think that one of these operas was about Ts'ai Yen, a Chinese poet. Ts'ai Yen was abducted by barbarians. Though she spoke a different language than them, she became a part of the tribe. She became impregnated by their leader and learned to be a hardcore horse-riding woman, even giving birth in the saddle. Even though the sound of the barbarian reed flutes troubled her, Ts'ai Yen responded by singing and using her body as an instrument to communicate through her voice. She later brought the songs back to the non-barbarian Chinese folk, where they could be played on Chinese instruments, too.

This is a really beautiful way of drawing the memoir to a close. Why? Well, Kingston tells us that Ts'ai Yen was able to communicate something of how she was feeling through the art of singing. This vehicle of art also allows her to skillfully bring something of her experience with the barbarians to her experience with the Han people. Though it wasn't initially her choosing to live with the barbarians, Ts'ai Yen is better able to negotiate what it means to come from these two traditions and to express the "different" side of her to both cultures. The barbarians understand the feeling in the song she sings, just as the Han people have retained the barbarian-influenced song she passed along. Kingston seems to be asking: How do stories get passed on? And more so, how do stories get passed on across different cultures, different generations, and different people? What does it mean for a song to "translate well"?

Kingston pieces together her life story for a public reading audience, for her parents and for herself. The end result of the book has five chapters that do not cohere into a linear story, but maybe this says something about the approach Kingston thinks is necessary to translate a sense of truth in her life. Maybe Kingston hopes that these stories are "Songs for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." Whether or not she is successful, of course, is partly up to you: does Kingston's book translate and reach you?

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