Kingston is intimate with this text. The book is pretty much like the flesh of her bones. The stories are her livelihood. The effect of this honest writing is that we readers get kind of enraptured. We're intrigued by what her stories have to offer. She's got all these puzzle pieces she's putting together. We're not really sure what the bigger picture is maybe, but there's something raw and beautiful about her stories. So even though they're uber intense and kind of crazy, we dig that.
One might say that The Woman Warrior is first and foremost an autobiography, stories directly based off of Kingston's life. When she writes about her mom, we believe her to be writing about her actual mom; the family history and intensities are based in real relationships.
We could also rightly categorize Kingston's memoirs in the coming-of-age genre; after all, a lot of Kingston's frustrations are things that we often question when growing up: How do I want to live my life? Do I want to get married? What kind of relationship am I going to have with my family? What do I do with all that has come before me? More generally, she asks – How do I want to be?
You've probably got an inkling where the folklore, legend, and mythology comes in. All the swirling of talk stories, cultural mythology, and literary characters are signature Kingston. It's pretty bold that Kingston gets away with incorporating all of this into an autobiography, don't you think? She weaves the folklore all throughout the story. Her identity is so closely intertwined with the stories that it's impossible for her to describe herself without them. The memoirs style is totally postmodern. It demonstrates a love of incongruency and a complete disregard for linear storytelling.
In the chapter "White Tigers," Maxine Hong Kingston writes about the conflicting stories she was told growing up as a Chinese girl. Was she only worth something as a wife or slave? Or did she have the potential to be a fighter like Fa Mu Lan? The chapter, as well as the book, is a writing experiment that asks: how do you create your life, as a story as a lived experience? Is there a difference? How do you choose which stories you want to work into your own? The title of the book seems to take a stand. Kingston chooses to view her life through the lens of the woman warrior.
The subtitle of the book, Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, immediately signal to us that this is not going to be a traditional autobiography. A memoir is supposed to be about real life. What's up with the ghosts? For one, the Chinese word for ghosts can also mean foreigner, or non-Chinese. Kingston would, of course, have been surrounded by such "ghosts" growing up in America. Issues surrounding foreignness and cultural identity are certainly a main thread throughout the memoir.
Of course, foreign people aren't the only ghosts in this book. We see literal ghosts in the first chapter "No Name Woman" and in "Shaman." All of the mythology and supernatural in this book swirl into the real until we can't be sure whether the ghosts are "real" or not. The interplay between "woman" and "girlhood" in the title tells us, too, that this is a story about growing up – and more specifically, growing up from a female perspective.
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?
One of the really awesome things about Kingston's story is that it travels through time and space. It's all super relevant to the work that her story does. This floating back and forth between China and America tells us something about how Kingston might feel culturally, being a first-generation Chinese person in the United States. Similar things are going on with time: she goes to Berkeley in the sixties, a pretty liberal time and place, but she references myths that are from ancient China. These places and times are all a part of her, all alive and relevant in her one person and her one story.
Kingston's language is not so difficult, but the way she composes sentences can be kind of tricky, especially when it's hard to get a foothold on any concrete facts in her story. For example, Kingston writes:
I asked my sister, just checking to see if hearing voices in motors and seeing cowboy movies on blank walls was normal, I asked, "Uh,' trying to be casual, 'do you talk to people that aren't real inside your mind?" (5.117)
There's nothing tricky about the words themselves; we know what cowboy movies are, we know what blank walls are. What is trickier is realizing that your narrator and author is trying to mess with your sense of reality. Kingston jumps from myth to family secret to song without any explanatory transition. She's writing an idea of her life that can be all over the map. This multifaceted look at one's life story is also difficult because if you are listening to her, you can't help but start to question your own idea of self. And just how tough is that?
Kingston's writing is so majestic and lyrical, that it enchants us. It's not using fancy imagery just to impress anybody. The language helps us to see a different kind of truth. You know how in the chapter "White Tigers," Kingston writes that her warrior training is changing the way she sees? And how that kind of seeing enables her to see people and things as though they were dancing? Well maybe that's what Kingston's way of piecing sentences together does. It's a way of seeing a truth that is like a dancing.
Ghosts permeate (or maybe haunt) the entire book and, we might infer, Kingston's life. Foreigners, non-Chinese people, are represented in the book as ghosts. The book also has literal ghosts. They seem to be an embodiment of fear and things to overcome (like the Sitting Ghost). The idea of one's life as a big ghost story is pretty intense in the context of a book about sharing memories. How are we haunted by what has come before us, by stories others have told, and the relationship we have with others? If you're interested in reading more about ghosts, check out of discussion in "What's Up with the Title?"
Kingston closes the book with the story of Ts'ai Yen and the translated songs that she brought to the Han people in China. As you might have noticed, Kingston also titles the last chapter "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," which gives us the clue that the five chapters together are Kingston's songs for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, or songs to be read and translated, to be passed on. We see the correlations between Kingston and Ts'ai Yen. Both are Chinese women who are taken away from mainland China. Both use art as the medium for communicating and creating a sense of family tradition.
Kingston writes that her parents use knives to write her family into her back before she goes to war. This way, her body is a literal tablet on which the family is represented. Kingston writes that "swordswoman and [she] are not so dissimilar" because they both have words on their backs (2.189). Their form of vengeance for injustices against their families is not necessarily in any hand-to-hand combat, but in the reporting of the stories. In this way, The Woman Warrior is a collection of the words on Kingston's back, trying to do some good by her family and by herself.
Kingston is writing about her life, so the first person narration helps draw the reader into her perspective. This is her talk story, her journal to write in, her truth to tell. Though some moments, like the chapter "At the Western Palace," are written in third person, the book is largely grounded in the understanding that Kingston is shaping our interaction with these stories. This foundation in the first person also reminds us that Kingston is not claiming to tell anyone else's truth or version of reality. Instead, she is writing as a means of reflecting on and reconstructing her life. She's not claiming that it's all factual, but she is suggesting that all of it is based in some sense of truth. Writing is a pretty powerful tool, eh?
As a memoir, The Woman Warrior doesn't fit any of Booker's plot types. Kingston does combine bits of each of Booker's narrative structures; "White Tigers" certainly involves a quest, Kingston talks about her travels away and back to home like a voyage and return plot, and there's definitely comedy and tragedy. All in all, though, Kingston's stories break the mold by offering multiple story lines and voices that show how identity always involves more than just one "I."
Kingston's stories, as you might have noticed, create more of a collage than they do a single, traditional story. The idea of the Classic Plot Analysis is to trace how stories often follow a similar sort of narrative. However, Kingston's memoir chooses to be different. There is neither a central conflict nor any neatly tied-up answers at the book's close. Kingston's diversion from the traditional linear structure is significant. Her stories show how one person's life story is in fact stories, plural. Moreover, there are also stories that don't even feature her as the main character or narrator. Identity is complex and requires stories that might not always seem to be related to one another. And voila, The Woman Warrior delivers.
Kingston's memoirs do not fit into the traditional three act plot. You could try to do it, and we invite you to, but for now, we'll just offer some reasons why we think the three act plot might limit your reading of what this book offers. The idea of the three act plot is that most stories can fit into three sections: one that introduces the given circumstances and presents a conflict, one that makes the problem even worse and more urgent, and one that resolves the problem and ties up any loose edges. But as you may have noticed, Kingston's memoirs are divided into five sections, and there is no one problem or one resolution. Her story is not only "literature" but also Kingston's life story. This doesn't necessarily mean that her story is all over the place and incoherent and random, but it does mean that it would be limiting to frame this complicated book into somewhat arbitrary three sections.