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The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston

Important Quotations Explained

Chapter Five: A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe

Key Facts

"You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born."

The opening words of The Woman Warrior set the tone for much of the rest of the memoir. Note that the words belong to Brave Orchid and not to Kingston herself; much of the memoir is either directly or indirectly dominated by Brave Orchid's talk-stories, and it is up to Kingston to make sense of them. It is especially notable and ironic that the memoir begins with the phrase "You must not tell anyone." Kingston's struggle in "No-Name Woman" and in the memoir as a whole is to write about that which is never said: her unnamed dead aunt, the atrocities in her mother's Chinese village, and another aunt, Moon Orchid, who is unable to adapt to life in America. Kingston's struggle is also about finding a voice, as both a Chinese-American and a woman, after she has been silenced all her life. Writing a memoir therefore becomes a rebellion of sorts, from the first sentence—she is in fact telling everyone. In writing her memoir, Kingston displays a willingness to break the silence and asserts power over those who have held her back.

The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are "report a crime" and "report to five families." The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words—"chink" words and "gook" words too—that they do not fit on my skin.

At the end of "White Tigers," Kingston draws a sharp contrast between her fantasy about Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, and the defining moments of her real "American life." Whereas Fa Mu Lan vanquishes entire armies and defeats evil barons and giants, Kingston cannot even stand up to the most petty racist bosses. However, in this quotation, the closing thoughts of the chapter, she makes an important comparison between herself and the warrior: they both are burdened with words. Fa Mu Lan had her village's grievances tattooed on her back; Kingston has Chinese stories practically drilled into her brain and is labeled with racial epithets. Her personal struggle and vengeance lie in making sense of the stories through writing, in depicting through words the struggles of growing up Chinese-American. There is an important difference, though: Fa Mu Lan could achieve her vengeance and then return home, but Kingston's vengeance seems to be a never-ending struggle. She has so many words to deal with that "they do not fit on my skin." The Woman Warrior is just the beginning of Kingston's attempt to articulate her experience, and her journey as a writer is far from over.

To make my waking life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance. I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories. Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.

This passage, from "Shaman," emphasizes the anguish and fear Kingston so often feels as a result of Brave Orchid's talk-stories and the difficulty in mixing Chinese and American cultures. Ghosts are everywhere in Brave Orchid's world of Chinese talk-stories, bothering and threatening human beings at all times. In America, however, ghosts do not fit in with Kingston's idea of a normal life; they are simply "impossible stories." In her waking hours, then, Kingston maintains an "American-normal" life, while in her dreams, the ghosts crammed in her head by her mother's talk-stories come back: deformed babies, women driven crazy and killed, strange animals and creatures. The suitcase, packed as it is with "homemade underwear," is especially appropriate, given that Kingston is living among emigrants who have picked up their lives and moved to another country. It is as if Kingston's mother, through her talk-stories, will not let her carve out a new life in America without carrying her cultural baggage of ghosts.

"You can't. It's too late. You've sold your apartment. See here. We know his address. He's living in Los Angeles with his second wife, and they have three children. Claim your rights. Those are your children. He's got two sons, You have two sons. You take them away from her. You become their mother."

"Do you really think I can be a mother of sons? Don't you think they'll be loyal to her, since she gave birth to them?"

"The children will go to their true mother—you," said Brave Orchid. "That's the way it is with mothers and children."

This exchange between Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid precedes their trip to Los Angeles to find Moon Orchid's husband, who had come to America thirty years before and left Moon Orchid back in China. Brave Orchid has grand illusions of her sister confronting her estranged husband and being welcomed into his new home. In fact, Brave Orchid has orchestrated it so that Moon Orchid has practically no other choice, as she has sold her apartment and has moved to America for good. Most important, this quotation illustrates the extent of Brave Orchid's delusions about how emigrant Chinese behave in America. She assumes that the old traditions will carry over in the new country and asserts without hesitation the absurd notion that children would renounce their own biological mother. Ironically, Moon Orchid, who is much closer to Chinese traditions than her sister, is the voice of reason in this exchange. She points out what just about everyone else besides Brave Orchid is thinking, foreshadowing the disaster of the eventual confrontation. The fact that Brave Orchid is so misguided raises questions about just how much she misinterprets Chinese traditions. If Brave Orchid can be so wrong in her beliefs, how is Kingston to interpret her talk-stories?

Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover the forests with freeways and sidewalks. Give me plastics, periodical tables, TV dinners with vegetables no more complex than peas mixed with diced carrots. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts.

This passage appears in "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," shortly after the episode in which Kingston yells at her mother. It encapsulates some of the clarity Kingston begins to have once she leaves home—her ability to tell what is real from what is not, to make sense where before there was only confusion. It points to what we might call an "Americanization" of her life, a life filled with simple things like plastics and TV dinners. At the same time, it also points to a sadness that Kingston feels for having renounced some important aspects of her heritage. Note the regretful, almost gloomy repetition of the phrase "It comes true." Whereas her mother tells talk-stories about mythical places and peoples, Kingston says that she pours concrete out of her mouth—not exactly a poetic skill—as if she were turning the mazes and mysteries of her past into an ordered American city. The ordering of life may be useful to Kingston in some ways, but it can also deny the richness of her heritage. In fact, perhaps this quotation is most useful as a reminder of what The Woman Warrior is not: a traditional linear autobiography. Rather, living in a world with "no ghosts" is only one phase of Kingston's life; her memoir is more notable—and interesting—for the complexity and confusion of her recollection than it is for its clarity.

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