The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

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Title: The Woman Warrior

Writer: Maxine Hong Kingston

Publishing House: Picador

Date of Publication: 2015 (first published August 12th 1976)

”I inspired my army, and I fed them. At night I sang to them glorious songs that came out of the sky and into my head. When I opened my mouth, the songs poured out and were loud enough for the whole encampment to hear, my army stretched out for a mile.”

A young girl lives among ghosts, standing at the crossroads. Her mother is a formidable woman, a doctor and a shaman, who tries to communicate with her children through the myths of their homeland. But the child is confused, she doesn’t know where she belongs, if she belongs at all. Chinese traditions seem to teach and suffocate her at the same time and the American way does not speak to her heart. Tradition isn’t always the answer and change is necessary. And the mother uses myths as a warning and reminder of a past that is now lost. But the young girl has questions. Why is that a woman is always the one to blame? Why can’t she love and live in peace? Why must we always be the victims of prejudices and regimes? Why is a woman warrior obliged to disguise herself as a man to protect her life? Do we not have the right to defend ourselves and decide our future? In many parts of the world, the answer is still a firm ”NO”.

”I’ve found some places in this country that are ghost-free.”

In a superbly beautiful memoir, Kingston presents a community whose memories have disappeared. Families are broken, husbands abandon their wives, children are at a loss and everyone becomes ”people one read about in a book.” Assimilation seems impossible in a land that is faced with the Second World War and then, tries hard to recover. Kingston brilliantly blends Chinese folklore with autobiographical episodes and doesn’t shy away from demonstrating her own cruelty as a teenager who was confused, enraged and exhausted by the rules, the codes, the lack of communication and the pressure of following in her mother’s footsteps. The only refuge is ”talking-story”. In stories, in imagination and in creating distance between her and her family lies the chance for independence.

Divided into five episodes, Kingston’s memoir is a deeply personal commentary on womanhood, culture, folklore and the struggle of breaking free from what keeps you chained and gagged.

No Name Woman: In one of the most haunting, terrifying chapters I’ve ever read, Kingston narrates the story of her aunt, the woman without a name, the sinner who must be forgotten, who never existed.

White Tigers: Kingston gives voice to the legendary heroine Fa Mu Lan whose presence permeates the memoir, walking side-by-side with the countless ghosts.

Shaman: The writer takes us back to her mother’s youth, her decision to follow her inclination and become a doctor. However, her most important gift is the ability to stand up to ghosts and exorcise them…

At the Western Palace: In an episode that is both tender and bitter, the mother’s sister arrives in the USA to confront her husband. There is an elegant sense of humor at the beginning of the chapter that becomes darker and darker until the shocking end.

A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe: The winter goes back to her teenage years, her awful days at schools, her rage that led to unacceptable behaviour towards a classmate, the presence of witches and hags in the community. I was astonished by the candour and vehement rage of this chapter.

If you choose to read one memoir in your life, let this be the one.

”Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. She would have to fight the ghosts massed at the crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral spirits could feast unharassed.

[…] My aunt remains forever hungry. Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.”

”We’re all under the same sky and walk the same earth; we’re alive together during the same moment.”

*I would like to dedicate this review to my amazing colleague and dear friend, Eva, who is always full of bookish surprises and glorious ideas!! Thank you for everything!*