Written in 1975 by Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghost is indeed a warrior in the disguise as a book. Detailing the Asian American woman experience, this thin novella spearheaded Asian American literature nearly 15 years before Amy Tan mainstreamed the subgenre. But more noteworthy than its historical significance is the volume’s sheer artistic merit. Kingston’s prose is written with the dense imagistic grandeur one would expect only in poetry. Raw and unforgiving, her words have a razor sharp power, depicting an imaginative world derived from intimate observations of the Asian American condition, particularly Asian American women.
The story is written from a first-person perspective, separated into five independent sections. Each chapter exists as its own story, a piece of a mosaic. The novel begins with the narrator’s (presumably Kingston’s) childhood fantasy of a shunned aunt’s illegitimate pregnancy and later suicide. On that dark, almost morbid note, the novel transcends into a lyrical dream-like sequence set in ancient China. The voice shifts to that of the legendary heroine, Fa Mulan, who seeks revenge and justice for her parents. Unlike the Disney caricature, Kingston’s Mulan is a hardened vigilante, capable of spilling blood. For the third and fourth chapters, we follow the story of Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, from her fearless training as a doctor and to her sister Moon Orchid’s abandonment by her husband. It is as if the chapters alternate between strong, independent characters and dependent, hopeless ones. In the end, the book comes full circle in the last chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” as the narrator recounts a childhood memory of tormenting a silent classmate.
Contrary to its empowering title, what is most striking about Woman Warrior is not the valor of Mulan or Brave Orchid, but the silence of the weak characters that bookend them. Kingston’s aunt, Moon Orchid, and the quiet schoolgirl remain etched in my mind because they seem to represent a muted suffering of an entire identity. Their lack of voice and consequential tragedy is haunting, as if they are a silent parable of what happen if others follow their same path.