Living with Ghosts
The very basis, and one might argue the most important part, of Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is the narration. As with Saunder’s Puppy, the narrator itself is a character that portrays situations through their own lense. Their narrators are alive, they have morals, and can and will cast judgement on their characters. Unlike in Puppy, however, the narrator is a tangible person. No longer is it this nameless entity who may or may not be related to the author. Instead of contradicting the main character as the narrator does in Puppy, the narrator is Maxine reflecting on her own life through the lense of narration. Her five stories, while not always including her, are in a way about her. She sees herself in the ghosts she was raised with.
The style of narration Puppy is distinct from that of The Woman Warrior.
“Oh God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodeled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle. (Puppy, 34)”
The narration are not wholly the thoughts of Marie, nor do they exist within the mind of Callie. While yes, they do portray a certain emotional truth, a facsimile of what they are experiencing and thinking, the narration is tinted through various lenses. Without any dialogue or introduction, the narrator becomes a character with thoughts and judgement. In the above passage, yes Marie is experiencing all of those things, the autumn colors, the glinting river, the lead cloud and the McDonald’s, but if prompted to discuss why she thought the world was so beautiful, she more likely would not mention the gunmetal grey cloud nor the half finished fast food restaurant. These things do not often invoke the thought of beauty, instead they bring to mind oppressive thoughts of mass consumerism, of capitalism pervading into the natural world. The narrator, while factually recounting the world in front of Marie, contradicts her view that the rural world is that of unimpeachable beauty. Marie may be a point of view character, but the narrator she is not.
This disconnect exists to, in part, portray Marie in a certain kind of light. Her attitudes about a situation, while not explicitly said outright, are portrayed through this truth telling.
“Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it”, and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was now dragging her rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay legged, moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sinking had
A basketball in it) that what this really was, was deeply sad. (Puppy, 39)”
Within the fiction of the story, all of these things are true. There really was a mildew smell and a spare tire and a basketball in the sink. Marie tries to keep up this facade of enjoying the experience, the canned laughter, the comment of it being a ‘field trip for the kids.’ She is trying to portray the situation, at least in her own mind, positively. But by simply telling us what Marie notices, the narrator is portraying her in a certain light. A wealthy woman coming to the country and with faux praise, she demeans how this woman lives. Here, the lines between what the narrator thinks and what Marie thinks are blurred. The “moronic look of pleasure on her face” has too much character to simply be a factual retelling of what is unfolding in front of her. She is passing judgement in spite of herself, and the narrator wants the audience to know this.
The Woman Warrior takes an almost paradoxically different approach. Instead of being a narrator portraying truths in order to accurately portray shortcomings with a fictional character, Maxine is instead the narrator, using dubiously factual stories in order to portray some sort of emotional truth to her own life. “My aunt haunts me-- her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well… The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute. (The Woman Warrior, 16)” Kingston is, in essence, the substitute. She sees herself reflected in the waters of the drowned woman’s well. Her visage haunts her, her story, as told to her when she was younger, represents a possible truth. If she follows in her aunt’s footsteps, becomes pregnant before her time, than this will happen to you. Kingston uses her power as the narrator of this story to become the subject.
We can not say how much or little of this story is true. Kingston gives intricate details of the story like she was there, she reflects on the vagueness of her aunt's story by theorizing various ways she could of gotten pregnant, maybe it was her brother, maybe it was another lover. It doesn’t matter what the truth of it is, whether there was any truth to the story to begin with. The effect is palpable, it becomes true with its consequences. It carves itself onto her skin, becoming the weight of the past.
Kingston focuses on her past, her cultural shared past. How the acts and feelings of those who come before her shape her every experience and how she in turn shapes her own future.. “The swordsman and I are not 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. (The Woman Warrior, 53)” The words she says, not the meaning behind them, are her vengeance. A vengeance for her past, for all who have done a disservice to her. Her words mean more to her than their meaning.
These two styles of narration are seemingly polar opposites. With Puppy, a seemingly disconnected narrator has nothing but contempt for Marie, portraying both her willful ignorance to certain aspects around her and her own contempt for a rural life she seems to idealize. But with Maxine’s stories about these other women, she portrays an emotional truth. The exact contents of the story, their truthfulness, aren’t the focus. The artistry of what they try to portray are. Each has a deeper meaning, both with its symbolism laiden language and with her own personal connection. Saunders and Kingston both want to tell the truth about the situation, the real truth. The raw emotion of these scenes, the impact they have. Saunders tells the truth by telling the whole truth. Kingston finds her truth through talk-stories. The translatability of the emotion behind the stories are the focus, forget their actual factualness.
But they both find their truths, they both reach the point they try to make.
And they both translate well.
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