The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Kingston’s is a memoir in five longish essays, each of which could, I think, stand alone. A child of Chinese immigrants growing up in Hawaii in a Chinese immigrant community, she blends memoir (meaning personal or family recollections) with Chinese folktales, and ends up commenting on culture at least as much as her own personal experiences. This blend pushes the boundaries of memoir in the direction of imagination, and pushed my personal comfort level somewhat as a reader: I tend to prefer clear lines between fact and fiction, and while I am intellectually open to blurrings, I do notice my discomfort when it happens. I am most interested in the final essay, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which expands metaphorically on the concept of literal voice. I’m also interested in the structure of this collection of five essays: their number, their varying lengths, their order, and the choice to offer a memoir in parts like this. Obviously the most unusual element, though, is that blending of folktale, imagination–even fantasy–with traditional memoir reporting.

Kingston has a vivid storytelling style, and voice. It is easy to get lost in the story at hand, and there is a dreaminess (in some sections more than in others) that I don’t often see in memoir. The flip side is that it can be harder to mentally pull these parts together into the story-of-a-life that I expect from memoir. But there’s no question that this is an absorbing and entertaining book–not to say that there isn’t emotionally difficult content, of course.

General readers of fiction as well as memoir will find much to enjoy. Students with rather more literal minds may be challenged.

Rating: 7 white tigers.

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