About The Woman Warrior
The Woman Warrior, a work that defies easy classification, is neither wholly a work of fiction nor, strictly speaking, an autobiography. A clever blend of fantasy, childhood memories, folklore, and family history, Kingston's work is revolutionary precisely because it transcends genres. Her unique literary skills, vision, and style have established her as one of the most significant American writers in the late twentieth century. Simultaneously a historical, fictional, biographical, and imaginative work, The Woman Warrior is studied not only in English literature classes but also in anthropology, women's studies, sociology, folklore, and American and ethnic studies, as well as history.
Two reasons why The Woman Warrior is hard to label are its lack of a strictly linear plot, with each chapter's story self-contained and independent of other chapters, and its content, which seems so different from traditional memoirs. While many American autobiographical works, such as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, detail the struggles of their protagonists, who generally rise from a low status in society to achieve success, The Woman Warrior works differently. Kingston provides scant information about her post-college adult life and her successful career as a teacher. Absent from The Woman Warrior is a conspicuous and clearly defined episode of reaching a successful stage in life — be it financial, religious, or otherwise — typically seen in many other American autobiographies. Instead, Kingston presents the writing of her autobiography itself as her success, her cathartic act of making peace with her family and society, and gaining an understanding of herself, of who she is and where she fits in the world around her. Readers who expect a story about achieving success as defined by standard American mythology — the American Dream — sometimes find The Woman Warrior disappointing.
For her part, Kingston considers The Woman Warrior very much an autobiography in the American literary tradition. In a 1987 interview with Paula Rabinowitz, in which she discusses both The Woman Warrior and China Men, Kingston states: "I am trying to write an American language that has Chinese accents. . . . I was claiming the English language and the literature to tell our story as Americans. That is why the forms of the two books are not exactly like other books, and the language and the rhythms are not like other writers, and yet, it's American English."
Ultimately, because of the postmodern, or consciously fragmented, nature of The Woman Warrior, Kingston's highly personal autobiography is very Western in character. She is intensely aware that her autobiography is very subjective and that she can present only her version of events, not a version officially sanctioned or approved by the entire Chinese-American community. As such, The Woman Warrior can be considered a postmodern work because of its self-awareness of presenting only one interpretation of truth, which is a tenet of the postmodern literary movement. For example, at the beginning of the memoir's last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," Kingston confesses that her version of events is often her own interpretation of what she hears from someone else and not what she has experienced firsthand. She suggests a parallel between herself and the legendary Chinese "knot-makers" who "tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker." Her life's story is like a knot so complicated that it can never be untied and laid out in a straight line.
Whereas other autobiographers tend to present their life stories as factual, Kingston undermines her own authority as narrator, stressing her subjectivity. She provokes readers into stepping back from the text to reflect upon some deeper implication, or subtext. For example, unlike the other chapters, "At the Western Palace" is written in the third-person, and, given commonly held assumptions concerning the nature of autobiography, or "memoirs," as The Woman Warrior's complete title suggests, we would assume that the chapter objectively recounts reality. However, by declaring at the beginning of the next chapter that she did not personally witness the events in "At the Western Palace," Kingston betrays her own subjectivity. Details described in "At the Western Palace" are of Kingston's own making, designed to illustrate her own agenda and to reveal an underlying truth: Autobiography is as much imagined and fictional as it is factual. Kingston's memoir, so intensively aware of itself and its limitations, is filled with a subjectivity that is the hallmark of a postmodernist text.