The Theme of the Voiceless Woman in The Woman Warrior
Fundamental to The Woman Warrior is the theme of finding one's own, personal voice. Interspersed throughout the memoir's five chapters are numerous references to this physical and emotional struggle. For the many women who are voiceless, Kingston supplies the language these silent women need if they are to discover viable, individualized identities.
Beginning with the first chapter, "No Name Woman," Kingston breaks the family-imposed silence that surrounds the secret of an aunt, whom she names No Name Woman, who became pregnant by someone other than her husband. No Name Woman refuses to name the father of her child, protecting him with her silence, which simultaneously victimizes her: A nameless woman suggests someone with neither a story nor a voice. However, by hypothesizing how her aunt became pregnant, and by writing her aunt's story, Kingston in effect gives this silenced woman a voice. For Kingston, "the [aunt's] real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. . . . My aunt haunts me — her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her." Although Kingston never learns what her aunt's real name was, the symbolic act of naming the woman No Name Woman honors this forgotten ancestor's memory.
If women do not have voices in traditional Chinese culture, then the talk-stories and legends that mothers pass on to daughters may indeed be considered subversive tales and instructions. One such talk-story, the legend of the Chinese woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, is a constant reminder to young Kingston that women can transcend socially imposed limitations. "White Tigers" is, in part, the story of Kingston's childhood fantasy of transcending a life of insignificance. As a child, Kingston imagines herself to be like Fa Mu Lan, who saves not only her family but her community. Brave Orchid's tale of this woman warrior exemplifies how talk-stories and legends create alternative, subversive voices for women who otherwise would remain silent their entire lives, dominated by a patriarchal world.
Kingston's young adult life, however, remains a voiceless one. Juxtaposed with her fantasies of warrior grandeur in "White Tigers" are recollections of whispered protest at one of her employer's racist attitudes, which she challenges using a "small-person's voice that makes no impact." Refusing to type invitations for a different employer who chooses to hold a banquet at a restaurant being picketed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, two political groups active in fighting racism, Kingston is immediately fired. But again her protest is whispered, her "voice unreliable."
Kingston's empowering women by creating individualized voices for them also extends to her own mother. Because Brave Orchid, despite her many years in America, does not speak English, she is effectively voiceless in her new world. Through Kingston, however, Brave Orchid's achievements are vocalized and recorded, as are all of the women's lives in The Woman Warrior. Kingston's memoir reveals Brave Orchid's sacrifices and lifts her out of the nameless Chinese crowd living in America. Ironically, however, this process of voicing women's experiences threatens Kingston's own self-esteem, especially in her relationship with her mother. For example, when a delivery boy mistakenly delivers pharmaceutical drugs to the family's laundry business, Brave Orchid is livid: Certainly, she thinks, the drugstore purposefully delivered the drugs to bring bad luck on her family. Brave Orchid forces Kingston, as the oldest child, to demand "reparation candy" from the druggist, a chore that Kingston finds embarrassing. "You can't entrust your voice to the Chinese, either," Kingston writes; "they want to capture your voice for their own use. They want to fix up your tongue to speak for them." In addition, Kingston's embarrassment stems from her perception that Chinese sounds "chingchong ugly" to Americans, like "guttural peasant noises."
Unfortunately, the personal cost of remaining silent, of not speaking "chingchong ugly" Chinese, is great, as Kingston's tale of Moon Orchid, her aunt, reveals. Moon Orchid's tragic story in "At Western Palace" depicts a woman, deserted by her husband, who has so completely internalized the patriarchal view that women should always remain silent and never question male authority that she literally is silenced to death. The episode in which Moon Orchid reluctantly confronts her Americanized husband demonstrates how essentially voiceless a Chinese woman is who lives in a traditionally patriarchal society. Facing her husband after decades apart, Moon Orchid is unable to voice her years of rage and grief: "But all she did was open and shut her mouth without any words coming out." Later in the scene, Moon Orchid's husband explains to her, "I have important American guests who come inside my house to eat. . . . You can't talk to them. You can barely talk to me." Despite Moon Orchid's incessant talking in front of Brave Orchid's children, she is utterly mute while under the dominion of her husband. Ironically, even in the madness to which Moon Orchid succumbs after surviving her husband's emotional abuse, she is unable to talk. Again, Kingston, by writing Moon Orchid's story, puts the voice back into Moon Orchid's life.
In the memoir's last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," Kingston relates her own search for a personal, individualized voice. If she finds that traditional Chinese society silences women, she also discovers that well-behaved females in American society are equally expected to be quiet. In order to feel even partially accepted in American culture, young Kingston retreats behind an emotional wall and loses her voice: "We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more softly than the Americans. . . . Most of us eventually found some voice, however faltering." Despite this whispering, Kingston, even as a child, knows the consequences of being voiceless. In one poignant and painful episode, she describes the hatred she felt for another Chinese girl who refused to speak and the physical bullying she meted out to get this silent girl to talk. Ironically, her hatred for the girl is all the more vivid because this silent girl is so much like her — physically, emotionally, and socially. She fears becoming exactly like this voiceless (and nameless) girl, who serves as Kingston's alter ego.
In other aspects of her family life, Kingston feels the need to maintain a veil of secrecy. For example, because her parents came to the United States at a time when Chinese immigration was illegal, they and many other Chinese living in America kept a code of silence, a "never tell" policy regarding their cultural origins and history. However, this voicelessness further marginalizes Kingston and other first-generation Chinese Americans. For Kingston, writing The Woman Warrior is a cathartic and emotional experience, a form of therapy for herself and her family. Talking about her past becomes her cure for silence, her method of achieving an individual voice and a personal place as a Chinese-American woman in society.