Five years ago Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior swept across the American literary scene like a Red army, taking it by storm. It won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and became an instant classic, a memoir of an immigrant’s ancestral past as well as an investigation of the Americanisation of her Chinese soul. It describes the painful tearing apart of the invisible world of ghosts that her Chinese ancestors had built around her childhood, as binding and shaming as the bandaging of female feet, as well as the harsh and laboured birth of her American self.
The book begins and ends, appropriately, with fearful scenes of violence. When it opens, the father’s sister has committed adultery (an euphemism for being raped) and has given birth to her baby in a pigsty. The righteous villagers – probably the rapist amongst them – came to her house at night, wearing masks and bearing torches, and loot and ransack the house, leaving it wrecked, the family ruined. Next morning, the sister creeps away with the baby and flings herself into the well.
As a child the narrator was haunted by this aunt – the more so because no one was willing to talk about her. ‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said. ‘We say your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.’ She is