By Gina Elbert and Annesha Sengupta
NYU hosted a celebration of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior on the evening of April 19. The event, which marked the 40th anniversary of the book’s first publication, was so popular that even standing room was scarce. Dozens of scholars, students, faculty, and others crowded into the fourth floor of 20 Cooper Square to hear Kingston speak about the book. Joining her were writers Jenny Zhang and Hua Hsu, and Prof. Pacharee Sudhinaraset and Prof. Jess Row of the English Department. The event was co-sponsored by the English Department and its Contemporary Literature Series, the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, the Asian American Writers Workshop, and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
First published in 1977 and currently in its eighth edition, Kingston’s Woman Warrior is a five-part book that straddles the lines between memoir and novel, fiction and nonfiction. It tells stories of her own childhood in California, of her mother’s and aunts’ journeys, and of the legendary Fa Mulan, a woman who served as general for the Chinese army in ancient times. Earlier in the day of the celebration, Kingston had visited Prof. Row’s “Contemporary American Literature” class to answer questions from the students on the topics of genre, narrative style, and personal context. The conversation ranged broadly, connecting the book to I Love Lucy, the recent presidential election, and Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.
Kingston elaborated on these topics and many more at the event at Cooper Square. After an introduction by Prof. Row, she read excerpts from The Fifth Book of Peace (Knopf, 2003) and I Love a Broad Margin in My Life (Knopf, 2012), both works that treat the subject of Fa Mulan, whose story Kingston did not feel she did justice to in The Woman Warrior. In each of these later books, she tells a different part of the original woman warrior’s story in verse rather than in the prose style of The Woman Warrior.
Kingston’s readings were followed by tributes from Zhang, Hsu, and Prof. Sudhinaraset, each of whom discussed what the book meant to them growing up. Zhang, speaking first, confessed a discomfort with how The Woman Warrior had been delivered to her in college. “I think there’s an internal struggle for Asian American writers and writers of color to have their art not be treated like a textbook,” said Zhang, “as if one woman’s experience is an academic roadmap to learning about a culture.” Zhang, who herself writes stories and essays about “Chinese-American girlhood,” confessed that she often felt as if she lived under the weight of The Woman Warrior. But at the same time, it has helped her contextualize the mythology of her youth. “There’s one sentence I always go back to, in the very first section of The Woman Warrior: ‘What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?”
For Prof. Sudhinaraset, The Woman Warrior also allowed her to make sense of her cultural upbringing. “I felt shuffled between worlds,” she said, “perhaps most significantly I felt and still feel the overwhelming frustration of being unable to speak in white spaces. I’m not sure that will ever go away, but over the years I have developed strategies to cope. Reading this book and being reminded of women warriors is one of them.” Upon rereading, however, Prof. Sudhinaraset saw more in the text than she had originally. “I’ve realized that the power and relevance of The Woman Warrior moves beyond one’s identification with the text. I’ve come to see how the book makes room for paradoxes that reclaim the dangers faced by Asian femininity and sexuality.”
Like Prof. Sudhinaraset and Zhang, Hua Hsu also encountered The Woman Warrior in college. “Since then,” he said, “I’ve read The Woman Warrior about 15 times, and it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time that I realized I really liked it…at some point I realized that this was a funny book, full of whimsy.” Kingston agreed with that, describing how her brothers and sisters laughed while reading the manuscript. “My brother said ‘we did it,’” she recalled, “’we’ve got the Chinese-American Portnoy’s Complaint.’” Hsu went onto say that there is “no right away to read [The Woman Warrior], but if you reciprocate the good faith that Maxine extends—the faith that when our minds stretch our limits, it becomes more than a great novel—it depicts an entire relationship to the world.”
Afterwards, the Q&A session buzzed with inquiries about genre, gender, and cross-cultural storytelling. Kingston answered each question wisely and graciously, explaining how powerful it can be for a writer to translate and transmit stories of historical figures and cultures. Writing Fa Mulan’s story in the first person, for example, allowed her to take on that woman’s powers and abilities and to stretch her own imagination. When asked about writing about a culture not part of her own heritage and whether cultural stories and traditions should be shared despite the fear of appropriation, she answered that each writer must have his or her own personal code of ethics and that she personally believes in the power of respectfully sharing stories across cultures.
Just as the last questions were wrapping up, students and CLS Fellows Danny Garcia, Annesha Sengupta, and Gina Elbert sneaked off to the back of the room to prepare and carry out the birthday cake that the event sponsors had purchased for Kingston. The cake featured the cover of the first edition of The Woman Warrior and was illuminated by 20 golden candles. The CLS Fellows carried out the cake as the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to Kingston’s book and then served slices to all gathered (a video of this moment can be found on the Vintage Books & Anchor Books Facebook page).
The event closed with a book signing and reception, during which audience members mingled with each other, sharing in their admiration of Kingston and her work while enjoying sundry refreshments and waiting in line for Kingston to sign their books.
As the night wound down, Kingston’s words continued to resonate through the room. “Women need power,” she had said at one point during the panel discussion, “What I’m doing is telling you myths that you might have forgotten, or that you don’t know about. And when you hear those stories of superheroes then you will acquire those powers.”