Maxine Hong Kingston uses fiction to heighten the poignancy and power of her memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. Throughout the book, Kingston uses not only her own memories, but also the stories she’s been told to form for the reader a picture of her formative years and the tension she feels as she creates an identity for herself. She uses fictional elements to speculate, draw meaning, and show her reader the effects that stories (whether they be true or not) come to bear on one’s identity.
Kingston opens her book with “No Name Woman,” a story about her aunt. But this isn’t just any family story. It’s one that is shrouded in mystery and silence. Because of this secrecy, Kingston must resort to speculating to fill in the details of this story. It’s important that she understand the details because this story is one that her mother uses as a cautionary tale. In ruminating about the details of this story, Kingston comes up with several possible variations even ones that she admits are improbable and don’t fit. She wrestles with understanding the details of the story so that she can find “ancestral help” (8). However, this speculation has come to bear on Kingston’s understanding of herself as a Chinese-American woman. Kingston shows us through these variations of the story how this family narrative has shaped her understanding of many things. It shaped the way she understood her relationship with her parents, and with her extended family. It shaped the way Kingston understands what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a woman. It shaped her relationships with men and her ideas about differing standards of beauty. Ultimately, it shaped how Kingston came to understand her own identity. In sharing these different versions of the story, Kingston shares with her readers her process for dealing with the story and shows the reader the impact that both the story and the silence surrounding the story have had on her.
In “Shaman” Kingston takes her storytelling even further from anything that could be seen as the “objective reality” that we normally associate with the genre of nonfiction. The chapter starts with a ghost story from the point of view of Kingston’s mother as a schoolgirl. In it, her mother actually wrestles with a ghost before exorcising it from the school. In a genre bent on “honesty” and “truth,” stories like this one can be difficult for a reader to swallow. But Kingston uses the story to show how she came to see herself living in a world full of ghosts. She says that “America has been so full of machines and ghosts — Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). This discussion of ghosts shows the importance of Kingston’s childhood understanding of being “other” in America and allows the reader to feel the otherworldliness of that experience. Describing that feeling and the day-to-day happenings in her life alone would not have given the same emotional impact to the reader. By using these fictional elements, Kingston lets her reader feel along with her the supernatural, the fear, the separateness that comes with understanding herself in relation to her surroundings that way.
Kingston’s fictional storytelling reaches its apex in “White Tigers,” in which she spends nearly twenty pages telling the story of Fa Mu Lan. However, she does not tell the story in a detached, here’s-a-story-from-my-childhood sort of way. Nor does she tell it in a let-me-tell-you-a-historical-story-of-my heritage way. Instead, she tells the story in first person, as she experienced it herself when she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and dreams began” (19). In telling this story in first person, the reader can begin to understand the impact of this story on a young Kingston and can feel the expectations and potential that Kingston would have felt as a child. It also brings home her point when she says, “My American life has been such a disappointment” (45). Because the reader has seen the story of Fa Mu Lan from the eyes of Kingston herself, the reader can understand on a deeper level the sense of disappointment that the author must have felt. Finally, Kingston shows how important this story and stories in general have been in her life when she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan, “What we have in common are the words at our backs” (53). Here she suggests that while they do not have the shared experience of going to war in ancient China, the stories that they have in common unite them. Because of this, Kingston can use Fa Mu Lan’s story to come to a deeper understanding of herself, her experiences, and her expectations.
Throughout the book, Kingston tells her reader about listening to the talk-story of her family and the ways in which these talk-stories came to bear on her understanding of herself. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19). More than just telling her reader the importance of these stories on her life and memories, she shows us by telling us the stories, too. They have more weight than we usually give fictional stories because we can see how Kingston was influenced by these stories. Because we are told the stories as well, we as readers can also be influenced by them and therefore relate to Kingston and her experiences.
Though it may seem that including these non-factual stories in her memoir undermines the validity of the truth of Kingston’s memories, it actually has the effect of giving a fuller picture of her dreams, expectations, disappointments, and fears. Without these stories, it would be more difficult for readers to understand the complexities of Kingston’s experience growing up between cultures. These stories allow the reader to feel the dissonance between Kingston’s Chinese upbringing and her American existence. In the same way, when writing nonfiction, we can use fictional elements and stories to give the reader a fuller picture of our experiences. Fictional stories often hold weight in the factual world, coming to bear on the ways that people understand themselves, the places around them, and their relationships with society at large. Using these fictional stories to give a fuller picture is especially useful in memoirs. If we are trying to understand and to help our readers understand our experiences, the stories we tell ourselves can give more insight into how we’ve developed and come to understand ourselves.
*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers. This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.