Gender and Intersectionality

Maxine Hong Kingston, Ghostbuster Feminist

By Zoila Clark, Florida Atlantic University, USA

1After three and a half decades of being published, critics still debate whether The Woman Warrior, Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) is a fictitious story or not. Maxine Hong Kingston invites us to be the judge when we open up the covers of her controversial book [1]As a child, Kingston used to paint back curtains over her colorful drawings as if they were theatrical presentations with sets waiting on the other side. Once she learned to speak English, “I wrote that the curtains rose or swung apart” (Huntley 7) and share her uncanny experiences as a first generation American girl growing up in a family of Chinese immigrants from the 1940s to the 1970s. In this study, I argue that Kingston’s 1976 book of the uncanny draws on Chinese-American women’s writing in order to construct the role model of a bicultural Ghostbuster feminist [2]I took this term from the film Ghostbusters (1984) because Maxine Hong Kingston had already created a heroine that busted ghosts in the USA in 1976 able to fight the ghosting patriarchal policies of the US. By contextualizing second wave feminism and women’s writing in the 1970s, [3]During the 70s, some feminists became interested in language and post-structuralism. A group of feminists who use Derrida’s theory of deconstruction to create women’s writing are wrongly identified as French Feminists. However, they are not all French we can observe that Kingston’s writing style is part of écriture feminine, and that this helped her overcome her bicultural uncanny experience.

2In 1975, when Hélène Cixous’s essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” became a feminist manifesto for the women’s movement, she coined the term écriture feminine to describe her literary approach. This embraces the idea that women need to find their own way of writing in order to hear their voice and break free from the kinds of linear scientific thinking which is rooted in masculine pleasure and modes of creation. Her essay gave rise to what is now known as post-structural feminism, igniting, as it did in the 70s and 80s, a new generation of feminist writing that experimented with écriture feminine. Among other creative writers, this group includes Chantal Chawaf, Catherine Clément, Luce Irigaray, Mary Daly, Trinh T. Minh-ha, as well as Maxine Hong Kingston. Écriture féminine is an individual way of writing that seeks to reconnect the subject with the pre-symbolic jouissance [4]In French, jouissance means pleasure or enjoyment. It has a feminine sexual connotation of the mother’s body, which is multi-orgasmic we enjoyed in our mother’s womb. The modernists, [5]Modernists used the stream of consciousness technique to dive into the unconscious and write without censorship. They also used a poetic style, which is in tune with the pre-symbolic whose work is non-linear, cyclical, symbolic, and musical, received favorable mention from Cixous, who considered them worthy forerunners of écriture feminine. A central principle and point of departure for Cixous, however, is that the content must be related to women’s identity, a sentiment she articulates at the outset: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (“The Laugh” 2039). This is what Kingston does with her Woman Warrior in 1976. She shows us the process of creating her bicultural identity in a non-linear way by use of pre-symbolic ghostly dream images about the fear of being raped and ostracized after the onset of menstruation, and ends her book with a song, or poetic story, where she admits that while the beginning is her mother’s, the ending is hers.

3Trinh-T. Minh-ha, as a feminist of color like Kingston, considers that a woman of color, in

un-learning the dominant language of ‘civilized’ missionaries also has to learn how to un-write and write anew. And she often does so by re-establishing the contact with her foremothers, so that living tradition can never congeal into fixed forms, so that life keeps on nurturing life, so that what is understood as the Past continues to provide the link for the Present and the Future. […] Each woman does it through storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community. (148-49)

Being bilingual, Kingston learns and un-learns two languages and cultures, Chinese and English, in order to find her own voice. Telling us her story in different versions, she re-establishes a connection with her ghosted foremother, an aunt who was forced to commit incest, suicide, and filicide in China in 1924. In so doing, Kingston demonstrates that Chinese tradition is not fixed, but reconstructed and transformed because the past, the present and the future are interconnected spaces from which we draw memories that become the narratives of our identity as individuals and members of a community. History has commonly been presented as the official fixed story, or guardian of traditions, that protects our identity and without which we would lose our sense of self. Kingston’s response to these conventions is to write her self through talk-story, a technique to recall memories she learned from her mother which bestows on the individual the power to know themselves and create their own identities in the face of social pressure that might haunt them from past traditions, present oppressive social structures, or somebody else’s future goals. She succeeds in reconnecting with her female ancestors in order to create a cyclical and spiral view of individual and collective history.

4Stories are like pieces we use to build our identity, and this concept of talk-story is the binding agent that holds it together. Immigrants like Kingston constantly need to negotiate their identities with memories of stories at the interstice of time and space, a literary chronotope. [6]A term coined by M. Bakhtin to describe the way time and space are described by language, and, in particular, how literature represents them Even though Kingston was born in California, her past is bound up with China to the extent that she grew up listening to her mother’s talk-stories of Chinese women’s patriarchal socialization. Not all her mother’s stories were, however, oppressive; for instance, she remembers this turning point in her life: “[My mother] said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman” (20). The myth of Fa Mu Lan has different versions, and Kingston chooses to focus on the process of strengthening since the narrator’s voice is that of a young girl who has chosen her destiny as a hero that will do combat with her fears in the form of ghosts from the past, the present, and the future. Upon reading this tale, I realized that Kingston had written the story of a young girl Ghostbuster before the Ghostbusters films were made in the 1980s. The main character of her story, Maxine, becomes a worthy figure of heroic behavior for all US immigrants, especially women of color, who then tell their stories in books such as Warrior Woman: A Journal of my Life as an Artist (1992), When Women Were Warriors (2008), and Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora (2012).

5Ghosts are generally related to the repressed and denied, and, for Cixous, what is repressed and feared in the unconscious mind is women’s sexuality because this has been expelled or ghosted even from their own bodies, which they themselves fear and find monstrous. She considers that women are able to gain individual and collective liberation by breaking the silence with their own speech and their own “songs,” just as Kingston had done when, as Maxine the Warrior, she had fought her ghosts with laughter (“The Laugh” 2043-45). Humor, in this instance, seems to be a key strategy for overcoming the fear of our double self as a Medusa and for helping us to stop seeing ourselves through the lens of patriarchy. “You only have to see at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (“The Laugh” 2048), concludes Cixous, aided, in her manifesto, by an uncanny experience. Écriture féminine takes the reader to uncanny places, and this is a concept we will explore when looking for uncanny experiences of immigration in The Woman Warrior book.