by Gina Elbert and Annesha Sengupta
On the night of Wednesday, April 19th , the NYU Humanities Center played host to a
celebration of author Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior 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 her work alongside the writers Jenny Zhang and Hua Hsu, and NYU English Department professors Pacharee Sudhinaraset and Jess Row. The event was co-sponsored by the NYU Contemporary Literature Series, the Department of English, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Knopf DoubleDay Publishing Group, and the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis.
First published in 1977 and currently in its eighth edition, Kingston’s The 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 on the day of the celebration, Kingston had visited Professor Row’s Contemporary American Literature class to answer questions from the students on the topics of genre, narrative style, and personal context. Her answers covered every topic from the book’s connection to I Love Lucy to 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 Professor Row, she read excerpts from her works The Fifth Book of Peace
(Knopf, 2003) and I Love a Broad Margin in My Life (Knopf, 2012) on the subject of Fa Mulan,
whose story she did not feel she did justice in The Woman Warrior. In each book, she told a
different part of the original woman warrior’s story in verse, rather than in the prose style of The Woman Warrior.
Her readings were followed by tributes from Zhang, Professor Sudhinaraset, and Hsu on the subject of what the book meant to each of them growing up. Zhang, speaking first, confessed
a discomfort about 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 was 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 on 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 Pacharee 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, Sudhinaraset describes seeing more to the text than before. “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 Sudhinaraset and Zhang, Hua Hsu also encountered The Woman Warrior in college. “Since then,” he said, “I’ve read The Woman Warrior about fifteen 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 said, “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 stretches our limits, it becomes more than a great novel, it depicts an entire relationship to the world.”
Afterwards, the question and answer 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 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 appropriate, she answered that each writer must have their 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 snuck off to the back of the room to prepare and carry out
the birthday cake that the event sponsors had purchased for Kingston. It featured the cover of the first edition of The Woman Warrior, illuminated by twenty golden candles. The cake was carried out by the fellows as the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to Kingston’s book and was then enjoyed by all of the attendees (video of this moment can be found on the Vintage Books & Anchor Books Facebook page).
The event closed with a book signing and reception that allowed audience members to
mingle 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 of the panel, “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.”