The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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Maxine Hong Kingston | Biography


Maxine Hong Kingston was born in Stockton, California, on October 27, 1940. She is the eldest of six children born in the United States to her father, a scholar, and her mother, a midwife, who emigrated from China; two older siblings passed away before her mother was able to join her father in the United States. Her father, who emigrated ahead of the family in 1925, tried to get a job teaching, but he could not find work and ended up working in a laundry business. Her mother worked in the laundry after she emigrated later in 1940.

Kingston wrote in high school, publishing her first article in The American Girl, a Girl Scouts' magazine. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, and then married and took the name of actor Earl Kingston after she received her bachelor's degree. She taught high school for several years before publishing The Woman Warrior, her first book. It won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and quickly turned her into one of the most successful Asian-American writers of her time. The book has been translated into more than 20 languages and became popular worldwide.

Kingston's storytelling style earned her both praise and criticism. Some Asian-American authors, such as Frank Chin, the author of the play The Chickencoop Chinaman, faulted Kingston for presenting Chinese Americans as bending to the will of white people, rather than openly criticizing racist attitudes. Kingston discusses the differences between American-feminine (walking with toes pointed forward, speaking softly) and Chinese-feminine (walking pigeon-toed, talking loudly) attributes. However, Kingston's memoir acknowledges the racist attitudes and epithets to which Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans were subjected. Her writing reflects them in both her retelling of myths and her stories from different perspectives about the immigrant experience. Her memoir is not an outright political criticism but a reflection on the effects of racism on individuals.

Kingston followed up The Woman Warrior with China Men (1980) to tell the story of how her father came to the United States. Although Kingston does not explain in The Woman Warrior how her father was able to immigrate despite immigration restrictions, in China Men (1980), she tells how he did so illegally, using false identification papers. China, in the beginning of the 20th century, went through several periods of political upheaval, and by the time Kingston's parents were old enough to begin working, the Republic of China was ruled by a series of corrupt, nationalist dictators. Kingston's father, along with his brothers, left China in order to send money back home to his wife and two children because the entire family was living in extreme poverty. He never returned to China; instead, he sent for his wife, but not until he could gather enough money and arrange for a way to get her into the country without being deported. The Great Depression (1929–39) might have affected Kingston's father's ability to pay for his wife's trip to the United States until about 15 years after his own arrival. Kingston's mother arrived prior to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1943, so her immigration might also have been illegal; Kingston describes her mother's fear of deportation in The Woman Warrior.

The second memoir, China Men, which Kingston considered a continuation of The Woman Warrior, won the American Book Award in 1981. She again included history in the memoir to educate the reader, and employed the technique she calls "talk-stories," or narratives, combining Chinese myths and legends with real experiences, just as her mother did in telling her stories with myths woven into them when Kingston was a child. Kingston has said in interviews that because no one in her family would tell her the complete truth about anything, she had to make up several versions of it. Using both myth and the perspectives of different family members in her memoirs allowed her to imagine a full picture.

Kingston also wrote the novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) and the book of essays Hawaii One Summer (1998). Like her memoirs, they explore Chinese-American culture and immigrant issues. Another autobiographical work, The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), describes a painful period of her life in which her home burned down and a work in progress was destroyed. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011) is a look back at Kingston's life in which she writes from her perspective as a 65-year-old woman. President Barack Obama presented Kingston with the National Medal of Arts in 2013.

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