Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rereading, reinventing: Michael Chabon and Maxine Hong Kingston

A stray comment by the teacher of my pedagogy class nudged me to pick up Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" for the first time since my undergrad days. Back then, I found the book baffling and nonlinear. This time, I was immediately struck by the ferociousness of the narrative, from the very first story of a woman who throws herself down a well after becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

These are not easy stories to tell, or easy to hear. Kingston is excavating a painful legacy. I picked up the book to reread the story of Fa Mulan, the woman warrior, the kind of hero I sought in my own foundational texts (ironically, I read today in an interview that two of Kingston's own favorites are Walt Whitman's poetry and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"). But the deeper I reread into the narrative, the more I'm drawn by the narrative of ghosts, the conversation between past and present, the contained explosion Kingston gets in the text from the ferocious humor in stories about her mother. Like this encounter between her mother at medical school and a Sitting Ghost in a haunted dorm room:

"I do not give in," she said. "There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure. You're wrong if you think I'm afraid of you. You're not mystery to me. I've heard of you Sitting Ghosts before. Yes, people have lived to tell about you. You kill babies, you cowards. You have no power over a strong woman. You are no more dangerous than a nesting cat. My dog sits on my feet more heavily than you can. You think this is suffering? I can make my ears ring louder by taking aspirin. Are these all the tricks you have, Ghost? Sitting and ringing? That is nothing. A Broom Ghost can do better. You cannot even assume an interesting shape. Merely a boulder. A hairy butt boulder. ... Yes, when I get my oil, I will fry you for breakfast."

And I loved this quote, on the power of words: "The idioms for revenge are "report a crime" and "report to five families." The reporting of the vengeance--not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words."

Also this week, I heard this excellent interview on Fresh Air with author Michael Chabon. The whole hour is packed with chewy quotes about writing. But he would agree with Kingston on the need to dig into the painful parts of the soul:

"That's the stuff you make writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present it as nonfiction ... the stuff that you know for sure is working, is gonna connect, is going to make somebody want to keep reading, (is) the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable in your writing. Always. The ultimate sign to me that I’m onto something is if I’m squirming a little bit and feeling uncomfortable. I feel like I’m verging on things that make me nervous."

On the role of fiction as an escape from the prison of the self, he quotes David Foster Wallace: "I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves."


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