In her postmodern autobiography, Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston narrates her life as a Chinese American struggling to find her identity in a home permeated by ambiguity. As Kingston matures, she comes to recognize the destructive nature of silence, and is able to articulate the malignant cause and effect relationship silence has on the individual human psyche as well as the well being of others. Kingston begins her autobiography by describing silence as a double-edged sword, meaning that while silence has the capability to be used as a deadly weapon, it is also harmful to one that uses silence as a tool for censorship in an effort to change the past.
In the first chapter of her autobiography titled “No Name Woman”, Kingston opens up to a scene between Kingston and her mother. When the two of them are alone, her mother imparts a terrible secret about Kingston’s Aunt’s infidelity, then forces her daughter to take a vow of silence, urging her to never speak of her Aunt or to even acknowledge her existence: “ …they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have…the real punishment was…the family’s deliberately forgetting about her” (16). By refusing to discuss Kingston’s Aunt, the family is effectively terminating her existence, but also giving the terrible secret more power.
The memory of Kingston’s Aunt is so stigmatic that topic of sex is unspeakable, and even the word “Aunt” has the potential to strike her father with misery, forcing him to delve into his painful memories. This view of silence as formidable power reflects Kingston’s perspective as a young, impressionable youth, racked with trepidation about the world around her. As Kingston grows into an independent adult, she begins to see silence as an impediment on her self-expression, and grows to view silence with resentment rather than with fearful reverence.
In “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, the final chapter of Kingston’s autobiography, Kingston describes her entanglement with silence throughout childhood that restricted her creativity and self-expression. In school, Kingston, having been raised in a Chinese household, is unable to communicate with her English-speaking classmates. Thus, Kingston comes to dread any form of socialization, and quails from speaking openly in front of the class or addressing a teacher directly.
In this state of perpetual silence, Kingston begins to admire those who are not struck with terror at the thought of communicating with other human beings, “I liked the Negro students…best because they laughed the loudest and talked to me as if I were a daring talker too” (166). While Kingston grows to admire the loud, outgoing girls at school, she deplores those who are quiet and timid, much like Kingston herself. Kingston deflects her frustrations onto one girl in particular, and accosts the silent girl in the bathroom after school, desperately trying to force her to speak: “If you don’t talk you don’t have a personality. You’ll have no personality and no hair.
You’ve got to let people know you have a personality and a brain” (180). Kingston’s pleadings with the silent girl reflect Kingston’s inner anguish she has suffered at the hands of enduring silence. The fact that Kingston finds likeness in the silent girl heightens Kingston’s fierce hatred for her, but also highlights her uncertainty about her own identity as she struggles to find her own voice that is being strangled by the steely grip of silence. As an adolescent, Kingston no longer adheres to silence: Kingston detests that silence has overcome her being, and is ready to rebel against its oppressive nature. By the time she is in late high school, Kingston feels suffocated by burdensome silence.
Dying to voice her thoughts, Kingston grows increasingly restive, and has an explosive confrontation with her mother: “My throat hurt constantly, vocal cords taut to snapping…I looked directly at my mother and at my father and screamed…and suddenly I got very confused and lonely because at that moment I was telling her my list, and in the telling, it grew…no listener but myself” (201-204). During the climatic argument with her mother, Kingston casts away the silence binding her, but she also drives a wedge between herself and her mother.
So much of Kingston’s paranoia branches not from the silence imposed upon her, but from her inability to communicate her own feelings. Contrary to Kingston’s belief, her mother never tried to marry her off to become a slave, and her family never viewed her as stupid or ugly. With the maturity of an adult, Kingston is able to recall her memories not through word of mouth, but through using her pen as a literary sword. By recording her confrontation
with her mother with painstaking accuracy, Kingston portrays herself in an unflattering rather than in attempting to censure her past. In adulthood, Kingston has chooses a life of factuality rather than secrecy, and finally casts the silent sitting ghost off of her chest. Kingston’s evolving view of the power held by silence reflects her gradual maturation and her confidence in her own abilities.
At one point Kingston cowered in front of the mighty and condemning power of silence, but as she learns to think for herself, Kingston rebels against the silence and embraces a life free of uncertainty, finding comfort in monotony and truth. More importantly, Kingston finds the courage to be honest about herself, (rather than remaining silent about her ridicule of the mute girl and her vitriolic outburst directed towards her mother) and dedicates her memoir to writing, assuring that her memory will never be eradicated or erased with time. Thus Kingston proves that while one may try to cloud the truth with silence, the mighty pen can rip off silence’s guise and set the truth free.